Good memories: Willis visits Miami

Dontrelle Willis toed the rubber in familiar surroundings, with

empty orange seats in every direction. He went into that patented,

high-kick motion, then unleashed a slider that skipped past the

catcher.

No harm done. It was three hours before game time.

”Oooh, I should keep that one in my pocket,” Willis said.

”That was bad.”

Control has been a problem for Willis ever since he left the

Florida Marlins in 2007. He was a bust in Detroit after signing a

$29 million, three-year contract and began shuttling between the

majors and minors.

His latest comeback bid is with the Cincinnati Reds, who began a

three-game series in Florida on Tuesday night. That brought Willis

back to the Marlins’ ballpark for the first time since they traded

him away.

He’s not scheduled to pitch in the series. But he threw in the

visitors’ bullpen before the first game, then sat in the dugout and

looked out toward the field where he made a memorable splash in

2003, winning the NL Rookie of the Year award at age 21 and helping

the Marlins’ improbable run to the World Series title.

”I have a lot of great memories here,” Willis said. ”But it

feels weird to be on the evil side of the diamond.”

With his precocious pitching and gregarious personality, Willis

quickly became a fan favorite in Florida. He remains the only

player in the history of the attendance-challenged franchise to

significantly help ticket sales.

”No question he’s one of the most colorful guys we ever had,”

said Marlins manager Jack McKeon, who held the same job when Willis

broke into the big leagues. ”The thing I really enjoyed about

Dontrelle is the energy he had. He was, ‘Give me the ball, I want

to pitch,’ and it was contagious to the other players. It was for

the love of the game.”

Willis blossomed into an ace, winning 22 games for Florida in

2005. He has won 25 games in the six seasons since, and he’s 0-3 in

eight starts for the Reds this year.

What happened?

”Just trying too hard, trying to play other people’s style of

baseball instead of my own,” he said. ”When you press, it’s like

the guy who shoots jumpers and misses the first three, and then

you’re shooting all over the place.”

The analogy involving errant aim is apt, because Willis’ control

went haywire. In the past four seasons he has allowed 136 walks in

169 innings, which explains his ERA of 6.12.

Answering questions about his travails for the umpteenth time,

Willis retained his easy grin and quick laugh.

”When I stop having fun, I’ll take myself home,” the

29-year-old Willis said. ”Let’s get this straight: Being a bad

baseball player is different than being overseas fighting in the

war. Let’s put this all in perspective. Giving up a three-run home

run stinks, but you fight another day.”

Actually, he has pitched pretty well for the Reds. His

strikeout-walk ratio (33-17) is much improved, and his ERA of 4.14

is his best since 2006.

While he won’t get a chance to show Miami fans his stuff, he

will renew many old acquaintances. There are still a lot of Willis

fans in Florida, and some of them wear Marlins jersey No. 35 with

his name on the back.

”I saw one here yesterday,” he said, smiling yet again. ”I

was pretty fired up – although it looked a little faded.”