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Baseball Notebook: The Fish that might save South Florida

Sunday, July 06, 2003

A phenomenon occurred in South Florida Wednesday night. A gosh-darned, bona fide, call-Marge-and-the-kids-into-the-room phenomenon.

Nine thousand and twenty-three heretofore apathetic South Floridians, just hours and minutes before gametime, walked up to the ticket windows at Pro Player Stadium and said: I'd like to watch the Florida Marlins play baseball tonight. What's more, they didn't feel the need to wear disguises nor speak in hushed tones when asking for two down the first-base line. Their presence swelled the night's crowd -- and, for once, The Guy In The Stands does not snicker -- to 30,634, the Marlins' second-largest of the season, their second-largest walkup gate in club history and almost 18,000 above their season average.

OK, there were fireworks after the game. But those 9,023 would've known that in February, too.

They showed up because of a Roman Candle no one saw coming in February. It goes by the name Dontrelle Willis, but you can be sure the surname won't be needed much longer if he keeps pitching as he has since being plucked out of Zebulon, N.C. -- home of the Class AA Carolina Mudcats -- May 9 to be a stopgap in a suddenly infirmed Marlins rotation. Fernando, after all, had no need for Valenzuela by the time school was out in 1981. And to the nation, there was no Mark Fidrych by the Fourth of July in 1976, only "The Bird." And was there any other Vida but Blue in '72? Fitting, since those are the three pitchers -- with a healthy twist of Luis Tiant -- that Willis and his unorthodox delivery, head-high leg kick, cock-eyed cap and captivating presence on the mound have been most compared.

"It was like being back in high school and facing a crazy left-hander," Mets first baseman Jason Phillips said after Willis shut down the Mets, 1-0, on one hit May 16 -- likely to go down as Ground Zero on the national buzz meter.

But Willis is far from crazy. Far from the character we tend to flock to sometimes. While brimming with an infectious energy, he is, by all reports, soft-spoken, appreciative and sometimes introspective. And despite his meteoric success, he has no problem with the part of being a rookie that demands he serve veterans their beverages on team flights. "My worst days," Willis told Amy Shipley of the Washington Post, "are some people's best days."

His loudest statements are made on the field. Not only because he is 8-1 with a 2.13 ERA, but because he is 8-1 with a 2.13 ERA and is young (just 21), fun and a toke of the unexpected. Who doesn't love that which breaks up the routine?

For the Marlins, the routine has meant losing, broken promises and disinterest since winning the 1997 World Series. While there has been the occasional false start back toward respectability, the occasional glimmer of hope with the arrival of a Mike Lowell or Josh Beckett, it's only been since Willis' arrival that there has been a presence of something bigger -- passion.

"Around the water cooler, everyone's talking about them," fan Mike McCoy of Fort Lauderdale told the Miami Herald Wednesday. "It's a hot topic right now. People who normally aren't sports fans are talking about them."

Tell The Guy there's not something greater at work here than numbers on a speed gun? For heaven's sake, lines at the concession stands in the upper deck of Pro Player were reported to be 20 deep. And there wasn't a Miami Dolphins player in sight.

"I don't even think he understands the magnitude of what he's doing," Marlins catcher Mike Redmond told the Sun Sentinel of South Florida.

"What you see on the mound is how he is every day," said center fielder Juan Pierre. "He's always laughing, always upbeat. Guys feed off him when he's pitching."

A coincidence that the Marlins are 30-22 since he joined the rotation? If so, there have been a lot of coincidences in Willis' life lately. Like the one where normally proficient big-league hitters have scored only six times against him in the past 57 2/3 innings. Or the one where he earned National League rookie of the month and pitcher of the month for June -- the first time anyone swept both. Or -- here's a good one -- that he just might be visiting Chicago the same night as the All-Star Game next week. What are the odds?

Better than those you would have given even three months ago that the Marlins could lose, 2-1, in 13 innings as they did to the Braves Wednesday and those 30,000-plus wouldn't go away saying: Same Ol' Fish. Why did we bother?

Because now they know why. Dontrelle. He didn't figure in the decision. But his was maybe the most electrifying no-decision in the history of Marlins baseball, allowing the Braves one run and six hits in eight innings with six strikeouts.

"I don't think of myself as phenomenal," Willis has said time and again.

Sorry, but those 9,023 walkups, and the other 21,000 who stood and (gasp!) cheered on a Wednesday night in July in baseball-dead South Florida with their team 10 games out of first would seem to insist otherwise.

They are his most amazing numbers.

Out by a hair

Although The Guy has his doubts, Seattle's Jeff Cirillo might have started a trend Monday night. After getting ejected in the seventh inning for arguing a call at first, the thumbed Cirillo stormed into the Mariners' clubhouse where he ... shaved off his goatee. "I saw [the replay] on camera and said 'That looks stupid,'" he said. "I was either going to throw more stuff or go shave."

