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WILLIS MOVES INTO ELITE COMPANY

Marlins pitcher steps right up

One of the few black starters has become one of baseball?s best pitchers

By JEFF PASSAN

The Kansas City Star

 

When Dontrelle Willis sees Dave Stewart at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Legacy Awards tonight, he is going to try his best to act completely impolite.

 

?Because I think if I call him Mr. Stewart one more time,? Willis said, ?he might kill me.?

 

Perhaps early in Willis? career with the Florida Marlins the whole well-mannered kid thing flew. Now that Willis is in Stewart?s rarefied company, not so much.

 

Because at the 7 p.m. ceremony at the sold-out Gem Theater, Stewart, the 12th black pitcher to win 20 games, will actually be the one honoring Willis, the 13th, by giving him the Satchel Paige Award for National League pitcher of the year.

 

?I?m from Oakland, California,? Willis said. ?I grew up when the A?s and Giants were competitive, and they were within a 10-minute BART train ride. Seeing the things Dave?s done and all the joy he brought to my household ? my family loves him like he can sleep on our couch anytime he wants to and kick my mom out.?

 

No disrespect, of course, to Willis? mother, Joyce Harris. But as the most recent of the 12 Black Aces, the group of 20-game winners so named by Mudcat Grant, Stewart was the beacon of a fading group.

 

Before the 15-year gap between Stewart and Willis, the longest stretch between black 20-game winners since Don Newcombe first accomplished it in 1951 was six years. It highlighted the dwindling number of black players in baseball, and an even sparser number among starting pitchers.

 

?With Dontrelle, I feel a great sense of pride,? said Stewart, who won 20 four straight years with the A?s. ?We?re from the same areas, the same backgrounds. And he?s done the job so well.

 

?If we had enough numbers out there, there?s no doubt it would?ve happened sooner. Problem is, we don?t have the numbers.?

 

While baseball has tried to dedicate itself to resolving the deficiency with the RBI program, which funds inner-city baseball programs, the results could take years to show. As it is now, baseball need only look at its pitching staffs to see that of the 150 starters next season, only three black players ? Willis, C.C. Sabathia and Shawn Chacon ? are guaranteed rotation spots.

 

?You need an effort from all areas,? Stewart said. ?Baseball needs to do a greater job of marketing (black) players. Baseball needs to take advantage of a guy like Dontrelle and strike a chord with younger kids.?

 

If anyone can, it?s Willis.

 

Florida brought him up in 2003 to little fanfare. By the All-Star break, when Willis was 9-1 with a 2.08 ERA, everyone in baseball knew him. Long, lanky and left-handed, his leg kick was so high it looked as if he was trying to sniff his knee. He celebrated strikeouts with animated fist pumps.

 

He smiled on the mound. Who smiles on the mound?

 

In nearly every manner Willis stood out, and he capped his rookie season with a World Series ring to go along with his Rookie of the Year award.

 

As good as he pitched that season, Willis excelled even more this year, his third. He finished second behind Chris Carpenter in the Cy Young voting and led the NL with 22 victories, becoming the 13th Ace.

 

The night before his win, dozens of calls came in. Since Willis doesn?t answer his phone in the 24 hours leading up to his starts, he later heard voicemails from Stewart and Grant, the man he?d met at the 2004 Legacy Awards.

 

Over a barbecue lunch the day of that ceremony, Grant pulled aside Willis and started talking about the 12 Black Aces. The history. The legacy. The honor. And how he wanted Willis to be the next one.

 

?He believed in me,? Willis said. ?He thought I had the ability and talent to achieve that. I?m a young guy, and at the time I was in awe to hear someone be that concerned about someone he didn?t know. It was sincere.?

 

So it?s with excitement that Willis will board his flight from Miami at 7 this morning, meet his best friend Andrew Early in Atlanta and then connect to Kansas City.

 

And it?s with pride he?ll accept his award.

 

?I have this DVD camcorder,? Willis said. ?I haven?t taken it out the box yet. I might bring it this time.?

 

Just so everyone knows the nice things Mr. Stewart had to say.

 

Legacy Awards

 

â–  WHAT: Gala for baseball?s best of 2005.

 

â–  WHEN/WHERE: 7 tonight at the Gem Theater

The Black Aces

 

Only 13 black American pitchers have won 20 or more games. Here is the list, with the first year they joined the club.

 

Player Team Year

Don Newcombe Brooklyn 1951

Sam Jones San Fran. 1959

Bob Gibson St. Louis 1965

Mudcat Grant Minnesota 1965

Ferguson Jenkins Cubs 1967

Earl Wilson Detroit 1967

Vida Blue Oakland 1971

Al Downing Los Angeles 1971

J.R. Richard Houston 1976

Mike Norris Oakland 1980

Dwight Gooden Mets 1985

Dave Stewart Oakland 1987

Dontrelle Willis Florida 2005

Tonight?s event

 

The 2006 Legacy Awards, whose hosts are comedian Michael Colyar and actress Elise Neal, will feature appearances by award winners Derrek Lee, Michael Young, Chone Figgins, Bob Wickman, Chad Cordero, Ken Williams, John Schuerholz and Dave Winfield. Also expected to attend are former major-leaguers Lou Brock, Dave Stewart, Willie Wilson and Willie Horton.

 

 

http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/s...ll/13569771.htm

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