MIAMI - When you've flipped in a car five times, as Florida Marlins left-hander Dontrelle Willis has, major league hitters don't seem so intimidating.
Willis was driving 65 mph on a highway in Palo Alto, Calif., in February when a rear tire blew on his Mustang. The car began to flip, just like something out of a NASCAR "Greatest Crashes" video. Rubberneckers crossed themselves, certain someone had died.
When the emergency crews arrived, Willis was standing by the wreckage, a little dazed but, incredibly, unhurt.
"He didn't even have a hair out of place," Joyce Harris said before one of her eldest son's recent starts at Pro Player Stadium. "It was a miracle."
Opposing teams also have found it hard to leave a mark on Willis. After Thursday night's 6-1 victory over the Mets in New York, he is 8-1 with a 2.26 ERA and has his manager lobbying for him for the All-Star Game.
"He's a new, colorful performer coming into the game," Marlins manager Jack McKeon said. "He'll be a great attraction. He's a tremendous TV feature. ... This is what the game needs."
Since making his major league debut May 9 against the Colorado Rockies, Willis, 21, has allowed more than three earned runs just once in 10 starts. He threw a one-hitter against the Mets on June 16 and followed by allowing two hits in five innings of a rain-shortened victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays five days later.
Willis has won seven consecutive starts and has given up just five runs in his past 49 2/3 innings. Among rookies, his eight wins lead the way and his 62 strikeouts rank second.
He is 5-0 with a 1.04 ERA in June, and despite the small crowds at Pro Player Stadium, fans in South Florida are paying attention. Two of his starts accounted for the highest television ratings the Marlins have had the past five seasons.
"Willis has become South Florida's newest and hottest sports star," said Jeff Genthner, senior vice president and general manager of Fox Sports Net.
The attention has meant something else to Willis.
"Now there's a big target on my back," he said.
That's a far cry from March 2002, when Willis was an anonymous player included in a trade in which the Chicago Cubs sent him and right-hander Julian Tavarez to the Marlins for right-handers Antonio Alfonseca and Matt Clement.
Willis was coming off a season in which he was 8-2 at the Cubs' short-season Single-A affiliate in Boise (Northwest League). After impressing Marlins brass in Single-A last season with Kane County (Midwest League) and Jupiter (Florida State League), he began 2003 with Double-A Carolina. He was 4-0 with a 1.49 ERA when he was called up by the Marlins.
"Somebody did a great job of picking up Willis," said McKeon.
That somebody was Marlins general manager Larry Beinfest.
"I'd be lying if we knew at the time we traded for him he'd be this good, this fast," Beinfest said. "We knew we had some upside, but we're taking a young player out of short-season A ball. He's really handled himself well and done a great job for us."
If Willis' stats aren't enough to get people talking, his unorthodox throwing motion will. His high-kicking, funky-chicken delivery and fast start has stirred memories of Mark "The Bird" Fidrych in 1976 and Fernando Valenzuela in 1981.
ESPN baseball analyst Peter Gammons said Willis reminds him of a "funky Vida Blue," whom McKeon managed with the Oakland Athletics in 1977.
McKeon's take? "He's like a left-handed Juan Marichal and Vida Blue."
Willis is taking the attention in stride and said he looks "goofy" on TV.
"It's fine and dandy, but I can't get caught up in that," said Willis. "I'm having good success now, but that can easily turn around ... and they'll be talking bad about me."
Surprised at Willis' rapid rise? Maybe you should get up at 4 some morning and follow his mother to work.
Harris, 45, has spent the past 12 years as a member of Ironworkers Local 378 in Alameda. She worked her way up from apprentice to crew forewoman and now pulls down $28 an hour. She earns every penny.
The Four Seasons Hotel in downtown San Francisco stands 47 stories tall. Harris has been to the top, hanging outside in the wind, never thinking of looking down.
"Sometimes we go up by elevator," she said. "Sometimes we use ladders. Sometimes it's a tower crane."
That isn't even the worst of it. At its peak, the Golden Gate Bridge stands 746 feet above San Francisco Bay. Harris has been up there, too.
"We had to retrofit the bridge a while back," she said.
When asked whether Dontrelle has accompanied her on a job, Harris broke out laughing.
"I love my baby, but Dontrelle is not a heights person," she said.
Ask Willis where he got his funky delivery - all knees, elbows and what-in-the-heck? - and he'll credit his mother.
Harris spent 27 years as a softball player. She was a power-hitting catcher who played on several U.S. national and area all-star teams until she was 38.
She caught until she was seven months' pregnant with Dontrelle. He would register his displeasure by giving a swift kick whenever Harris stayed down in her crouch too long.
He has no complaints for his mother or anybody else these days. If he ever starts taking himself too seriously or taking his gift for granted, all he has to do is think back to that morning in Palo Alto.
"I think about it every day," he said. "I was just so lucky to get through something like that. Something like that happens, your point of view about everything changes. You start to appreciate things more.
"The people around you. Life itself. All of it."
Mike Berardino is a reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Sun-Sentinel reporter Harvey Fialkov contributed to this article.