How strange and sad it is, now and over a lifetime of watching and loving the game, that as often as not the players who are the most fun to watch become the players whose careers derail soon enough after they get their first tastes of success. Dontrelle Willis is the latest such casualty. The sad part is that the D-Train won’t be the last, even if he might take comfort in knowing he wasn’t even close to the first.
It’s no contest. Willis was the most fun pitcher to watch of his time. The lefthander had about as many windups as Juan Marichal; his high leg kick was six parts Marichal and half a dozen parts Vida Blue; the skyward glance harked to Fernando Valenzuela, even if Willis looked only a little less as though enjoying a private joke with God; the turning of his back to the hitter referenced Luis Tiant; the cheerful insanity of his mound demeanor, rolling all the foregoing into one animated package, telegraphed Mark (The Bird) Fidrych, even if Willis never thought of hand-manicuring the mound dirt or giving the baseball a pep talk before delivering.
But it wasn’t fun to watch the 2003 National League Rookie of the Year and the second-place Cy Young Award finisher of 2005 devolve into a mess wracked by . . . who knew? As a Rookie of the Year, Willis shook off a few struggles to help throttle the Yankees in the World Series, with a spotless relief turn. After the Florida Marlins shipped him to the Detroit Tigers, following a couple of seasons in which his walk rates (always a small alarm) climbed while his strikeout rates (always another small alarm) tapered (and the Marlins trying to alter his motion didn’t help, either), the D-Train went from a happy-go-lucky lancer who managed to mask his hittability to a subway off the rails.
He was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. He cracked and then fell from the Tigers’ starting rotation. They shipped him to Arizona and he walked his way (issuing about a walk per inning for openers) out of there. The Giants kicked his tires and took a flyer and couldn’t fix him with eight relief appearances in their farm system. The Reds took a flyer and had reason for hope when Willis looked close enough to his old self at Louisville (AAA): a 2.63 ERA and a mere 20 passes in almost 76 innings. They called him up before the 2011 All-Star break.
They had even more cause for hope: Willis nailed eight quality starts (they’re defined as a six inning or better outing with three or less runs surrendered, formally) in his first ten assignments, including and especially a turn against the Rockies in which he really looked like his old self: ten punchouts on a 9 August start. But struggling to pitch without much run support, Willis really got done in against the Cubs in mid-September. He hadn’t won a game yet but, until 12 September, he had six no-decisions in which five were one-run games either way, and his five losses four were one-run outcomes while he surrendered four runs only twice through the entire span. Then, the Cubs lit him up for eight runs in three and a third, with two of the runs surrendered by his relief, Jared Burton.
He rebounded to beat the Pirates on 25 September but the Reds let him go to free agency. The Phillies tried a flyer, thinking Willis’s lingering success against lefthanded hitters might make him a situational relief asset, but he got murdered in three spring gigs and released post haste. The Orioles took a flyer after that, but Willis grew frustrated with the team’s plan to make him a situational reliever likewise, leaving the club until general manager Dan Duquette agreed to let Willis go to their extended spring training in Sarasota to round back into starting shape. He made it back into the Oriole system last month and got murdered in his first and only appearance.
Then, Willis decided enough was enough. Whatever happened to the once-formidable talent, and Willis will have the rest of his life to figure it out, the guy who once lit up a ballpark merely walking out to the mound decided to call it a career. Assuming you could call it one.
When he was one of the National League’s best pitchers (his sterling 2005 included five shutouts and a 2.68 earned run average), there were those who dared to compare Willis to Sandy Koufax. When his control abandoned him, almost overnight, the comparisons turned to Steve Blass. Either one may have been an exaggeration. Like Koufax, Willis is retiring at age 30. Unlike Koufax, Willis isn’t at the top of his game, he’s been several places trying to figure out where, how, and why his game began to abandon him.
Or, perhaps he’s come to peace with himself and his effort to reclaim it. Unlike Herb Score, whose career was wrecked by injury—no, silly, it wasn’t the line drive in the face from Gil McDougald, it was an elbow tear during a start on a cold, damp day, from which Score ruined his pitching mechanics trying to compensate when he returned—Willis has no physical malady to which he can point as the beginning of the long, sad end. But like Score, he pitched when he could, did what he could with what he had, and finally took off the uniform before it was torn off his back.
