CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. -- "I'm not a complex dude," Dontrelle Willis told me following his latest start Monday night for the independent Atlantic League Long Island Ducks. We were chatting in the hallway leading to the Ducks' clubhouse, the brick walls a study in orange and green. "I get in trouble when I'm complex. That's the thing that hinders me, the stay back, and tell about my thought process -- man, just throw the ball. Just throw the ball and compete, man."
Once again on Monday, that's what Willis did. A pitcher who won 22 games in 2005, but who now needs to prove he can throw strikes simply to return to the major leagues, Willis walked one batter all night while throwing seven innings of one-run baseball, striking out five Bridgeport Bluefish. Over his last three starts, he's now walked three in a complete-game shutout, two over six innings, and then Monday night's outing, when he began the game by getting first-pitch strikes on 10 of the first 11 hitters.
Willis is keeping his trade secrets. But nothing is so simple in the Atlantic League, a competitive league simultaneously serving as a means for players to get to other leagues. Whether Willis is really so carefree with his future, or whether his game plan actually flows so freely is another matter -- his catcher, Ralph Henriquez, acknowledged that Willis rarely shook him off. But he's not remotely circumspect about what the goal is.
"Everybody wants to be in the big leagues," Willis said, his animated expression turning serious. "I wouldn't want to play with anybody that doesn't. You know, to be honest with you. And if they tell you they're not, they're bull----ters, excuse my language... Everybody wants to play at the highest level."
And that's the glory of the Atlantic League. There are former big leaguers, and there are young players who were jettisoned by MLB organizations before getting to the show. Everybody here is a Duck, or a Bluefish, or a Camden Rivershark, because all 30 major league baseball teams decided these players didn't have a place in their plans, not now, probably not ever.
Plenty of players get this message and retire. Others are absolutely convinced Major League Baseball is wrong. The best of these players are in the Atlantic League. And every game, every at-bat, every pitch, is vital to them all, because none of them know if the next pitch is what will catapult them back to organized baseball, or rob them of their final chance.
By the way, these guys aren't delusional. Quite the contrary. Plenty of Atlantic League players are plucked from the league's rosters by M.L.B. organizations, happily proven wrong. And much of the time, these are players with a good reason for their absence.
"Oh, wow," said Ducks first baseman Ben Broussard, seeming almost surprised that I wanted to hear his reason for a two-year break from the majors Monday afternoon. "It's a long story."
For Broussard, the idea of going back to Triple-A in 2009 was unappealing, after four seasons with at least 16 home runs. At age 32, with a four-year-old and a one-year-old, Broussard said it felt like time to go home to Austin, Texas, and give his wife, who'd put her career on hold to travel with Broussard to many major and minor league destinations, the chance to work while he spent more time with his children.
"It was great, because I was getting all this time with my kids," Broussard said, smiling as he said the word kids. "I felt like our life was right where it needed to be, and I knew that baseball would just disrupt it. And she put ten years in there with me, chasing me all around."
But Broussard's wife didn't object, he says. Just the opposite.
"She was 100 percent behind me, supporting me. She said, 'My best memories in life were doing baseball, I'm all for it.' I said, 'Even if we have to go to Mexico?' She said, 'Even if we have to go there.'"
That was last July. By the fall, his children, both now old enough to see him play baseball and understand what it meant, watched as he hit a home run in the Mexican League. He rounded the bases and saw his older daughter, seven years old, applauding with tears in her eyes, proud of her father.
"My daughter's jumping up and down, welling up, because she's just so overcome," Broussard said, recalling the home run. "I could see her. They always make a point to sit by me. And this is something we're all going to remember for the rest of our lives."
Broussard already had a solid big league career. But Willis is at a different level of fame, still earning gasps of recognition -- "Is that Dontrelle Willis?" one boy of about 12 excitedly asked his friends a few rows in front of me Monday. There's excitement that he's here, along with curiosity about why, exactly, he's here.
Everybody's got a story.
In Willis' case, it was as simple as losing command of his pitches, including his fastball. He'd never been a big strikeout pitcher, with his 6.5 strikeouts per nine in 2005, his best season, coming in right around his career average of 6.6 per nine. But he walked just 2.1 per nine that year, while pitching deep into games, confounding hitters with a windup that made it appear he was about to kick his own face, and displaying an endlessly entertaining athleticism that helped him become a threat at the plate, a dangerous pick-off artist, and a joy to watch.
