The Dontrelle Willis story long ago lost its incandescent charm. The fabulously ornate pitching motion, the way the ball shot from his hand and toward the catcher's mitt uninterrupted by the malicious intent of the overmatched hitter, the smile that said, "This is easy, and this is fun."
As it turns out, it is typically neither, and Willis' latest departure from the place he started, disabled for an anxiety disorder that wasn't fully explained except a few remarks from a flummoxed Willis:
|Dontrelle Willis' career has been downhill since his 22-win '05. (US Presswire)|
In fact, the Willis announcement was part of a two-pronged knee in the nethers for Tigers fans, as putative closer Joel Zumaya went back on the disabled list himself because of his perpetually troublesome elbow. There was a day, kids, when Willis was his own story, and Zumaya was the featured figure in "In other news:"
But this is what passes for the news in spring training, especially one as seemingly interminable as this one -- injuries that impact either your Fantasy team or their real one.
And Willis is that abject lesson for any pitcher who hits the ground in a dead sprint -- say, like Tim Lincecum, the new blue plate special. It's never as easy as this, so enjoy the good times with one eye open.
Willis was bigger than Lincecum when he broke earlier this decade in Florida. He was the ace of the staff in Florida for only one season, but he was the one everyone came to see and the one they went home talking about. He was a national story with oak leaf clusters -- a model of smiling precocity wrapped around a bitching fastball. He was compared to the young Dwight Gooden, and the young Mark Fidrych, and the young Tom Seaver. While nobody thought he would stay Seaver forever, neither did anyone think he would be Fidrych, the definition of the high-contrast flash in the pan.
Then it all went blurry and gray, slowly, and then faster and faster, and now he's the top end of a crummy-news sandwich with Joel Zumaya and his 100 mph fastball that is never available.
This could be painted as a sad story, but it's just baseball's backhand, the slave who walks behind the Roman emperor whispering in his ear about the cruelty of fate and the vengeful gods. Dontrelle Willis is closing in on "was," and the lesson should not be forgotten by the next big thing.
The next big thing right now is Lincecum, though his career arc -- a straight line toward the ionosphere -- seems almost like a law of physics rather than a potentially cautionary tale. In fact, it seems gratuitous to even bring it up when he is enjoying his time as the face of the gaming and fantasy worlds. It's a hell of a good ride, and only a fool would decline the opportunity.
And maybe the big thing after him is Atlanta phenom Tommy Hanson; you never know.
But it's the swiftness with which it can disappear that catches the eye. In football, the sign often comes with a shredded knee or a bad draft. In basketball, it could be a trade to the wrong team or hubris unchained. In hockey, it could be moments of petulance inside the hype machine or a lower body injury that spreads to the upper body.
Sometimes redemption can be found. Sometimes it can't. Sometimes it's a series of false starts that never result in a new start at all. As Comrade Knobler put it, "it's a sad story."
But it also has some cautionary tale in it as well for those who have followed Willis' path, and being a cautionary tale generally stinks. Dontrelle Willis is trying to find whatever happened to him and whether he can live with the notion that he might not ever get the entire answer.
It's a story that won't move you as you prep for your drafts, or as you think about the start of the season this coming weekend, but it is worth a moment of your time if only to remind you that nobody isn't day to day, no matter how invincible they look right now.
Ray Ratto is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.