Think of some of the other talents who looked like they had long, productive, even Hall of Fame careers ahead of them but ran into their own roadblocks, some of their own making, some not. Even a short list would be staggering:
Rex Barney—A teen phenom with the 1943 Brooklyn Dodgers. A fastball nobody could see, possibly including his catchers, not even with infra-red light. Found a way to harness it and won 15 in 1948. His resume included a no-hitter against the hated Giants. The next season: lost some effectiveness trying to overcome a leg injury; he’d broken a leg in two spots sliding hard into second base at 1948’s end. The season after that: 48 walks in 33 innings and gone. “Barney,” waxed one sportswriter, “pitched as though the plate were high and outside.” Finished at 25.
He’d later become famous as the Orioles’ ballpark announcer, but he’d admit his failure as a pitcher still stung. (He once told Sandy Koufax, who asked him about the so-called “Rex Barney Fastball,” “Well, Sandy, you got it, but you got control of it, and that’s the difference.”) He still managed to write two charming memoirs, one hooked around his years as the beloved Memorial Stadium announcer famous for “Thank youuuuuuuuuu!” and “Give that man a contract!” whenever a fan caught a foul memorably.
Jack Banta—Another Dodger pitching comer who looked like a live one in 1949. After a couple of cups of coffee in 1947 and 1948, the sidewinding Banta came up in 1949 and established himself as one of the club’s top relief pitchers. Came on in the sixth and finished for the win in the September pennant clincher. Three live relief gigs in the World Series. The following season: Shoulder injury and finished.
Banta tried to become a manager in the Dodger system but was canned unceremoniously in 1958. Went to work for a grocery distributor as a dock worker and moved up the ranks until his retirement. Died of cardiovascular disease in 2006 at 81. Told Peter Golenbock (for Bums) in the early 1980s that he hadn’t gone to a baseball game since the Dodgers cut him loose as a minor league manager.
Harry Agganis—Two-sport star who chose baseball and had Red Sox fans drooling over his future at first base in the mid-1950s. Tore up the minors; had a modest 1954 rookie campaign but still led the league’s first basemen in assists and fielding percentage. Started 1955 warm enough until felled by pneumonia and chest pains in June. Died of a pulmonary embolism near month’s end.
Karl Spooner—Yet another Brooklyn pitching phenom. Turned his 1954 cup of coffee into three squares swiftly with back-to-back shutouts at season’s end. Dodger fans were already calculating the language of his Hall of Fame plaque; he struck out 15 in the first of the shutouts, a rookie record that stood until J.R. Richard smashed it in 1971. Struck out 12 in the second of the games. “Sooner with Spooner!” became a Brooklyn rallying cry, the borough believing the confident kid would help them win that elusive World Series at last. Spring training 1955: came into a game without a full warmup and blew his arm. Would manage 29 games in 1955 including Game One of the World Series . . . the last game he’d pitch in the majors.
After three more years struggling in the minors and a shoulder operation that proved fruitless for helping him restore his arm, it became sooner for Spooner—retirement from baseball, that is. He eventually became a packing house manager in Vero Beach, longtime spring home of the Dodgers, and raised his family, dying in 1984, not long after he sat for interviews with Peter Golenbock for Bums.
Herb Score—He was Sandy Koufax half a decade before Koufax became Koufax. Big lefthander. Over-the-top fastball, in every sense of the word. Rookie strikeout record, eventually to be smashed by Dwight Gooden. Two super seasons. 1957: Smashed in the face by McDougald’s liner. Came back a year later but then suffered what really killed his career: an elbow blowout, and faulty mechanics trying to compensate for it. Never the same pitcher again, hung in in the Indians’ and White Sox’s systems until 1964, then moved into the Indians’ broadcast booth and became a beloved (and sometimes quirky, often malapropping) announcer. Died after a long illness in 2008; never let himself become bitter over the career that might have been.
John Malangone—A catcher discovered by the same scout (Paul Krichell) who’d discovered Lou Gehrig and Whitey Ford. Tools to burn. A hot minor league career got him posed by a New York tabloid in a squat between Dickey and another Yankee coach, Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane. With Dickey, Cochrane, and incumbent Yogi Berra himself grooming him, this kid couldn’t miss. Never made it. Clowned and crashed (three motorcycles) his way out of the game before he ever saw a major league at-bat.
