Willis has proven he's got the pitch


now, give him ball in All-Star Game

July 07, 2005|By Ethan J. Skolnick

DONTRELLE WILLIS, while no mall rat, does like to sample the shopping in South Florida. So Monday, a day after shutting out the Mets at Shea, he strolled through Aventura Mall.

His experience was, to use Willis' word, "weird." Shoppers shouted at him. They wanted him to know he should start the All-Star Game on Tuesday in Detroit.

"I say, `Thank you, man. I appreciate it,'" said Willis, somewhat embarrassed by the attention.

They should keep shouting, though, loud enough for St. Louis and National League manager Tony La Russa to hear them.

Major League Baseball, too.

This, after all, should not be a question. Forget that Willis keeps insisting La Russa's own pitcher, Chris Carpenter, should start. Willis is gracious, but wrong.

"He obviously put the team in the position it's in now, so he should get the ball," Willis said - Carpenter is 13-4 with a 2.51 ERA for the first-place Cardinals.

Willis has the same number of wins (13), fewer losses (2), a lower ERA (1.89) and more shutouts (4 to 3). But this isn't even about numbers. The numbers are comparable for Willis, Carpenter, Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens.

The tie goes to the sensation. To Willis.

"You guys are making it seem like he's 7-7," said Willis, continuing his spirited advocacy of Carpenter. "Y'all keep putting pressure on the man. [La Russa] might just throw the ball at me." That's the idea. Then Willis can throw it past the American League leadoff man, whether it's Brian Roberts or Johnny Damon.

No, Carpenter isn't 7-7. His 12-4 is his second strong season running. The right-hander is a nice comeback story, but let's be honest - he's just another guy, a good pitcher on a staff of them. He's Jack Armstrong, Esteban Loaiza, Terry Mulholland. He's forgettable.

Plus, the Cardinals will be sufficiently represented, with four starters if Albert Pujols serves as the designated hitter, including the undeserving Scott Rolen.

Martinez and Clemens? They've had their time. Martinez has started an All-Star Game. Clemens started for the third time in 2004, after allegedly retiring.

Willis? He's fresh. He's fun. He's funky. He's 23. He's the future.

And he gets it. He gets the team concept, his responsibility as a role model, the relationship with the media. He keeps getting better at his craft, from mound to batter's box to base paths.

He should get the ball.

This is about Major League Baseball - its sluggers under suspicion and one of its All-Star pitchers slugging cameramen - finally recognizing it has a personality worth promoting. What would the NBA do with a Dontrelle Willis? Exactly what it's already doing with Dwyane Wade.

This is about riding the D-Train to positive press for a change. Fans complain about spoiled millionaires. Willis isn't even a millionaire. He earns $378,000 from the Marlins. He doesn't complain.

(This is also about giving the African-American community, which is playing the game in decreasing numbers, a role model; Willis would be the first African-American starting pitcher since Dwight Gooden in 1988.) Willis was an All-Star in 2003 but didn't pitch. Just as well. The Willis who will appear at Comerica Park is a much superior pitcher, as all around him acknowledge.

He changes speeds now. He works lineups, works efficiently, even works with umpires. Sunday, he wiggled out of a first-inning jam created by Jim Wolf's squeezing of the strike zone, then respectfully sought an explanation after the work was done.

"He can make adjustments on the mound when things are not going well for him," manager Jack McKeon said.

It's time for America to get a good look. Former teammate Derrek Lee will start the All-Star Game. Willis should, too.

Ethan J. Skolnick is a columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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