Team USA turns to Dontrelle
by Alan Schwarz
Willis, the face of Team USA
If the World Baseball Classic has a face, it is not the anticipatory gaze of the baseball beancounters, or the worried mug of general managers everywhere. It is that of Dontrelle Willis.
No player from any country has expressed more unbridled joy for participating in the upcoming extravaganza. (His "I just hope I make the team!" at last year's all-star press conference pierced the hearts of even the most cynical scribes.) With the event finally at hand, I talked with Willis about pitching for his country, his role on Team USA and the revamped Marlins, and scoring freebies from HBO.
ALAN SCHWARZ: I can tell you're one of the youngest players in this tournament, Dontrelle--you must be the only one with the ever-so-devious, "Hello? . . . Ha ha, I'm not here, leave a message" answering machine.
DONTRELLE WILLIS: Yeah, I've been meaning to switch that. But the more I wanted to switch it, the more reactions I've been getting. So I think I'm going to keep it on for another month and a half or so. My next answering machine is going to be an apology for that one. It will be a public announcement.
AS: You're one of the few players who has been constantly positive and excited about the World Baseball Classic. What gets you so revved up?
DW: I always saw the Olympics, the college guys go over there and do well and get the chance to represent their country, and how excited they were. Me, obviously not being a college guy, it's kind of tough. So I thought it was a cool idea not only to see the U.S. team but to be part of it, and to see the different countries and how they play baseball. So I just loved the idea about the concept of the World Baseball Classic.
I can only imagine, especially watching the winter Olympics right now, waving the flag. When you put on that country's uniform, you're representing everybody from Spokane, Washington, to Miami, Florida. It's a good feeling, man--because they all believe in you, and it gives you no choice but to believe in yourself. So you have to go out there and try your best.
AS: When you think about putting "U.S.A." on your chest, these days that can have some political overtones with Iraq, wire-tapping, etc. Your ex-teammate, Carlos Delgado, has been somewhat vocal about this kind of thing.
DW: I feel that if anybody can get to represent their country in any way shape or form, whether it be in the army or in ping-pong, whatever you do, whatever your profession is, it means a great deal to me. As far as politics, I don't really have a political stance about that or anything of that nature.
Carlos is a little more complex than I am. He's a little smarter than I am. He's been around the game and around a lot of things a little more. You'll have to ask me that question maybe 10 years later, when I start reading the USA Today or something like that instead of just the sports pages. (Laughs.)
AS: Of course, the biggest concern with the WBC is pitchers getting hurt by pushing themselves too early. What have you done differently, if anything, to prepare yourself?
DW: Nothing, to be honest. I've always done about 12-14 bullpens before spring training starts. I throw simulated games before even spring training starts. I was able to throw to a college team (West Florida) and what have you. I've been doing that for the past few years since I've been in the big leagues. I haven't done anything to change that because that makes me feel good for March and the rest of the season.
AS: Then again, you've never pitched competitively in March.
DW: I pitch competitively in spring training. I'm not that good to be turning it on and off. You know what I mean? So my game is the same regardless if it's spring training or October. I'm going to go out there and get outs the same way that I'm trying to get outs in July and September.
You're not going to go nine in March as opposed to going nine in September. But you see it in the Caribbean World Series--they're playing competitively. I don't think it will be a very hard adjustment for people in this tournament to go out and play hard whether it be for two innings or for five innings. I'm not saying you're trying to throw the ball through the backstop, but you're going to go out and pitch how you know how to pitch.
AS: I hear that HBO might do a movie on you. Are you going to go all Hollywood on us?
DW: Nah, man. We're kind of in the preliminary stages. If HBO wants to do anything with me, it's exciting. I've had a chance to do RealSports with Bryant Gumbel and what have you, and it was a great show and a great turnout and they did a good job. Obviously it's HBO so it's going to be professional, so yeah, we'll see how it works out.
AS: If not, make sure to score a box set of the Sopranos.
DW: Whatever I can get my hands on. Beggars can't be choosers, I've learned that.
AS: What has the feeling been around Marlins camp early on, with so many new faces? You're almost the grizzled veteran around there.
DW: To be totally honest, I still expect us to go out there and play hard and win ballgames. I'm very eager to go out there and play, man. We've had lots of changes over the years, new guys coming in and out. Nothing like this year, but I think that the younger guys, being a young guy myself, we've continued to try to go out there and prove to ourselves and other people that we deserve to play at the highest level.
AS: What's your first impression of Joe Girardi?
DW: He's a great guy. Very optimistic, very intelligent, very intelligent baseball mind. You definitely have a great deal of respect with him. If you can be Joe Torre's bench coach, you definitely have some knowledge of the game. He's eager to see us work. He's a guy where he could probably still play, so to see a young guy like that is very enthusiastic for a young team. I think he's a good fit for us thus far.
AS: You started out great in 2003, slipped back for a year or so as you learned the major league game better, and then last year broke out even further. What are you going to do personally to keep ahead of hitters and to make sure they don't make adjustments back on you?
DW: I don't really try to get too complex. I think if I start thinking about things like that, it takes away from me being who I am as far as me taking the ball, going out there, throwing strikes, and hoping for the best. I'm better when I simplify things. When I think about what hitters are thinking and hopefully what they're not picking up on, that takes away from my goal to go out there and throw strikes, throw quality pitches.
AS: I was talking to Billy Wagner the other day, and he said that in the World Baseball Classic, he'll buzz Carlos Delgado if he has to. So if you're facing Miguel Cabrera in the final, two weeks before you're his Opening Day teammate, how do you pitch to him?
DW: It's spur of the moment, but I'll throw inside if I have to. Most definitely. I'm not going to change a thing. I'm going to go at it just like it's a regular game. I would expect him to do whatever it takes to win the ballgame for his country, and he'll expect the same from me. After it's all said and done, we're teammates again.
You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to [email protected].