It turned out Malangone was haunted into mental paralysis by the childhood death of his best friend and biological uncle, killed by young Malangone’s own homemade javelin—accidentally. A fact Malangone couldn’t accept until he finally saw the coroner’s report at a friend’s urging decades later. Believing the accident a crime for which he couldn’t be punished enough, Malangone destroyed himself until—after years of dark self-laceration—he finally saw the death certificate. He’s since played nine years in an over-40 league in New Jersey and learned to live at peace with himself.
Steve Dalkowski—Decades later they still talk about this Oriole prospect with a fastball nobody could see, never mind hit. (He struck out 1,396 hitters and walked 1,354 in 995 minor league innings.) A party boy off the field (he once hatched a plot to peep on a Miss Venezuela in the next room from the one he shared with another minor league flake, Bo Belinsky) who drank as hard as he threw. After several seasons of minor league legend, during which Earl Weaver helped him harness his harrowing power, Dalkowski finally made the Orioles in spring training 1963 . . . and blew his elbow out while pitching in an exhibition game to Yankee shortstop Phil Linz.
The guy who once terrorised even Ted Williams in an exhibition game (if Williams couldn’t see your fastball, he was intimidated) returned to the minors, bounced around two organisations before a feeble return to the Orioles, then retired for good in 1966. As a player, not a drinker. Dalkowski spent decades as a migrant worker and the subject of anecdotes that seemed to get as wild as his own fastball with age. Finally, after his second wife died of a brain aneurysm, Dalkowski was rescued by a sister, brought back to his native Connecticut, dried out, and learned to live happily even if the years of drinking wiped out most of his memory between 1964 and 1994.
Jim Bouton—Looked like the next great Yankee marksman (he won 23 in 1963 and shone in a couple of World Series) until arm and shoulder miseries reduced him to learning the knuckleball and a few other offspeed pitches and settling mostly for mop-up relief work. Ended up with the expansion Seattle Pilots and then Astros in 1969, a season that produced his groundbreaking from-the-inside diary Ball Four. Which, in turn, produced the end of his career, when the baseball establishment pretty much decided he had no business pulling the covers on the sport even further away than Jim Brosnan (The Long Season, Pennant Race) had a decade earlier. (His hilarious followup, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally, chronicled the hoopla over Ball Four—including Commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s attempt to quash the book.)
Bouton became a television sports reporter, co-inventor of Big League Chew, and made a brief but memorable comeback bid with the 1978 Braves, even pitching J.R. Richard (“maybe the hardest thrower in baseball”) to a draw in one start. After retiring for keeps, Bouton divorced, became a motivational speaker, remarried, and in time a) co-founder of an exhibition baseball league playing under 1890s rules and b) a semi-professional ballroom dancer with his second wife. Endured the tragic death of his youngest child in a road accident to become invited to Yankee Old-Timer’s Days at long enough last.
Tony Conigliaro—Rookie sensation in 1964. Youngest American League home run champion ever in 1965. Had 100 bombs on his resume by age 22. (The second-youngest to reach that milestone behind Mel Ott.) 1967: Flattened by a Jack Hamilton fastball catching him on the cheek, when the pitch veered inside and Conigliaro, never shy about crowding the plate, couldn’t duck in time. A Comeback Player of the Year award in 1970 couldn’t stop his vision problems from eroding what was left of his career.
He became a San Francisco sports anchor on television and was back in Boston for a shot at a similar job when he suffered a heart attack, then a stroke, falling into a coma and then a vegetative state until his death at 45. Conigliaro’s beaning inspired the flaps now standard on major league batting helmets; the Tony Conigliaro Award is now given each year to the player who best symbolises return from adversity.
Vida Blue—Arguably the Dontrelle Willis of his time, at least in terms of a swift rise . . . swift enough to earn him a Time cover, a Cy Young Award, and a Most Valuable Player award in the same season . . . when he was all of 21. The entire country was singing the Blues for this couldn’t miss kid. Then Charley Finley went too far in trying to cauterise Blue’s contract demand for 1972: Well, I know you won twenty-four games. I know you led the league in earned run average. I know you had three hundred strikeouts. I know you made the All-Star team. I know you were the youngest to win the Cy Young Award and the MVP. I know all that. And if I was you, I would ask for the same thing. And you deserve it. But I ain’t gonna give it to you.
