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Fishfan79

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Willis Is Marlins' Face, Comfortable in His Skin

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 14, 2007; Page E01

JUPITER, Fla., March 13 -- It was the dead of winter, three days before Christmas, and the Florida Marlins had a public relations crisis on their hands. Their star player and community ambassador, pitcher Dontrelle Willis, had been arrested in South Beach for drunken driving, and suddenly Team Dontrelle was in crisis mode. There were statements to issue, strategy sessions to conduct, an image to rehabilitate. Say this, Willis was told. Do that. Act this way.

Willis appreciated all the advice and concern, but he knows only one way to act, whether in crisis or in calm, and that is to be himself. So that's what he did. He issued the obligatory statement of apology, but otherwise exerted his typical Dontrelleness. He didn't avoid people; he sought them out. He remained outgoing, and he kept going out. And when the Marlins held their annual winter caravan and FanFest in early February, Willis was there, smiling, laughing, clowning.

Dontrelle Willis
With his high leg kick, off-kilter cap and explosive pitches, Dontrelle Willis is right out of a marketer's dream. (Rick Bowmer - AP)
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"It's funny," Willis said Tuesday morning. "It seems like more people are bigger fans of me now, because I went through something that normal people go through. Don't get me wrong. What I did wasn't right. I believe in the law. Right is right, and wrong is wrong. But the people there, I'm talking to them, and they're telling me, 'We appreciate what you said, and how you went about it, and the fact you're out here at FanFest.'

"But I just did it because I felt like I wanted to be there. I wasn't thinking of doing it as a PR move. I just did it because I said, 'Hey, I want to go to FanFest.' "

As Willis tells the story, he leans back into his locker in a corner of the Marlins' clubhouse. Though only 25, his presence is that of one of the game's elder statesmen and most visible spokesmen. He is already his franchise's all-time winningest pitcher, and when the Marlins open the season April 2 at RFK Stadium in Washington, Willis will be on the mound.

"He's even better to be around than I thought he would be," said Fredi Gonzalez, the Marlins' rookie manager, who was hired just two months before Willis's arrest. "From across the field, you knew he respected the game [and] he respected the people around him. And now being around him, he's all that, and also a hell of a leader and a hell of a worker."

It has been four years since Willis burst into the greater baseball consciousness with his high leg kick, off-kilter cap and explosive pitches, all of it wrapped in packaging -- an African American in a sport starved for them, with an infectious smile that never seemed to leave his face -- right out of a marketer's dream. And he was good, winning the 2003 National League rookie of the year award, then going 3-0 in the postseason as the Marlins won the World Series.

But almost nobody is left from that championship team -- just Willis and third baseman Miguel Cabrera -- and this year Willis is the oldest member of the Marlins' starting rotation, instead of the youngest. And how much longer will he be a Marlin at all? He and Cabrera account for nearly half of the team's projected $28 million payroll, and there is every likelihood that one or both will be traded if the team is out of contention by midsummer.

"This is my fifth season, and [the Marlins are] all I know," he said. "It's not like I've been on any other big league clubs. I've had four different managers in five years. I've seen a lot of changes. But the one thing that's been consistent here is me. I want to be here for a long time. I appreciate the opportunity they gave me. We'll see."

A year ago, the Marlins shocked all of baseball by remaining in playoff contention until deep into the summer despite a league-low payroll of around $15 million. This year, despite the sizable bump in payroll -- most of it to accommodate the arbitration-year raises for Willis and Cabrera -- they may find it difficult to maintain that competitiveness, and by extension, to justify retaining their two high-priced stars.

Already, one of the team's top starting pitchers, right-hander Josh Johnson, has been lost until at least late April with an irritated nerve in his elbow, while a leading candidate for the team's closer job, lefty Taylor Tankersley, has yet to pitch this spring while recovering from shoulder inflammation. Injuries happen to every team, but the Marlins don't have the resources to replace their injured players.

The fact the Marlins have held onto Willis and Cabrera this long could be tied to the franchise's eternal quest for a new stadium -- in other words, a PR move. Nothing would turn public sentiment -- and thus, the politicians who control the purse strings -- against the franchise faster than ditching one of its remaining visible stars.

Asked about the stadium-payroll dynamic, Willis said, "I was never good in economics, man."

Actually, Willis often understands more than he lets on. Take his PR sense. Willis says it's nonexistent. If people want to call him a spokesman or an ambassador, that's fine, but it's not an active effort. "I'm being me," he said. "I like talking to people because I like talking to people. I'm not talking to people because you want me to. I want to help people because I get more enjoyment out of helping people than I do from helping myself. If people see me as a role model or whatever, that's great. But it's not the reason I do anything."

But Matt Roebuck, the Marlins' director of media relations, said of his star attraction: "He gets it. He definitely understands the big picture beyond the clubhouse and the field. He understands how important it is. But when he takes on that role, it's all genuine. That's who he is. That's Dontrelle."

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/conte...7031301667.html
 

Flamarlins3

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there is every likelihood that one or both will be traded if the team is out of contention by midsummer.

:rolleyes:
 

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