Thursday, May 12, 2005

Dontrelle Willis, Please Phone Home

New York Times
May 11, 2005

ALAMEDA, Calif., May 4 - If Joyce Harris were to ever watch her son pitch, she would notice the same things everyone else does. His corkscrew windup. His enthusiasm. The boyish way he slaps his mitt after a strikeout, bounding toward the dugout without touching his cleats to the first-base line, his jaw working a wad of gum the size of a fish filet.

She would probably also notice the way her son, Dontrelle Willis, is maturing as a pitcher. Only 23 years old and in his second full season with the Florida Marlins, Willis has lowered his famously high leg kick, giving him a more consistent delivery. He no longer presses as much, either, which helps him work out of jams. Such growth has earned him a 6-0 record, including three complete games, a streak of 23 scoreless innings and a league-low earned run average of 1.07. He was named the National League pitcher of the month for April.

All of which might please Harris, 45, if she watched him pitch, which she does not. When Willis takes the mound for the Marlins, Harris lies in her bed here in an Oakland exurb, staring at the ceiling. Maybe she will turn on "Law & Order" or "Forensic Files." If she watches baseball at all, it will be a different game, no closer to her son than the scores crawling across the bottom of the screen. Friends call every inning with updates, knowing she is interested, knowing she is suffering.

"I can't watch him," she said. "I even can't listen to the announcers on TV say he's struggling or he's sweating or he's in trouble. When I look at him, I don't see a major league baseball player or an All-Star or a pitcher who won a World Series ring. When I look at him out there, I still see my 12-year-old boy, Dontrelle. And then all I want to do is protect him."

Willis and his mother have always been close. After the Marlins won the World Series in 2003, Harris weaved her son's initials into a rose tattoo blooming above her left breast. Willis refers to his mother as his hero. He keeps a framed picture of her on a shelf of his locker. In her honor he has inked her name onto the bill of his Marlins cap.

"We're almost too tight, almost like brother and sister instead of mother and son," Willis said. "Those things a mother might normally shield from her son she didn't keep from me, so we went through the struggles together."

But as he grows up professionally, he is growing into his own life.

In Willis's first year with the Marlins, Harris called him every day. Now they can go three days without speaking. Willis used to spend his off-seasons here, crashing at his mother's apartment. Now he lives at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Fla.

"I go back when I can, but my life is here now," he said. "My profession and my friends and all that."

Harris chooses to stay in Alameda. She likes walking to the Central Cinema, a funeral home turned into a first-run movie theater, stopping first at Forster's for a cone dipped in chocolate. She meets her gang at Peet's coffee, which they prefer over the Starbucks across the street. At least four times a week - usually more - she grazes the buffet at La PiƱata Mexican restaurant. When the Marlins play the Giants, Harris rides the ferry across San Francisco Bay, pacing in the stands when her son pitches.

"She has her own life," said Sharon Peskett, her sister. "Even if Dontrelle doesn't play another day, she's still going to have her job. She takes classes. She has her speaking engagements. She's still his mother, no matter what, but she's letting him go."

Harris is known primarily as Dontrelle's mom, or Momma Willis or Mrs. Willis, even though she carries a different last name. Her identity is defined through her son much the way a military wife's is linked to her husband. When Willis made it to the majors in 2003 as a rookie sensation, Harris enjoyed the attention. At televised playoff games, she was shown wearing an engineer's cap in honor of her son's nickname, D-Train. On visits to Miami during baseball season, she would bounce from tailgate to tailgate in the stadium parking lot, posing for pictures.

"She enjoyed being on stage initially," said Frank Guy, her brother. "But people will put you on that stage because you're his mom. Like at the World Series, you could see that the cameras were about to focus on her, and then they did. She's not asking for that, and in time she learned that it's his stage and not hers."

