Dontrelle Willis gets a chance from Reds

Dontrelle Willis had just been dumped from his seventh team in

two seasons. Still in his 20s, the left-hander once known as

”D-Train” looked to be headed for the scrap heap.

An old acquaintance provided another chance.

Reds manager Dusty Baker called to check up on Willis, who

couldn’t get batters out in the majors or the minors last season.

Baker’s wife knew Willis when he was a child, forging an

extended-family bond. When the NL Central champions were ousted

from the playoffs, Baker began thinking about next year.

He thought about Willis.

”He just told me he wanted me to come play for him,” Willis

said Friday. ”It was pretty straightforward. I was congratulating

him on a great season and the turnaround by the Reds, and he

basically said, ‘Be quiet. We want you.’

”I said I’d give it a shot.”

Even though Willis has been a starter his entire career, he

agreed to a minor league deal with a chance to win a spot in

Cincinnati’s bullpen.

What better choice did he have?

The 29-year-old pitcher has struggled for the last few years,

giving up a lot of runs wherever he goes. It’s been a sudden and

sharp drop-off for a career that started a stir.

Willis had a sensational debut with Florida in 2003, when he won

the NL Rookie of the Year award and led the Marlins to a World

Series championship under manager Jack McKeon. He led the league

with 22 wins in 2005. He has 25 total wins since then in the

majors.

He had two knee injuries with Detroit in 2008. He missed most of

the 2009 season with an anxiety disorder. Last season, he pitched

nine games with the Tigers, was traded to Arizona, got released,

signed a minor league deal with San Francisco and went 0-1 for two

Giants farm teams.

The harder he tried to revive his career, the worse it got.

”I just need to have fun,” he said. ”Sometimes when you

struggle, you kind of feel like you’re in quicksand. The harder you

fight, the worse it gets. Sometimes you have to take a step back

and just enjoy the game in its simplest form and not get too

complex.”

But, would he get another chance?

Baker had been following his career, in part because of the

family ties.

”My wife grew up with Dontrelle’s mother and aunt in San

Francisco,” Baker said.

While watching young Reds players at the Arizona Fall League,

Baker talked to a Tigers scout about Willis. The scouting report

was good. Baker decided to give him a call.

”There’s nothing wrong with him physically,” Baker said.

”There’s nothing wrong with him mentally, as far as people want

other people to think. He just needs somebody to believe in him,

give him an opportunity.

”That’s what I’ve probably been best at in my career, giving

guys an opportunity to excel without bringing their past into the

present even though I’m aware of what their past is.”

Willis’ options with the Reds are limited heading into spring

training. Cincinnati already has more starters than spots in the

rotation. It’s satisfied with right-hander Nick Masset and

left-hander Aroldis Chapman filling setup roles to get to closer

Francisco Cordero.

Barring injury that opens another spot, he’ll have a chance to

make the team as a middle reliever. That’s fine with Willis, who is

grateful for the chance.

”They just want me to be me,” Willis said. ”That’s refreshing

to hear, especially with my past struggles. Trying to grind it out

and play harder was not working out. They said, ‘We just want you

to downshift and play baseball and have fun.’

”So I’m indebted to them for that.”