Tuesday March 29th, 2011

This past weekend, with little to do and nowhere to go, I dragged my 4-year-old son to the Westchester County Convention Center, where for a mere $7 we were granted entrance into the White Plains Sports Card Show.

There, within the confines of an enormous room, were tables upon tables of baseballs, baseball cards, baseball helmets, baseball jerseys.

There, within the confines of an enormous room, was LaMarr Hoyt.

Included in the admission price was an opportunity to receive a free autograph from the portly 56-year old who, after winning the 1983 AL Cy Young Award with a 24-10 record for the White Sox, quickly faded into oblivion. Hoyt enjoyed another three big league seasons, but a drug problem, along with ineffectiveness, ended his career at age 31.

Were there a truth serum available to the card show attendees, 99 percent surely would have admitted that, while attaining Hoyt's signature wasn't exactly a burden, it was hardly a draw. LaMarr Hoyts, alas, are a dime a dozen -- once-upon-a-time supernovas done in by time, troubles and ineffectiveness. The show's organizers were charging $5 for Hoyt glossy images -- and once he signed the pictures, their value, from a collector's standpoint, went down.

Which leads us to Dontrelle Willis.

In case you missed the news (and, sadly, it wasn't exactly big news), a couple of days ago the Cincinnati Reds reassigned Willis to their minor league camp. Willis, who was hoping to make the team as a lefthanded reliever, will begin the season with Triple-A Louisville after having walked 11 batters in 9 2/3 innings this spring. His 9.31 ERA hardly helped his cause. "Dontrelle was real close to making it 10 days, 10 weeks ago," Reds manager Dusty Baker told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "He kind of regressed a little bit."

Not all that far back, Willis served, arguably, as baseball's top starting pitcher and its most luminous beacon. In 2005, at the tender age of 23, he went 22-10 with a 2.63 ERA for the Florida Marlins, leading the National League in wins and narrowly losing out in Cy Young voting to St. Louis' Chris Carpenter. With his quirky delivery and thrilled-to-be-here, talk-to-anyone persona, he was the golden child of baseball; a reincarnation of Mark Fidrych, 25 years after the Bird's final major league pitch. Willis graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, found himself featured on HBO's Real Sports, was praised from coast to coast as everything right about a sport burdened by PEDs and arrogance and greed. He was Fernandomania and Super Joe Fever rolled into one.

Then, without much warning, he vanished.

Well, "vanished" is probably the wrong word. What happened to Willis is what happens to so many in his profession -- he lost it. His record fell to 12-12 in 2006, then 10-15 (with a 5.17 ERA) in 2007. There were no reported health issues (he started 34 games in '06, 35 games in '07), and his persona was as gregarious as ever. Something was simply ... off.

When the Tigers acquired Willis along with Miguel Cabrera before 2008, the thought was that, with a change of scenery, the results would improve. They didn't. Willis' 2 ½ seasons in Motown were disastrous: 22 total starts, a 2-6 record, uncorrectable wildness. He spent time on the DL because of an anxiety disorder; rehabbed after a leg injury; talked of better days and bouncing back and reclaiming the fun that had once packed his days.

Nothing.

Last June, in a what-do-we-really-have-to-lose? move, the Diamondbacks acquired Willis for another baffling/disappointing pitcher, Billy Buckner. The team handed Willis five starts, then washed their hands of him after one win and a 6.85 ERA. At age 28, baseball's brightest hope found himself on the curb, alongside yellowed newspapers and an empty six pack.

If you're human; if you have a heart that aches for the struggling -- you want this story to end happily. You want Dontrelle Willis to rediscover the magic and return to Cincinnati just in time to lead the Reds to the World Series. You want the giddy, happy-go-lucky kid from six years back to bound out of the dugout, smiling, laughing, joking, kidding.

You want a return to glory.

Yet you know -- in your gut -- the sad truth. Like LaMarr Hoyt before him, Dontrelle Willis is likely gone, destined to return a decade down the line.

When his autograph comes with an entrance fee.

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