Commissioner Bowie Kuhn intervened, Blue settled for $65,000 (he’d sought $100,000) and went on to forge a respectable career nowhere near his 1971 promise (he wouldn’t even strike out as many as 200 hitters in any season to come), becoming bitter, withdrawn, and with drug trouble to boot (he was one of those testifying at the infamous 1985 Pittsburgh drug trials), until he finally retired with 209 wins and to a life of charitable work and baseball promotion in the Bay Area.
Steve Blass—After a few seasons to horse himself, he sat on top of the world in 1971 as one of the keys to the Pirates’ World Series championship (he beat the Orioles twice with complete-game wins) and in 1972 as an All-Star. Three years later: lost control, lost career.
Blass has since managed to come to terms with the collapse of his pitching career and become a longtime, long-loved colour commentator on the Pirates’ television broadcasts. But “Steve Blass Disease” has entered the baseball lexicon, with Willis cited as its most recent and prominent victim, even though Blass may never have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
Mark (The Bird) Fidrych—He was the Vida Blue of 1976 and made the Blue of 1971 seem like a monk. Playful. Flaky. Talked to the ball before throwing it. Manicured the mound by hand before pitching. Rookie of the Year with 19 wins, a small truckload of strikeouts, and an unlimited future. The following spring: dinged his knee, came back too soon, shredded his shoulder, and then made the first of numerous premature comebacks from the shoulder miseries. Finished within five years, at age 29. Learned only around his finish that he’d had a frayed rotator cuff made worse by all those undiagnosed comebacks.
The Bird retired to his farm, worked the farm and construction, never once showing any bitterness over what might have been. Remained a beloved Tiger alumnus until he died accidentally in 2009, while trying to repair a dump truck that collapsed and pinned him.
Lyman Bostock—Sharp hitting outfielder with a fine defencive range and arm. Finished fourth in the American League batting race in his rookie 1976, then finished second to Twins teammate Rod Carew in his sophomore year. Looked like a power for years to come. Signed as a free agent with the Angels for 1978; donated $10,000 to rebuild a Sunday school in his native Birmingham; offered to return his first month’s salary after he started off slowly, an offer the club refused because they respected him as a person. Regaining his stroke, Bostock cruised toward season’s end when, on the next to last week, after a game with the White Sox in Chicago, he visited an uncle in nearby Gary, Indiana.
He was shot to death by a man, Leonard Smith, whose wife was in the car Bostock, his uncle, and a friend (the sister of the wife in question) rose, when the man fired at a traffic stop intending the bullet for his wife and not Bostock. The case helped changed Indiana’s insanity-defence laws; Smith, meanwhile, finished his formal, hospitalised psychiatric treatment, stayed trouble free the rest of his life, and never spoke publicly about Bostock’s death before his own death in 2010. Bostock was 27 when he was killed.
Joe Charboneau—The Mark Fidrych of position players. Plucked from the Phillies’s system, he parlayed a shot at the Show when Andre Thornton went down with an injury—it only began when he came a triple short of hitting for the cycle in his first major league game—into becoming the American League’s Rookie of the Year in 1980 at 25. Egged on by Cleveland sportswriter Terry Pluto, who hung the tag on him in the first place, fans desperate for super figures on a moribund Indians club called him “Super Joe Charboneau.” Inspired a hit record in Cleveland, “Go, Joe Charboneau.” Became renowned for whacky doings such as drinking through a straw through his nose. He was young, handsome, and flaky in the right ways. The following spring: Injured his back on a hard slide in a spring training game. Would never be anything resembling the same player. Finished at age 29.
Charboneau’s last known appearance in uniform: as a teammate of Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) in The Natural. Eventually became a minor league batting instructor and operator of a private instruction facility and now heads the baseball side of North Parkville, Ohio’s Parks and Recreation Department. Not to mention the father of one tattoo artist and one registered nurse (who survived major kidney surgery as an infant). And he’s still very popular in Cleveland, advising any Indian comer who asks to make the most of his Show shot because he, above most, knows how extremely fleeting it can prove to be, for any reason.
