Willis still strikes an upbeat attitude

MLB Week

May 07, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

If you ever wondered what would happen when worlds collided in baseball, pay attention.

It's going on right now in the Florida Marlins clubhouse.

Dontrelle Willis is the sport's poster boy for happy.

Miami is baseball's most desolate place on Earth.

Therein lies the rub.

One month into the Marlins' reclamation season, Willis, the smiling, joking 24-year-old left-hander, is still high-kicking, still surviving.

"I am not going to complain because regardless of how much you yell and shout the situation is still here," Willis said. "So you might as well go out and try to make the best of it."

Maybe it's a line. Every good player on a bad team spews the same cliches. But this is Willis, whose laugh seems genuine. Can he really be so accepting? "He's an awesome guy. I know he is taking it like, `I am the leader here and I am going to be happy,'" said Orioles veteran Jeff Conine, a former Marlins teammate of Willis'. "He is one of the happiest guys I have ever been around. But inside it's got to be frustrating for him."

Willis made his major league debut with the Marlins three years ago Tuesday at age 21. He won 14 games in 2003 and was named National League Rookie of the Year. His rookie year, his team won the World Series.

It was a storybook beginning. And it didn't go sour immediately. The Marlins won a respectable 83 games in each of the next two seasons. And Willis placed second in the NL Cy Young Award voting last year with a 22-10 record.

Last offseason, however, the hope disappeared. Piece by piece, the Marlins as Willis knew them were traded or not re-signed in a full rebuilding effort. When the dust settled, only Willis, third baseman Miguel Cabrera, backup catcher Matt Treanor and starter Brian Moehler were left from the group that played all 2005 in Florida.

"It was like, `Wow,'" Willis said. "I hope they have the same fun as they had over here. And I appreciated them. Because every one of those guys helped me out in some way, shape or form."

On Opening Day, the Marlins started a record six rookies in the field behind Willis. The club's major league payroll is reportedly $15 million. A dozen big leaguers, including San Diego Padres starter Chan Ho Park, will make more money this year individually than the Marlins' entire 25-man roster.

With a low payroll comes low expectations. The Marlins were 8-18 through their first 26 games this year. They've already had two five-game losing streaks. And Willis is stuck in the middle - with two more full seasons before free agency and probably three more seasons before these young Marlins can truly be competitive again.

"It's not to say they are not good people or good talent, but they are going to lose a lot of games," Conine said. "[Willis] is going to have to shut [opponents] out most nights or keep them under a couple runs to win."

In his first six starts, Willis was 1-2. But he had allowed three runs or fewer four times. He gave up one hit and no runs in a five-inning start on Opening Day and didn't get a decision.

Yet he's still joking with teammates, still being ultra-positive.

"I have never seen one guy like he is," Marlins catcher Miguel Olivo said. "Whether he is losing games or winning he comes in with the same energy, pushing the team every day. That's awesome. I have a lot of respect for him, because he is one of the best pitchers in baseball and he is still hanging here with us and we are losing."

Willis wants to make one thing clear: He is taking these lumps in stride, but he is not enjoying them.

"A lot of it is my personality. But don't get me wrong, I am not smiling every time we lose. My heart bleeds for this team," Willis said. "I am just as angry as anybody else. I don't want everybody to think, `Oh, he's so happy to be here.' I want to get things done."

He also says he wants to stay with the Marlins through these bad times.

"I love Miami. I love the organization for the opportunity they gave me," he said. "But you never know, especially in this game."

Owner Jeffrey Loria has said publicly that he wants to build around Willis and Cabrera. And one general manager recently contacted the Marlins about their two young stars and was told, in no uncertain terms, that they wouldn't be traded.

The possibility is always there, though, because Willis would bring in a haul of prospects that would allow the Marlins to rebuild more quickly. For his part, Willis said he hasn't asked about his status. He doesn't want to know. He just wants to keep playing.

And so long as he keeps playing, Willis said he'd stay happy.

Happy and positive despite the negatives all around him.

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