But Willis' walks creeped up, then skyrocketed in stops with the Tigers, Giants, Reds and Orioles. He suffered from anxiety and panic attacks. It was a steep fall for a pitcher who looked like a good candidate to be one of the defining talents of the last decade.
So now he's here, eager to get back.
Ramon Castro, with a story of his own, remembers what Willis looked like when the two played together for the Marlins, and believes he can be as effective now.
"That guy is ready," Castro said as we sat and talked on a couch, Castro reclining in a Ducks' t-shirt hours before he caught the second game of Monday's doubleheader. "It's too bad to see a guy wasted here. A lefty? He should be helping bullpens, or starting."
Castro, a power-hitting catcher with a slugging-heavy career O.P.S. of .734, looks like he can help teams, too. He's dropped 40 pounds over the past year. After missing the second half of 2011 and all of 2012 following surgery on his broken hand, he signed with the Dodgers this spring, but saw he wasn't getting at-bats in spring training games, and figured the same would be true of a 37-year-old catcher at Triple-A.
He asked for his release, signed with the Ducks, and is playing regularly. He's 37, but he's well-rested, in great shape, and has just 567 major league games on his legs.
"I'm playing more here to prove that I'm healthy," Castro said. "That's the key for me, because people know what I can do when I get there."
That isn't the case for Willis. But the wheels were turning all night, whether he admitted it or not. He retired Stantrel Smith on a curve to end a seven-pitch battle, and armed with that information, used it to get ahead of Smith in each of his subsequent at-bats. He saw Prentice Redman chase a four-seam fastball off the plate, and went back to that pitch repeatedly against Redman.
"That situation, I just wanted him to see my best fastball," Willis said of the Redman at-bats. "Mano-a-mano, and just have fun with it, and may the best man win."
Castro believes the approach of the league is helping to focus Willis on his command.
"I've caught him here," Castro said of Willis. "He's aggressive. People gonna swing. They're different here. Here, everybody swings. You gotta throw strikes... And he can control his fastball now."
Willis did that, and the Bluefish acquiesced. Of his 95 pitches, 62 were for strikes. And he threw 20 pitches, total, in the final three innings.
But exactly what is it that allows players to get picked up by major league organizations? That is treated by one and all here as an almost mystical question.
"This league was founded to be similar to a showcase league," Ducks General Manager Michael Pfaff explained prior to Monday's first game. "Like what the Pacific Coast League was in the '50s." But he was at a loss for what combination of numbers, the right performance before the right scout at the right time, or just organizational need is what leads to getting the call. He said he's seen plenty of players who deserved it, like Somerset's Jake Fox, get passed over, and vice versa.
He's surprised that Castro was even available to him, given the lack of power options who play catcher. His inkling that Broussard could still hit, despite the long layoff, has been handsomely rewarded, with Brousard hitting .338 and eight home runs in his first 35 games. Ian Snell, another pitcher who missed a year dealing with personal demons, is striking out better than a batter per inning, operating, at his request, out of the bullpen. And Pfaff doesn't expect Willis, if he keeps pitching like this, will lack a major league job for long.
In the meantime, Willis will go out every fifth day, whether in front of three major league scouts as he did last week in Camden against the Riversharks, or Monday night in a makeup game that started at 6:05 and featured a small, late-arriving crowd.
Broussard's wife and kids are up from Austin to join him for the summer, now that school's out. Castro's three daughters are with their grandmother in Puerto Rico. Last year, he'd often take them to school. This year, he's going after the chance to play Major League Baseball one more time, living with his wife in a nearby hotel. The big trip they have planned? A day in New York City.
"We'll go to Times Square, walk around a little bit," Castro said. "My wife, she'll want to go shopping."
But he'll also play baseball, repeatedly, for very little pay (the league typically pays a few thousand dollars per month), in the high heat. And he'll do so, as will Broussard, as will Snell, as will Willis, without knowing when or if the call will ever come to justify the entire reason they're doing it. But exactly how to get picked?
"S--, if I knew that, I'd be picked!" Willis said, laughing. But as Pfaff put it, "They know the phone's not gonna ring if they're sitting at home."
So Willis, Snell, Castro, Broussard and the rest of the Ducks press on.
"If I wasn't having fun, I'd stay home," Castro said. "This is the only thing I know how to do: play baseball. I'm born for this. To play. Right now I'm here, but I keep working -- I told you, it happens. Something has to happen. I believe something gonna happen."