She has her own stage, anyway. She is a journeyman ironworker, a welder of the Bay Bridge, the Kong roller coaster at Marine World and two of the gantry cranes that tower over Oakland Harbor. For the past year and a half, she has worked for the California Building Trades Council, acting as a sort of recruiter. She drives to schools and community centers across the Bay Area, talking up the benefits of union membership. Apprentice ironworkers earn as they learn, she said, making as much as $12 an hour to start, which is considerably more than they would be making at a fast-food restaurant. At meetings, she is often introduced as Dontrelle's mom.
"Which means I'll have to spend 10 minutes talking about my son, which isn't what I'm there to do," she said. "Now if they want to pull me over in the hall afterward to talk about him, that's fine, but I'm there to do a job."

Yet Harris still gives the D-Train tour of Alameda to anyone who asks. There is the mothballed aircraft carriers at the naval base. A plaque sticks to a concession stand in Rittler Park, behind Wood Middle School, where Willis got his start in Little League. On the mound of Willie Stargell Field at Encinal High, Willis evolved from a gangly freshman into the California player of the year; the No. 15 he wore is retired and hanging on the left-field tarp. There is the apartment they shared, where Harris still lives. Look closely at the red square painted on a wall in the parking lot. It is there that Willis debuted his leg kick while throwing tennis balls with neighborhood youngsters. When producers from HBO came out to film a segment on her son, Harris set out a plate of cranberry muffins.

"I do this because it's a part of my story, too, I guess," she said.
Willis's father left the scene soon after he was born, in Oakland, in 1982. For the first decade of her son's life, Harris struggled to keep steady work. The best job she held was as a part-time supervisor for United Parcel, working four days a week, taking home about $1,200 a month. Willis lived for seven years with his grandmother. Willis moved with Harris to Alameda when he was about 12, and Harris joined Ironworkers Local 378.

"She'd come to games here right off the Bay Bridge," Jim Saunders, Willis's high school baseball coach, said. "She'd be covered in so much dirt she looked like she'd been playing mud football or something."

Ironwork can leave people spent at the end of the work day. Harris still managed to attend almost all of her son's games. Working as a volunteer, Harris bent rebar to help build a skateboard park on the naval base. She molded a dance team from a handful of Encinal High girls. If her son stepped out of line in even a minor way, say by skipping class to get a haircut, she would be at the school at 3:30 p.m., in the baseball team dugout, asking why she got a call from the principal.

"She generally knew what he was doing at all times," Saunders said. "Honest to God, you never would have thought Dontrelle came from a one-parent family."

Willis made it to the majors in 2003, with the flat brim of his Marlins cap askew. His energy, along with a dazzling fastball, helped him win the rookie of the year award with a 14-6 record and helped the Marlins win a championship. Yet last season, the riddle of his windup appeared solved. Once opposing batters began hitting him, Willis tended to overthrow the ball, leading to more damage. His record fell to 10-11.

There are several reasons for his return to form this season. He stuck to a rigorous off-season conditioning program. A new pitching coach fine-tuned his delivery. To learn how to pace himself through a marathon season, he follows the examples set by the veteran Marlins, like pitcher Al Leiter and outfielder Jeff Conine.

"Some of this stuff you can only learn by experience," Willis said. "When to show up at the park, how to handle the fans, how to travel cross country, I'm doing everything a bit better."
He is better at acclimating to the life of a successful athlete. The day after he last pitched, against the Colorado Rockies, a clubhouse attendant pressed Willis's clothes for a party after the game. Jeffrey Loria, the Marlins' owner, ducked his head into Willis's locker to congratulate him on another victory, and to let him know there were Miami Heat playoff tickets waiting for him at the will-call window. Willis recently bought his mother a Ford Expedition, which she sent down to her sister, Sharon, who lives outside Los Angeles.

She has passed on gifts before. After Willis won the World Series two years ago, he gave Harris a bejeweled Marlins logo, to be worn around her neck. The back of the pendant was inscribed, "To Mom: I love you, Dontrelle."

Harris rarely wore the pendant, to her son's consternation. She felt it was too ostentatious. In the last year, though, as she has tried to build her life apart from Willis, she has started wearing it regularly.

"Even though I knew the day would come when he would move on with his life, I don't think as a mother you're ever prepared for it," she said. "It's taken some getting used to. He was my whole life."

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