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Dontrelle Willis Joins 'From Phenom To The Farm:' Episode 45

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Dontrelle Willis (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

“From Phenom to the Farm” releases new episodes every other Tuesday featuring players whose experiences vary across the professional baseball spectrum. Players will discuss their personal experiences going from high school graduation to the life of a professional baseball player.

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In April of 2003, Dontrelle Willis was a Double-A lefthander in the Marlins organization, mostly known to baseball fans (if known at all) as one of the key pieces in the March 2002 trade that brought Matt Clement and Antonio Alfonseca to the Chicago Cubs.

By that winter, Willis was an All-Star, the National League Rookie of the Year, the subject of a profile in Sports Illustrated, and a World Series Champion with the Marlins. With his beaming smile and eccentric windup featuring a high leg kick destined to be repeated by every little leaguer in the country, Willis was instantly popular with baseball fans, who delighted in watching him mow down hitters.

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Even on a team full of big league mainstays like Ivan Rodriguez and Derek Lee, Willis stood out, and garnered plenty of attention—something the 21-year-old initially struggled to come to terms with.

“It was out of body, especially in Miami,” Willis said. “You can ask any of my teammates, I didn’t like any of that D-Train stuff, I didn’t like the conductor hats, I didn’t like any of it because I felt like it singled me out.”

Willis was the toast of the town in Miami, but back home in Alameda, CA for the offseason, he got a quick heat check.

“When I came back home I was still sleeping on my mom’s couch as a World Series winner, so that had to change,” Willis said.

Two years after his electric debut season, Willis made his second All-Star Game and finished second in Cy Young voting. He was a young superstar for a franchise that wasn’t known for letting young superstars hang around, and along with fellow standout Miguel Cabrera, Willis was shipped to the Tigers following the 2007 season, this time on the other side of a prospect-laden deal.

With the Tigers, Willis’ seemingly boundless electricity on the mound seemed to fade. He struggled with health and the yips, and began to bounce around professional baseball as a guy who couldn’t seem to find his form, or the joy that he used to take from baseball. The frontline starter in Willis seemed long gone, but he continued to claw back at baseball, working to once again contribute to a big league roster.

A 2011 stint with the Cincinnati Reds didn’t bring back the All-Star version of Willis on the hill, but did revitalize the smiling lefty that baseball fans fell in love with nearly a decade prior.

“I have a great deal of love and appreciation for the Cincinnati Reds,” Willis said. “The line that they told me that was really rejuvenating was ‘We just want you to be yourself.’”

Willis continued to plug away, even venturing to the Atlantic League to play before choosing to hang up his spikes in the spring of 2015. Currently an MLB TV analyst and special assistant for the Dodgers, Willis continues to pass on a key piece of advice to every young player he comes across.

“I tell guys, enjoy all of this,” said Willis. “Enjoy competing, enjoy being around your teammates, enjoy your name being on the back of a jersey (...) just enjoy every single moment.”

On the latest episode of ‘From Phenom to the Farm,’ former big league All-Star Dontrelle Willis joins to talk baseball superstardom and the journey back to the big leagues.

Mason Miller Photo By Bill Mitchell

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