Willis inherits a social responsibility

Willis is proud to inherit a social responsibility

MIAMI -- If it wasn't for baseball, Dontrelle Willis doesn't have a clue what he would be doing with his life.

Raised in Alameda, Calif., Willis says the reason he became a baseball player was because of former Oakland A's pitching great Dave Stewart.

While the Florida Marlins' energetic 25-year-old left-hander couldn't tell you where he would be today if not for the game he loves, he does know what he would be missing. Willis notes if he weren't playing pro ball, he likely never would have ventured far from the San Francisco Bay Area.

Willis flat out says he wouldn't have ever seen Miami, where he lives year-round. And he points out that because of baseball, he's traveled the country, along with having played in tournaments in Japan.

So when the topic centers on promoting the game and seeing the sport grow, especially among African-Americans, Willis accepts being a role model. A recent study released by the University of Central Florida in Orlando showed just 8.4 percent of the Major League players in 2006 were black.

Willis is doing his part to help expand the game in all communities. Active in several charitable South Florida programs, the D-Train is involved with funding equipment for sandlot ball in Miami.

This month Major League Baseball is recognizing the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier.

To personally honor Robinson, Willis will wear No. 42 on April 15, which is a day he is not scheduled to pitch. Typically, the D-Train is No. 35. Commissioner Bud Selig invited all clubs to allow members to wear Robinson's universally retired No. 42 on Jackie Robinson Day.

When asked how the sport can increase its presence among African-Americans, Willis quickly said: "Promote more African-Americans in baseball.

"Beat it in people's heads. I think that's what our world is kind of built around. You could do more promoting the players in the game. They have guys like Minnesota's Torii Hunter -- guys who have been here and been doing it for a long time, and have been successful. And they have great charisma."

Willis, already the Marlins' all-time leader in victories with a 59-39 record, is among the most charismatic players in the game.

Since breaking into the big leagues, the left-hander was named National League Rookie of the Year in 2003, he's a two-time All-Star, a Cy Young Award runner-up, and he's won a World Series ring.

All this success has come primarily because he was inspired watching Stewart.

"I wouldn't have picked up a baseball if it wasn't for Dave Stewart," Willis said. "As much as he will shy away from that, that's the honest truth. If there was no Dave Stewart, I wouldn't be playing. Not at all."

What would he be doing?

"I have no idea," he said.

Through the years, Willis has developed a friendship with Stewart.

"He's so soft-hearted, and he's like, 'Come on, man.'" Willis said. "I told him, 'Hey, we planned dinners around you.' It was like, 'You better get home, Stew was on the mound.' It was big like that. Every time I go out to the mound, not only for my family, but I take that I'm African-American, and I take my race out there. That's why I play hard, and I slide, and I do all the things that I do, because I hope eventually it will rub off on somebody."

"I wouldn't have picked up a baseball if it wasn't for Dave Stewart. ... If there was no Dave Stewart, I wouldn't be playing. Not at all."
-- Dontrelle Willis

Willis and Stewart are part of an exclusive group that has been dubbed the "13 Black Aces," which signifies the 13 African-American pitchers in Major League history to win 20 or more games.

Jim "Mudcat" Grant, part of the club, came up with the name.

Willis was included when he won 22 games in 2005. Victory No. 20 came at RFK Stadium in Washington, and Willis quickly learned how much it meant to the other "Black Aces."

"To this day, it's one of the greatest days in my life to be part of that," Willis said. "There are only 13 of us. This is a small frat. Of the guys in the frat, I really believe I'm the worst one of all of them.

"Those guys are very passionate, and I believe they were happier with what I did than I was. I really, sincerely believe that."

Willis holds a reverence for baseball history and the game's all-time greats.

Not long ago, his admiration for a legend actually got into his head while he was on the mound.

Usually extremely focused when he is pitching, Willis admits his mind was a bit distracted one afternoon recently while facing the St. Louis Cardinals in Spring Training at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla.

Sitting in the Cardinals' dugout was Bob Gibson, the Hall of Famer and another member of the "13 Black Aces."

"All I could think about was Bob Gibson was watching in the dugout," Willis said. "I was like, 'Wow. I'm not even thinking about the hitters, I'm thinking about one of my idols.'

"Every time I rolled around first base, he was over there, just looking, the same way he was to hitters. It was like this mean look, like he wanted to get out on the mound."

Gibson's brilliant career ended seven years before Willis was born, but the D-Train still knows makes it clear about his feelings for the legendary pitcher.

"He had one of the lowest ERAs of all time," Willis said of Gibson's improbable 1.12 ERA in 1968. "I was born in '82, but I know who he is. He had like a 1.00 ERA. That's like Little League. Guys like Bob Gibson open doors. People appreciate him. You can tell him, this cat right here appreciates him."

Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.