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Dream come true

Willingham on opening day roster with Marlins


By Jeff McIntyre

Assistant Sports Editor


A time capsule buried in 1991 would prove to be very prophetic for Josh Willingham.- Willingham's fifth-grade class at Mars Hill buried the time capsule and planned to dig it up in 2000. Each student was told to write down what they expected to be doing in 2000.


Willingham's mother, Denise, said Josh's note was very accurate.


"When they dug the capsule up in 2000 they gave me Josh's note," Denise Willingham said. "It said that he would be playing baseball at the University of Alabama, that he would be catching and that he would sign a pro contract for $100,000. He's had that dream for a long time."


Willingham's dream of being a professional baseball player has come true. He was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the 17th round of the 2000 draft and is now beginning his seventh season of pro baseball.


When the Marlins open their season tonight at Houston, Willingham is expected to be the starting left fielder. Although he has spent parts of the last two seasons in the majors, this will be his first Opening Day in the big leagues.


"It is still kind of hard to believe he is there," said Willingham's father, David. "When he was drafted we knew he had a shot, but we also knew he had a long road ahead of him. Josh has worked hard to get where he is and it has paid off. I know it will be exciting to see him start the season in the majors."


Although he got a taste of the major leagues the last two years, Willingham said being on the opening day roster is special.


"It is a different feeling for me this year," Willingham said. "This is my first time to make the team out of spring training. I feel like I've had a good spring and I'm ready to go. I'm definitely excited about the season."


The journey to the major leagues has been a long one for Willingham. A two-time All-American at North Alabama in 1999 and 2000, he has spent most of the past six seasons in the minor leagues.


Those who know Willingham best, however, are not surprised that he has fulfilled his dream. Will Bridges, a close friend and former teammate of Willingham's at Mars Hill, said it was always obvious that Willingham was very talented.


"I have some video of us when we were nine or ten years old," Bridges said. "Even then he was head and shoulders above the rest of us as a player. You just always knew he was special. He was such a good athlete, he could have played several sports in college."


Longtime UNA baseball coach Mike Lane, who coached Willingham for three years, is also not surprised at what his former player as achieved.


"First of all, he is a great person," Lane said. "His parents did a great job raising him, and that's where it starts. Josh was always willing to do whatever we asked of him, and he played hard every day.


"Josh was the type of player that never panicked. He looked for a solution instead of worrying about the problem. As a result of that, he made adjustments better and quicker than any player we've ever had."


Willingham, who turned 27 on Feb. 17, has been an all-star throughout his minor league career. Entering this season he has just 28 games of major league experience. He has batted .250 with one home run and five RBIs in 48 career major league at-bats.


When the Marlins traded most of their big-name players over the winter, Willingham knew he would have the opportunity to make the team and perhaps earn a starting position. He has done just that with an impressive spring, batting .410 with four home runs and 12 RBIs.


"This was the first spring where I knew I was going to be plenty of at-bats," Willingham said. "I was able to get into a rhythm early and things went well from then on."


Willingham, who began catching just three years ago, was expected to be the Marlins' No. 1 catcher. His versatility, along with his powerful bat, have led the Marlins to also play him in left field.


"I'll be behind the plate part of the time and in left field part of the time," he said. "They want to keep my legs fresh where I can be in the lineup almost every day. By playing left field I don't have to get an off day to rest my legs."


Willingham's parents will be at Minute Maid Park for all three games of the opening series in Houston. With a couple of special baseball packages on satellite TV and


satellite radio they will be able to watch or listen to almost all of the Marlins' games.


"Even though he is in the major leagues, I'm still just a dad when I watch him play," David Willingham said. "It's amazing to hear him talk about hitting against a guy like Roy Oswalt. We enjoy keeping up with him, and it is amazing how many people in Florence keep up with how Josh is doing."


Denise Willingham admits she still gets nervous watching Josh play.


"I don't like listening to the games on the radio because I get too nervous," she said. "Every time he comes to bat I get nervous. I guess that part of it never goes away for a mother."


Bridges said it is a weird feeling to see his good friend playing on TV.


"It is kind of surreal for me," Bridges said. "This is the same guy that just likes to watch football and go fishing when he comes home. Josh is still the same person he always has been. It is something special to be see him live out a dream we all had as kids."


Lane said it is always a thrill when one of his former players makes it in the big leagues.


"I went home for lunch a couple of weeks ago and looked up at the TV and saw Josh behind the plate against the Dodgers," Lane said. "Watching one of our guys playing in the big leagues gives you a tremendous source of pride."


Lane said Willingham has never let his success go to his head. He said Willingham called him this past week just to congratulate him on UNA's recent success.


"We were on the bus headed to Arkansas on Monday when my cell phone rang," Lane said. "Josh was calling to congratulate us for winning two out of three at West Florida over the weekend. Before he hung up he said, 'By the way, I hit two home runs today.' That's just typical of Josh."


Various publications have listed Willingham as one of the top young hitters in the National League this year. He said that while that is flattering, he is not about to get caught up in the hype.


"The main thing I want to do is stay healthy," Willingham said. "I've had some injuries the past couple of years that have held me back. I would love to get 500 at-bats this year and see what I can do."


Jeff McIntyre can be reached at 740-5737 or [email protected]

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