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Dontrelle Willis Will Get Back to You

This afternoon, before the Tigers open a three-game series with the Oakland A's, Dontrelle Willis will pitch in another simulated game (as will Freddy Garcia). Jim Leyland was "very happy" with Willis showing in that simulation, especially in terms of velocity and delivery, so you'd have to think a strong follow-up effort would strengthen Leyland's resolve to put the D-Train in a major league game.

If Willis gets the nod to rejoin Detroit's starting rotation, however, we'll probably have to hear that news from the Tigers' manager. According to a story in Saturday's New York Times, Willis isn't talking to the press.

Willis, who was promoted from Lakeland to Class AAA Toledo on Aug. 13, then called up to the Tigers last Tuesday, has been mum about what is wrong. His agent Paul Cobbe said in an e-mail message on Aug. 18 that Willis would do a telephone interview the next day, but Willis never called the reporter. After a poor Class AAA outing in Norfolk on Aug. 20, Willis would not talk. A day later, he declined another interview request. On Friday night, with the Tigers in Minneapolis to play the Minnesota Twins, Willis again declined to speak with a reporter.

Of course, Willis isn't obligated to speak with the media. And maybe he feels that there's really nothing to say. The fact that the Tigers sent Willis down to the minors, after trading for him and signing him to a $29 million extension, speaks for itself. As the popular saying goes these days, it is what it is. Willis has toiled in Lakeland and Toledo to rebuild himself, refine his delivery, rehabilitate his injuries, and perhaps shed some bulk. When that project is completed, he'll return to the majors. Again, the roster move speaks for itself.

The whole scenario, however, still provides some intrigue, which the NY Times' story touches on. How does someone who's reached the heights of major league glory handle a plummet to the sport's lowest minor league levels? According to Willis's buddy Juan Pierre, the D-Train is rolling along just fine. And as far as the social aspects of playing in the low minors, a 26-year-old hanging out with a bunch of kids fresh out of high school or college, that's going well too. He's been something of a Papa Tiger.

In his two months in Class A, Willis made quite an impression on his teammates. Nearly all of them were fresh out of high school or college and made about $1,000 a month. Willis, who had received a three-year, $29 million contract extension from Detroit, became the team’s benefactor. He bought dozens of pregame and postgame meals for his teammates — and occasionally for opponents.

“We don’t get nothing in the Florida State League,” Jeramy Laster, a center fielder for the Lakeland team, said. “Popsicles, a slice of ham, peanut butter and jelly, that’s pretty much it for food.”

Willis even doubled as the team’s clubhouse attendant.

“He bought us shampoo, soap, deodorant, all the stuff we are supposed to have in the locker room,” Laster, 23, said. “He was our big brother.”

Baseball tradition and courtesy usually dictates that the far higher-paid major leaguer takes care of his lower-salaried teammates when he shares a clubhouse and field with them. But rehab assignments usually only last a week or so. Willis has been playing sugar daddy for nearly three months. It seems to confirm what everyone thought about him, that he's a nice guy who's just fallen on some hard times.

Hopefully, Tigers fans get to see that, as Willis has the kind of personality and demeanor that should make him a star in Detroit. And maybe once this reconstruction project is over, and the D-Train starts chugging at a major league level again, he'll finally sit down and tell his story to whomever wants to hear it.