Willis Still Doesn’t Get It


Dontrelle Willis has lost his command and he has lost his confidence.

It’s not surprising, really. With command comes success and with success comes confidence. For the better part of three years, Willis has seen both diminish to nothing.

We all know the story, I’ll not bore you with the stats. Everyone recalls how good, no great, Willis was in his youth, some five years ago. And we all are painfully aware of the disappointment of the past two seasons.

The doctors have said that Willis suffers from an anxiety disorder, something current big leaguers Khalil Greene, Justin Duchscherer, and Zack Grienke have all been diagnosed with at some point in their respective careers. For his part, Willis has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that there may be any truth to that diagnosis.

Now, I’m no doctor, but neither is Willis. I, myself, have been skeptical of the Tigers in their handling of the left hander. A medical problem that explains Willis’ meltdown is beneficial for the Tigers. With a diagnosis, they can keep him on the disabled list, and let an insurance company pick up part of the money owed to Willis. But rest assured, a diagnosis as difficult to prove as this one would need the approval of Major League Baseball in order to keep the player on the shelf. MLB evidently signed off on it, so I’m going to assume the problem is real, which is more than Willis is doing.

Lynn Henning filed a report with the Detroit News today in which Willis is quoted as saying all the same things he said last year. He is not going to get down, he’ll try to continue to be a good teammate. He doesn’t understand the doctors’ findings, and he has learned nothing about how this diagnosis is affecting his pitching. He added also that he has not been on any medication.

To him, the issue is not mental. Willis continues to portray the same happy-go-lucky attitude he always has. There is no reason to think that the fear of failure is anything that could affect him. But I wonder if that isn’t precisely what is affecting him.

Back in January, during the winter caravan, the Freep’s Drew Sharp found Willis to be much more at peace with his disorder than Henning reports today. This may be the most troubling aspect of this entire saga. Sharp said that Willis conceded that there were times last season when he was afraid to take the mound and unsure if he could locate the strike zone. I don’t know much, but that sounds like anxiety to me.

Sharps article had painted a picture of a new Dontrelle, one who had come to grips with his emotions. Willis called his problems a “serious lack of confidence” and sought the assistance of the Athlete’s Performance Institute and spoke with psychological therapists about his struggles. At the time I read it, Sharp’s article made be think perhaps Dontrelle had turned a corner. If a man can humble himself enough to seek therapy, surely he is admitting to himself he must have a problem dealing with anxiety.

But now, as pitchers and catchers file into the clubhouse of Joker Marchant Stadium, Willis still says he’s happy and healthy. He keeps repeating that he just needs to have fun out there, as if that mantra can return him to his former glory.

There will be no medication taken for his disorder, the one Willis doesn’t think he has. Instead, Dontrelle will continue to self-medicate with a steady diet of happy fun time. The same prescription he has been following for two years.

I have stated several times in the past how much a fan of his I am. I get more joy watching a great pitcher work than any other aspect of baseball. When Willis was younger, he was one of the best. And I hope beyond hope that he can re-discover whatever it is he lost along the way. Unfortunately, hope seems to be all Willis has left.