Dontrelle Willis: The Crossroads

I feel for Dontrelle Willis.

The 2005 National League Cy Young award-winner has reached an impasse in his career, a crossroads. Having won only a single game over the past two seasons, the 27-year-old is currently in the minor leagues, after last pitching for the Detroit Tigers earlier this season. His hindrance? An anxiety disorder, finally diagnosed this year, after two seasons of futility.

Tigers brass, including manager Jim Leyland, have expressed guarded optimism in the press. But if history is any indication, Willis’ return to prominence, let alone the majors, is no sure thing.

Willis is the latest and most notable member of a sad subculture in baseball: Those players whose careers derailed for reasons mental, not physical. In recent years, Mark Wohlers and Rick Ankiel have been two high-profile cases of former top pitchers who mysteriously lost their control. Things got so bad for Ankiel that he had to become an outfielder. Baseball is something of a conservative establishment, not always as tolerant as it should be of affliction. One can only wonder how many other players suffer in silence, not eager to attract unwanted attention and make things worse.

Three decades ago, Pittsburgh Pirates staff ace Steve Blass experienced a similar career implosion on the mound. The hero of the 1971 World Series, Blass fell out of the majors within a few years, as he lost all pitching command. Roger Angell chronicled Blass’s downfall in a 1975 story in the New Yorker. The story depicted Blass attempting to save face.

“You know, this thing that’s happened has been painted so bad, so tragic,” Blass was quoted as saying in the piece. “Well, I don’t go along with that. I know what I’ve done in baseball, and I give myself all the credit in the world for it. I’m not bitter about this. I’ve had the greatest moments a person could ever want.”

Angell wasn’t sold, as he wrote in the story.

All this was said with an air of summing up, of finality, but at other times that evening I noticed that it seemed difficult for Blass to talk about his baseball career as a thing of the past; now and then he slipped in the present tense — as if it were still going on.

Blass never pitched another game. Just as Lou Gehrig has a disease named after him, Steve Blass Disease, according to Wikipedia, “is applied to talented players who inexplicably and permanently seem to lose their ability to accurately throw a baseball.”

Granted, there are occasional success stories. John Smoltz turned his career around after going to see a psychologist at the 1991 All-Star break. And Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn became a strikeout sensation with just a pair of glasses. But the latter is a character from the film “Major League.”

One of my favorite writers is the noted essayist Joan Didion, who went to the same high school I attended in Sacramento, albeit 50 years before me. In the preface to her classic 1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion describes her own battle to overcome neurosis.

I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralysed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.

Hopefully for Willis’ sake, he too can come to these terms.

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