Jack McKeon still remembers the time in San Diego when he went to the mound to chew out Dontrelle Willis. It was McKeon’s second game after taking over as manager of the Marlins, and Willis — then a 21-year-old rookie with a funky delivery — was in line for his first big-league victory.
The year was 2003.
“I’m trying to get you your first win, and you’re out here screwing around!” McKeon barked. “Throw the damn ball!”
Willis did as ordered, and he and the Marlins prevailed, thus launching the meteoric rise of one of the most popular players in team history and the Marlins’ ascent to a World Series title.
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On Friday, though, the end of the line came for the player nicknamed the “D-Train.”
Willis, 33, informed the Milwaukee Brewers that he intended to retire following yet another unsuccessful comeback attempt. He battled a neck injury and had not appeared in a game this spring.
“Baseball’s lost a colorful character,” McKeon said. “He was great for the game. I hate to see him quit so early, and I wish he could have had more success after he left here. But, unfortunately, those things happen.”
Willis was involved in two of the most significant trades in team history, the first when the Marlins acquired him from the Chicago Cubs and the second when they dealt him to the Detroit Tigers along with Miguel Cabrera.
Perhaps no player in Marlins history was as popular as Willis was during his five seasons in South Florida, where fans turned out just to watch him pitch and he became a national sensation.
After winning nine of his first 10 decisions and finishing with a record of 14-6, Willis was named the National League Rookie of the Year in ’03, sparking the Marlins to the franchise’s second World Series title.
He enjoyed his best season in 2005, when he went 22-10 and finished second in voting for the Cy Young Award.
“He brought an energy that I don’t think anybody in Miami had seen before,” said Marlins manager Mike Redmond, who was Willis’ teammate.
But after the Marlins traded him to Detroit following the 2007 season, his career fizzled. Bouncing from one team to another, vainly searching for the magic that had made him so successful, Willis struggled to find the plate. He went just 4-15 with a 6.15 ERA after the trade and walked more batters than he struck out.
“It puzzles me,” McKeon said of Willis’ sudden free-fall from stardom.
Willis’ years for the Marlins, though, were notable.
Willis went 68-54 with the Marlins. He ranks second on the team’s all-time wins list, is first in complete games with 15 and is tied for first in shutouts. Willis not only dazzled on the mound, he could also hit and field. His eight home runs are the most by a Marlins pitcher, five more than the second player on the list.
He played the game with such enthusiasm that, at one point, he was instructed by coaches to stop sliding head-first into bases for fear he might sustain an injury.
“When he was here, he was absolutely spectacular,” Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria said. “He was electric and had a magnetic personality, one of our all-time favorites.”
Said McKeon: “He was so much fun.”
Mat Latos acted like it was no big deal.
But the Marlins had to be happy with what they saw Friday in the pitcher’s Grapefruit League debut, which had been slow in coming.
Latos, whose debut was pushed back after the Marlins decided they wanted to first see him throw in a simulated game, turned in three scoreless innings in a 6-3 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.
“Not throwing in a game with adrenaline, to going out there and throwing against those guys, you kind of fight in the back of your head to try to be too fine against a good-hitting ball club like that, and then you find yourself in trouble,” said Latos, who walked two on Friday while also striking out a pair.
The Marlins acquired Latos from Cincinnati in December for prospects Anthony DeSclafani and Chad Wallach.
▪ The Marlins made their first round of cuts on Friday, trimming six players from their spring training roster. Assigned to minor-league camp were pitchers Brian Ellington and Ryan Reid, infielders Justin Bohn and Viosergy Rosa, and catcher Shrif Othman. Left-handed reliever Grant Dayton was optioned to Triple A New Orleans.