J.R. Richard—You could make a case that here was what Steve Dalkowski might have been with control and without the booze. Maybe the National League’s least touchable pitcher once he finally harnessed his talent from 1976-79. Big guy: 6’8″. When you hit against him, he looked like he was about to reach just a few inches to shake your hand from the mound before busting one past or through you. (Jim Bouton, trying an unlikely 1978 comeback with the Braves, once went mano-a-mano with Richard in a game and they fought each other to a draw, “the young flamethrower and the old junkballer,” each leaving without a decision but not before Richard set a league strikeout record for righthanders.)
Come 1980: Shoulder and back miseries; the Astros wondered aloud whether they weren’t in his mind, and Richard almost couldn’t get anyone to take him seriously. After the 1980 All-Star break: Stroke. Finished at 30, though he tried and failed to make a comeback in the Houston minor league system, a comeback throttled by his loss of reaction time thanks to the stroke. (He did win a settlement from the Astros regarding misdiagnosis of the blood clot that caused his stroke; in fairness, Richard had been a recreational cocaine user in his playing days, as many players were, alas, and it may or may not have help precipitate the clot.) Went from there to a few rounds of business failures, two bitter divorces, the second of which cost him his home and most of his money, and finally ended up homeless and destitute until he found solace and resurrection through his church.
Today, Richard is a Christian minister and works around the Houston area establishing baseball programs for children. And in some ways he’s still the most ignored Astro, perhaps out of organisational guilt? There remains a small movement to convince the Astros to retire the number of perhaps the best pitcher the club has known to date.
Dwight Gooden—Absolutely owned the National League in his first two seasons, 1984 (Rookie of the Year) and 1985 (the youngest-ever Cy Young Award winner, pitching Triple Crown leader . . . in the majors.) They called him Dr. K. A fastball that exploded before it reached the plate; the most voluptuous curve ball baseball had seen since Sandy Koufax—who helped the cause by saying he’d trade his past for Gooden’s future.
Not as of spring training 1986, he wouldn’t: The Mets monkeyed around with Gooden’s pitching repertoire—fearing his workload and his strikeout propensities would jeopardise him, they forced him to try mixing in a changeup and a slider he couldn’t really throw in the first place—and left him a mess. Never became the Hall of Famer everyone thought he would become. Addled by drug troubles and by shoulder miseries prompted directly from the spring ’86 tinkering, Gooden would never again look anywhere near his 1984-85 form.
He’d make a long enough career (he retired six wins shy of 200) that would pull up statistically just shy of a Hall of Fame career in spite of everything, pitching a no-hitter in the bargain (as a Yankee, which must have driven Met fans out of their gourds), but among those who did make long and somewhat respectable careers, Gooden’s may yet remain the saddest might-have-been of them all. May.
Kerry Wood—Busted into the game bigtime with a 20-punchout outing. They thought it wasn’t a question of if but when he’d be standing in Cooperstown and holding the Cubs’ first World Series trophy since the Roosevelt Administration—Theodore’s, that is. Tenacious competitor on the field, an amiable fellow off it. Took no quarter on the mound . . . when he could pitch at all.
Done in by injuries through which he fought gutsily enough over long seasons; converted himself into a better-than-average relief pitcher at one point. Finally gave it up earlier this season.
Mark Prior—He, too, was a Cub comer and how—number two draft pick. (He didn’t want to sign with the Twins, leaving them to pick Joe Mauer instead.) Stuff to burn. Tenacity to burn. Joining an injury-historied Wood, Prior in 2003 looked like he was going to rule the earth for years to come. He, too, began suffering shoulder miseries and injuries after first injuring his Achilles tendon; there were those who said manager Dusty Baker ruined both Prior and Wood by leaving them in to work up insane pitch counts each game. Up and down long since.
Prior still clings to yet another comeback attempt, this time in the Red Sox organisation after failed such bids in the systems of the Padres, the Rangers, and the Yankees. He’s made it as far as the Pawtucket (AAA) club, but nobody knows for sure whether this is Prior’s absolute last stand.