Dontrelle Willis retired on Monday at the age of 30, bringing to an end one of the most baffling baseball careers of the past decade. The day before, Mark Prior, nursing an oblique strain, threw a bullpen session for the Pawtucket Red Sox. He hadn't pitched in a game since June 21, when he scuffled through an inning of relief work, walking three and giving up a run. I tend to think about Prior and Willis as a pair, despite their many differences—or more exactly, because of their many differences. They're the opposing poles in the game's spiritual landscape—robotic perfection vs. grinning exuberance—and for an amazing stretch in 2003, the two of them offered competing visions of how success could be attained. They made baseball feel ...bigger.
Willis was an eighth-round pick in the 2000 MLB amateur draft. He made his debut with the Florida Marlins on May 9, 2003, against the Colorado Rockies, pitching six innings and allowing three runs while striking out seven and walking two. Six years later, Willis would start a game for the Detroit Tigers in which he walked eight batters over the course of six innings, allowing six runs and losing the game. That game happened on June 14, and it would be Willis's last start of the season, as he would be placed on the DL with an anxiety disorder. Suddenly Willis couldn't find the plate, and even though he stayed in the league for a few years afterward, that last start of 2009 effectively ended his career.
Prior took a different path to the majors. The second overall pick in the 2001 draft, Prior was marked as The Next Great American Pitcher from the moment he was drafted. In 2003, his first full season with the Cubs, Prior managed to live up to those expectations. He won 18 games that year, while tallying
245 211 innings pitched and striking out more than a batter per inning. He seemed poised to dominate baseball for decades to come. Unfortunately, that season represented both the apex and nadir of Prior's career. It began with him striking out 12 batters in a shutout during his second start of the season, and it ended with him standing on the mound as the horrors of the Bartman game unfolded around him.
What was most striking about Prior's 2003 season was the way he looked while he tore unsmilingly through the league. He appeared to be less of a man than he was a carefully constructed cyborg whose sole purpose was to destroy batters with brutal efficiency. His body was sculpted in a way that pitchers' bodies aren't supposed to be, and his mechanics looked uncommonly pure and clean, something people often pointed to as evidence that Prior would never break down. Watching Prior throw was like watching the idealized form of a major league pitcher. I thought for sure that baseball's future was one in which every pitcher would look and throw exactly like Mark Prior. A league full of pitchers who were groomed and constructed from childhood for a singular purpose.
And then Dontrelle Willis arrived and showed me that a pitcher didn't have to be a slave to efficiency and emotional austerity. He showed me that a kid with a stupidly exaggerated leg kick, one that was invented during games of backyard baseball, and a junker's pitching repertoire could dominate the league, too. In June 2003, Willis went 5-0, pitching two shutouts and finishing the month with a 1.04 ERA.
Willis never seemed like a real pitcher when he was on the mound, but more like a kid who had just recently decided that pitching might be kind of fun and maybe he'd like to fuck around on the mound and strike some people out. Where other pitchers expressed method and purpose through their delivery, Willis was all improvisation and bubbling energy. He'd cock his front leg up above his head and contort his body in such a comical fashion because why the hell shouldn't he? For Willis, the baseball field was a space for expression, not for the cold anxiety that comes from trying to conquer an unconquerable game. He became the stylistic antidote to Prior's stripped-down aesthetics. I loved to watch Dontrelle Willis play.
Today, of course, we know that neither Willis or Prior would go on to find lasting success in baseball, each having their careers derailed in ways that were heartbreakingly ironic: Prior, the perfected form of a pitcher, done in by crumbling ligaments; Willis, the overgrown kid who bounced and bubbled on and around the mound, brought low by worry and anxiety.
I know that whenever I think of either of these men, I will also think of the other, and I will remember how each captured different corners of my attention during the summer of 2003. And then I will remember that baseball is indeed the cruelest of sports, that it can break both children and machines.