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Baseball Notebook: The story of one young man's trip home

Sunday, August 24, 2003

By Steve Ziants, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

As weeks go, you'd have to agree it was a fairly memorable one for Amos Zereoue, bumper-sticker makers in California and slasher fans for whom Freddy or Jason by themselves was just never quite blood-muddy enough.

Allow The Guy In The Stands to throw 21-year-old Florida Marlins sensation Dontrelle Willis into the mix.

Even in a 110-day run of Kodak moments since his callup to summer blockbuster status that has included a one-hitter against the Mets, a spot on the All-Star team, an 11-4 record and credit for the miracle that has been the rebirth of Marlins baseball in South Florida, this week was exceptional.

How so? The record shows he received no decision in a 6-3 win against the Padres Aug. 16. And the record shows his Marlins were swept out of Coors Field by a combined 24-9, failing to take advantage in the NL wild-card race of a Phillies team that was itself being swept in Milwaukee.

But this is not about the record.

This is about a road trip home.

A road trip to Denver and San Francisco, and beginning Tuesday, for the first time to PNC Park, where Willis will likely pitch Thursday in the finale of a three-game series against the Pirates.

Fans at PNC will not notice much difference from the kid they've seen on TV. He will wear his hat low and cockeyed. He will contort himself in ways even Luis Tiant couldn't. He will high-five teammates and flash his smile and sling his fastball and more likely than not help his team win (they are 15-5 in games he pitches, 54-38 since he made his debut).

But this week will have affected him. How, The Guy wonders, could it not?

Tuesday, at the ESPN Zone restaurant in Denver, Willis met his father for the first time. The father, as has been well-documented in the countless Dontrelle Willis stories that have already been spun, who walked out when Dontrelle was 2 and never came back. Who never stayed in touch. Never left him with even a photograph or a memory.

For those who imagine a man coming back only because he'd seen his son on "SportsCenter," it should be pointed out that it was not the father who sought Dontrelle. Dontrelle sought the father through a request of his paternal grandmother. His father reportedly didn't even know his son was a major-leaguer until recently.

"I felt it was about time," he told Mike Berardino of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, reflecting the same unnatural poise with which he took hold of the opportunity that presented itself when the Marlins -- desperate for arms -- called him up May 6.

"Everything happens for a reason," he said to MLB.com. "It is a blessing. We'll go from there."

Willis' journey home this week was only half over, though.

He started Friday night against the Giants in San Francisco. It marked his official homecoming -- the first time he had pitched in the Bay Area since being drafted out of Encinal High School in nearby Alameda, Calif., three years ago.

What kid who ever picked up a ball in the backyard hasn't dreamed of that one?

Better than 200 family and friends were expected to make the 20-minute drive from Alameda, where his mother, Joyce Harris, raised him while supporting herself and Dontrelle as a iron worker. Twenty minutes from where she used to scold him for throwing tennis ball after tennis ball against the side of the house on Saturday mornings while she was trying to sleep. Twenty minutes from where he developed his funky delivery playing "Strikeout" in the street. Twenty minutes from where he obviously grew old beyond his 21 years.

Recently, when he stopped at a supermarket near his Florida apartment, some employees began yelling frantically, "That's Dontrelle Willis! That's Dontrelle Willis!" Was he impressed with himself?

"All I wanted to do was get some cheese," he told Ron Kroichick of the San Francisco Chronicle.

He was equally laconic after a 7-3 win vs. the Cardinals earlier this month.

"I'm continuing to have fun," he said, "just like when I was in Little League. I wanted to play and get a hot dog. That's it."

And when others want to give him things because he's Dontrelle Willis: Boy Wonder?

"I don't take free meals, and I can stand in line at the supermarket," he said. "I don't need any special treatment just because I throw a baseball."

Where did this kid come from?

There are those who insist he's come far. To reach the mound at Pac Bell Friday. To fill the stands at Pro Player Stadium. To take the field at PNC Thursday. To reach that restaurant table in Denver this week.

It smacks of an incredible journey.

But then, to listen to him, maybe -- just maybe -- he's really only ever just 20 minutes away.

Online jeers

Remember when angry fans at least had to go to the park to boo? Not anymore. Not in the Internet age in which we live. For a few hours last week, one ornery Yankees fan had Jeff Weaver up for sale on eBay. Not his glove or an autographed ball. But Jeff Weaver: Yankees pitcher of the 7-9 record and 5.80 ERA. There was one special sale note: Available to buyer in the Boston, USA, area only. Hmmm! Isn't that where the rival Red Sox play? Within a few hours, eBay officials got wise and pulled the auction. But not before bids edged up into five figures.

