An ode to Dontrelle's smile, signature windup

January 12th, 2024

A version of this story originally ran in January 2022.

made an impression from the very first time he took a big league mound. Sure, Willis -- who celebrates a birthday today -- pitched well that day, limiting the Rockies to three runs across six innings, but there were other reasons that he stood out and still resides in our memories over a decade after his final big league appearance.

Only 21 years old when he took the mound on May 9, 2003, Willis was already using his now-iconic windup -- the one where his leg shot up skyward as his body folded in on itself like a human accordion before his left arm whipped around as if it were spring-loaded. In a sport where coaches try to instill simple mechanics, leading to rosters filled with players who seemingly came out of a mold, Willis was unique, a throwback to players like Vida Blue and Juan Marichal. His manager Jeff Torborg (who would be replaced just days later by Jack McKeon) called it a “whirling dervish.”

In that first start, he was called “breathaking” with teammate Braden Looper adding, “It’s fun to watch a guy come up like that."

And that's precisely the feeling we had when we watched him on TV. When Willis pitched, he looked like someone who was having fun out there. He wore his emotions not just on his sleeve, but scrawled across his face. His mom, Joyce Harris, attended Willis' first start, but nearly opted to watch the game from a sports bar to protect herself and her exuberant son from experiencing too many nerves.

"You see what he's like," she said. "I'm 10 times worse. I have been a nervous wreck."

There was certainly plenty to smile about that first season. Willis befuddled batters to the tune of a 14-6 record, a 3.30 ERA, the Rookie of the Year Award and a World Series title. He landed the cover of ESPN the Magazine with the headline, "The Joy of Summer," and he even tossed a one-hitter against the Mets, coming just a Ty Wigginton single away from tossing a no-hitter. His loopy delivery had a hand in it, too, with power-hitting Cliff Floyd striking out three times that day.

''The second time up, I tried to open up my stance so I could see the ball a little better,'' Floyd said after the game. ''Nothing worked. He is all arms and legs, but he's got a good head on his shoulders."

Willis hit a bit of a sophomore slump the following season, but followed that with his best showing in 2005. That year, Willis led the league with seven complete games, five shutouts and 22 victories. He finished second in the National League Cy Young voting, losing narrowly to the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter.

He could hit, too -- don't forget that. As the epoch of pitchers hitting may soon draw to a close, Willis will be remembered as one of the best slugging pitchers of the 21st century. During his big league career, Willis posted a .244/.287/.378 batting line -- that OPS would have topped five qualified big league hitters in 2021 -- and launched nine home runs, including a grand slam off Mets pitcher Jose Lima in 2006.

He had no fears racing around the bases, either. Willis sprinted out six triples -- the most career triples by a pitcher since Bob Forsch hit eight before retiring in 1989.

Unfortunately, despite all the talent, 2005 would prove to be the high point of Willis' career. The flashy stuff and Rube Goldberg machine of a delivery couldn't last forever. Willis began having trouble commanding the ball. He led the league in hit batsmen in 2006 and gave up the most earned runs in the sport the year after.

Injuries soon plagued him after he joined the Tigers. He then began bouncing around MLB, latching on with Arizona and Cincinnati briefly. He pitched in the Minors for Baltimore, San Francisco and the Angels, and joined up with the Phillies and Brewers with Spring Training invites. In between those stops, he took jobs anywhere that would let him pitch with independent league teams in Bridgeport and Long Island, too.

He never let that get him down, though. He never stopped smiling, never took the big league life for granted.

"Let's be real here: I play Major League baseball," Willis said. "I got a job. It's a little bit different demographic. 'Cause I have friends who work in the real world who've lost their job. I got to check myself. I'm blessed to play baseball. It's not like I'm losing my job at a factory or a corporate job. It's not the same. I don't even complain to them about stuff like that. My friends and family take [my struggles] harder than I do."

“I tell guys, enjoy all of this,” Willis told Baseball America in 2021. “Enjoy competing, enjoy being around your teammates, enjoy your name being on the back of a jersey .... just enjoy every single moment.”

These days, Willis is still around the game and is still bringing in new fans -- just now he's doing it as a member of the Fox Sports broadcasting crew. Stars routinely call him on the phone to chat and viewers of all ages and backgrounds tune in to hear what Willis has to say. He's even earned an Emmy Award to add to his collection.

"I have a [World Series] title; I have a Warren Spahn award," Willis said before being cut by the Phillies in 2012. "I've been sent down, I've been sent up. In the end, I like to see people happy. I like to be happy."