You first saw Dontrelle Willis in 2003, odds are, and what you noticed was that leg kick, which was impossibly high and violent, to the point where Willis nearly kneed himself in the jaw. It was just the first movement of a sequence that looked mostly wrong, but also sort of right—a full-body twist, head rolling back, shoulders rotating, his back fully visible to the hitter. It was a motion that seemed to suggest that he was asking opposing batters, "Do you know my name yet? Here it is."
And then the lunge, a massive torquing stress on his body as he fell in the direction of home plate, a lashing forward erratic enough to suggest that Willis didn't quite know just where home was, and that there were no guarantees his pitch would find it. Finally the long-limbed release, his left arm unspooled like a cast line, and then violently recoiled. All this, over and over: batters retired, innings ended, Willis taking long strides off the field.
He was a sensation. This being 2003, they called him D-Train, first in South Florida, and then beyond. His 14 wins nudged the Marlins into the playoffs that year, a 21-year-old ace suddenly playing for national TV audiences. In Game 4 of the NLDS he went 3-for-3 at the plate—he could hit, too—and the Fish got by the Giants.
Then ancient Jack McKeon (has there ever been a manager more appropriate to a team's local demographics?) and the Marlins, with an assist from Steve Bartman, broke the Cubs' hearts, rolled into the Series, and took the Yankees in six. When all was said and done, Willis was Rookie of the Year and a World Champion. And all of it with that smile on his face, all of that at 21, all of it not nearly so long ago as it seems now, with Willis' career at an end after a last attempt at a comeback—one of many after his magic deserted him—in which he was unable even to make it to the mound for the Milwaukee Brewers this spring. The smile, always and still, is the thing.
If you needed one word to sum Willis up, you could do worse than exuberant. That's what he had: an energy, an exuberance that seemed to come from every part of him at once. His face and his fingertips, down to his shoes. He radiated something good.
Which is not to say that it would have been nice, standing in against that motion of his, that wild, churning engine. Imagine the ball exploding out of that tangle of limb and leather—heat running up to 96, and a changeup that looks just like it until it doesn't. The pitch hammers in, or drops suddenly, or creeps by, and then he's bounding off the field and grinning in a way that makes it damn near impossible to hold any malice.
He dipped in 2004, but it looked like he could find it again. It probably only required some infinitesimal adjustment to that seemingly improvised delivery of his. And there it was: Willis rebounded in '05, his finest year and a bit of hot magic. Everything clicked: the limbs, the lunge, the release. He won 22 games, struck out 170, finished second in National League Cy Young voting. The overall vibe was exceedingly positive, though some distant early warning signs were there: he hit 19 batters in 34 starts, a career high. That's the thing about exuberant deliveries. When they're off, they're off.
After a couple of more seasons, none as electric as that one, Willis was packaged with Miguel Cabrera and shipped to Detroit for a haul, and the Tigers signed him for three lucrative years.
There are those whose misfortune gives us some quiet pleasure, or affirms some idle and uncharitable judgment of their character. Not so Dontrelle, who was a mess in Detroit, the victim of injuries and what appeared to be the sudden and sinister disappearance of whatever alchemy he'd harnessed in Miami. Even when it was clear he didn't have what had once made him so dominant, he still inspired a kind of good-natured boosterism in fans. Something about that smile, something about that motion, something about the blazing memory of what he too-briefly was—whatever the reason, no one who cared about baseball did not care about Dontrelle, or want him back.
In June, 2010, the Tigers traded him to Arizona for Billy Buckner. Willis was jobless by July. Then came the bouncing-around years—Giants-Reds-Phillies-Orioles-Cubs—before he found himself in independent ball in '13. A couple of stints in the affiliated minors, then, and then this last deal with the Brewers, by which point even optimists had quit counting Dontrelle Willis' comeback attempts. It was only ever an outside shot. He hadn't pitched in a Major League game in over three years. But it was a shot.
In the end, though, his body wouldn't give him anymore. "The physical part of it," Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke said on Friday, after announcing the retirement, "has worn on him." The body is with us, and then it is against us.
Sometimes phenoms fizzle. Dontrelle Willis fizzled, in a way, but refused to be extinguished. He kept lifting that right leg and twisting and lunging in a kind of teetering, off-kilter leap from the rubber toward the plate. He kept smiling, the cap crooked atop his head. He gave interviews and laughed and played along. Don't let it break your heart, the smile said, I'm playing a game. The motion—leg, twist, lunge, release—said, Hey, you have control, and then you lose it. But at least you had it. As what he had deserted him, he never changed his approach or pitched like anyone else. Willis leapt at the challenge even in defeat.
Of all the mighta-beens and once-weres that I can recall, none continued to churn so enthusiastically even after it was obvious that his best days lay behind him. He was a bit goofy, D-Train, if not quite Mark Fidrych-level goofy, then as endearingly askew as baseball's spin-centric modern age would allow. He had two great seasons, some middling ones, and some bad ones. He was out there, he had his shot, and he did it all with a smile on his face. That is what we will remember, and we will remember it.