Field generals in black glasses

Perhaps if we had allowed to pass through our bodies all that has passed through his these past 30 years, Ozzy Osbourne's rendition of "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" Sunday at Wrigley Field would have been as crisp and clear as "Inagoddavita." Instead, because we are of this world and not one of the chemist's making, it came across sounding, well, like this:

"One. Two. Three. Let's go out to the ballgame. Let's go out to the bluhhhhhn Take me a ee-yan eeya [hums here] the field. I don't care if ahh-uhn ack. Dad a dad a duh dad a da earn. Duh ee, dad a da dahhh. For a fee, two, three strikes you're out at the old ballgame. Yeahhhhh."

The Guy thanks the Chicago Tribune for phoneticizing a ballyard moment that made Roseanne's version of the "National Anthem" sound like pure Whitney. It also gets The Guy to wondering: Do longtime Ozzy fans hear "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" when he plays "War Pigs" in concert? Just a thought.

Fox and the noun

With the recent pickup of pitcher Chad Fox, someone suggested to Marlins infielder Andy Fox that going by his middle name on the back of his uniform might be a viable way of separating himself from the newest Fox. He apparently had personal issues about wearing a jersey that simply read "A. Fox." Go figure. So the middle name idea was proposed ... and just as quickly discounted. Why? Fox's middle name is Junipero. According to Mike Berardino of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Junipero is a family name chosen by a great-grandfather in tribute to Father Junipero Serra, founder of Roman Catholic missions in Fox's native California. Whew! That makes The Guy feel better. There for a moment, he thought his parents had simply pulled Junipero out of thin air.

A low roar

Even in a season of millstones, Sunday's 11-6 loss to the Angels stood out for the Detroit House Cats. It dropped them 60 games under .500, a mark they've since blown by to sit at 31-96 entering play yesterday. How incredible is that? According to the Detroit Free Press and retrosheet.org, there have been only six days since the 1962 Mets in which a team -- any team -- has been 60 games below .500. The Tigers have a chance to carry that distinction for six weeks.

The positive spin

What's that The Mom In The Stands always said (or was it Confucious?) When one door closes, another opens ... and smacks you in the forehead. Or something like that. The Guy, while sympathizing with veteran Todd Zeile upon his release by the Yankees Sunday, can also -- as a man of numbers -- see its possibilities. For this fortuitous career change gives Zeile the opportunity to add to that major-league record that for years has so bedazzled us. He has homered for 10 teams -- more than any other man in major-league history. He now has five weeks left to make it 11, and were were thrilled to see he didn't screw it up by going back to the Cardinals, Cubs, Orioles, Phillies, Dodgers, Rangers, Marlins, Mets, Rockies or Yankees. Instead, he signed with Montreal Wednesday. Happy homering.

This 'n' that

One-hundred and twenty-one years and the Giants were finally swept in a season series of more than three games. In losing all four games in Montreal over the weekend, the Giants finished the year 0-7 vs. the Expos. ... Larry Johnson, former chief operating officer of Alcor -- the cryonics company that houses the body of Ted Williams in Scottsdale, Ariz. -- says he could have sold his story about the poor condition in which it has been cared for, but gave it to Sports Illustrated instead because SI's reputation gave it more credence. ... Geez! You'd think the baseball people would've checked with the marketing department before they started trading off the team's stars. The Reds gave away packs of baseball cards at Great American Ball Park Aug. 15 -- packs that included cards of Manager Bob Boone, who was fired July 28, and five players who had been traded. ... Roger Clemens, who likely will retire after the season, told the New York Times he'd consider pitching for Team USA in the Olympics next summer. "There are a lot of things on my plate, but that happens to be one of them," he said. ... Did you happen to take note of the San Juan venue in which the United States' men's basketball team is playing its Olympic qualifying tournament? The Roberto Clemente Coliseum. Just another reminder of how great is The Great One's reach in Puerto Rico even 30 years after his death. ... Proof why the Red Sox are more than just Boston's team. Included among the scores on Fenway's hand-operated out-of-town scoreboard this week were the Little League World Series scores for the Saugus, Mass., club that reached the United States final yesterday. Nice touch. ... And finally, how bad was Ozzy Osbourne's rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game"? In a Chicago Tribune reader poll, 63.2 percent of the respondents said it was the worst rendition they'd ever heard, blowing away No. 2 Mike Ditka (24.8 percent). Now that's bad. ... Now back to Ozzfest.

Shot and a jeer

If you're concerned that the Pirates lost minor-league pitcher Mike Bruback on waivers to the Padres this week, don't be. Yes, The Guy knows it was only 32 days ago that he was the linchpin of that deal that sent Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton to the Cubs. But considering the dexterity and savvy with which the Pirates have swung deals lately, we can almost count on getting him back when the Jason Kendall-Brian Giles deal is finally consummated. Feel better?


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

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