The D-Train Leaves the Station

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One of my least favorite words in the sports lexicon is “retirement.” Not because I dislike the idea of a career ending or because I am bothered by the sentimental elegies that often come afterward, but because the word feels incorrect. There’s a huge difference between a young-ish person retiring as a professional athlete and an old-ish person retiring from the workforce for good. Being a baseball player or golfer is not like working in a factory. Factory workers don’t retire three times like Michael Jordan. They don’t retire at 30 years old like Dontrelle Willis did yesterday.

This is not meant to descend into typical grouchy bullshit about how athletes are lazy and don’t work as hard as they should and if I was an athlete you better believe I wouldn’t blame some pussy fake “anxiety disorder” get in the way of my career the way Dontrelle Willis did. Just the opposite. What Dontrelle Willis has done for the last decade deserves a discussion liberated from the boring language of the ordinary workplace. After all, the trajectory of Willis’ career (another word that feels totally incorrect in the context of sports) is as unique in the context of work in America as Willis himself was in the context of Major League Baseball.

As far as beginnings go, the only comparison for Willis is Fernando Valenzuela. Like Valenzuela, Willis was a stylish, exuberant lefty who came from seemingly nowhere to dominate as a rookie and lead his team to a World Series. Like Valenzuela, Willis was a very good pitcher for a few ensuing years. In 2005, Willis nearly won a Cy Young Award. His stuff was electric and his personality was magnetic. He had everything one could want in a young baseball star. He was the kind of athlete who peaked at inception, and who loved nothing more than being himself. But in 2006, his walk rate ticked up. In 2007, it ticked up again. And that was that. Willis has spent the last five years trying to rein his stuff in, trying to salvage some semblance of his previous magic. Baseball players, pitchers especially, don’t work like you or I work. They work like artists or musicians whose power is fluid and fleeting and channeled from some unknown dimension.

Valenzuela stopped being great in 1987, but he managed to spend a decade as a journeyman, savvy enough to be effective without ever actually being particularly good. It seems pretty clear that Dontrelle Willis would have been happy to play out the next decade in similar mediocrity. (He was a little bit hostile to the idea of becoming a reliever, but we all have our vanities). It seems clear too, that he will seek another sort of baseball life going forward. He has said in the past that he would coach when he was done playing. It might work out. Coaches don’t have to throw strikes, and maybe all the years spent in confrontation with whatever dark and difficult realms of his psyche prevented him from pitching effectively taught him something useful. But I hope that whatever he does, he maintains the sincerity with which he approached the game and with which he is evidently leaving it. I hope we remember him for all the joy he exuded on the mound (and, for that matter, at the plate), and that if a day ever comes when he stops thinking of himself as a major league pitcher, that he still has access to the place where that joy came from.

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