Road apples

Pirates fans, step aside. Let the pros show you how to tar-and-feather a player. You'll be embarrassed to discover how easy you were on Kevin Young. Upon Roberto Alomar's trade to the White Sox Tuesday, it's doubtful New Yorkers would have found a good thing to say about his 18 months with the Mets had he saved Rudy Giuliani's life on 9/11 or been able to sing like Sinatra. Bust. Zombie. Indifference. Those are among the most printed and printable.

"Alomar, as much as anyone, embodies what the Mets have become these past two years, a room-temperature player on a room-temperature team," wrote Mike Vaccaro in the New York Post.

"In a city that never sleeps," read a headline in Newsday, "he did."

12 the hard way

Speaking of Alomar, his arrival in Chicago could prove to be painful for White Sox rookie Willie Harris. He not only figures to see his playing time at second decrease, but he also was forced to switch numbers from 12 to 13. Now, a rookie deferring to a veteran over a number is not unusual ... but getting rid of the No. 12 tattooed on his body might not be so easy.

Learning from history

During his time as a Pirates pitcher, Jason Schmidt, then in his mid-20s, heard the same muffled whispers in the corners as Kris Benson now hears. Questioning his toughness, his intensity, his desire to compete. Monday, Schmidt, now 30, pitched his third consecutive complete game, shutting down the Cardinals, 5-1, to raise his record to 8-3. This after going 20-9 in his first 1 1/2 seasons in San Francisco.

"He's worthy of a lot of stuff," Manager Felipe Alou told the San Francisco Chronicle, "a lot of ink, a lot of All-Star Games, a lot of World Series. You know every fifth day you're going to have a legitimate shot at a complete game. I never had a pitcher like that since I had Pedro Martinez."

Ever think you would hear the names Schmidt and Martinez in the same breath? Maybe those who are quick to pack off Benson, 28, would like to at least think twice.

Ma Boyd would be proud

Remember Jason Boyd. When previously we saw him, he was getting tossed for bumping umpire Dana DeMuth during the Indians' visit to PNC Park two weeks ago. He served his subsequent three-game suspension last weekend, and spent part of his down time in a man-bites-dog sort of way. "I wrote a letter to [the] umpire telling him I was sorry," Boyd told Sheldon Ocker of the Akron Beacon Journal. And now for the weather. Tonight's forecast for hell: Cold and snow.

The pole tax

Aramis Ramirez had fans scratching their heads at the improbability of his hitting the left-field foul pole for home runs twice in the course of a week in June. (Go ahead, stand at home plate and see how long it takes to hit a pole about 9 inches in diameter at a distance of 315 feet twice with a batted ball).

Milwaukee's Richie Sexson might've performed a feat even more improbable this week. In the fourth inning Tuesday at Houston's Minute Maid Park, he hit a ball to straightaway center that hit the flag pole on Tal's Hill and bounded back onto the field -- the first knock of its kind since the park opened in 2000.

"There was no doubt about it. It was gone," Houston center fielder Craig Biggio told Michael Murphy of the Houston Chronicle. "It hit the flag pole square and came back in. I've never seen it happened before, even in batting practice."

This 'n' that

Did he really say that? After his Tigers beat the Blue Jays, 6-2, Monday for just their 19th win in three months, Manager Alan Trammell said: "[Winning] never gets old." Heck, at the rate the Tigers are going, it may never get to puberty. ... Once ejected from a game Monday for throwing his helmet, Seattle third baseman Jeff Cirillo said he made a conscious decision to argue. "If I'm going to get fined, I may as well get my money's worth and embarrass my family." ... In an anomaly only The Guy could find fascinating, Cleveland's Coco Crisp went to the plate six times in the first game of a doubleheader vs. the Royals Monday and was a perfect 6 for 6 -- he led off each inning in which he batted. ... By scoring 20 runs vs. the Braves Tuesday, four days after giving up 25 vs. the Red Sox, the Elias Sports Bureau reports that the Marlins are the first to give up 20 and score 20 within a five-game period since the 1897 Pirates. ... And finally, All-Star rosters will be announced today (7 p.m., ESPN). Like last year, once the first 31 players are announced for each roster, fans will have the chance to vote online for the 32nd player. ... The Pirates' one selection? The guess here: Aramis Ramirez.

Shot and a jeer

Shot: What? Just checked the TV listings. Fox and ESPN couldn't find a way to foist another Yankees-Mets game on us this weekend?

Jeer: No question that Kevin Young's release was justifiable on many levels. And it probably could have come sooner. But hard as it is for some to remember, he played here for 11 years, not just the past three. The Guy realizes that's a mighty big picture for many to see, though, considering their vision is so often impaired by the depth to which their myopia extends and the height to which their knees jerk.

Steve Ziants can be reached at sziants@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1474. This notebook was gathered from personal interviews, wire services and other newspapers.

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