The D-Train leaves the station

We can’t change the past. All we can do is look back and wonder what might have been.

In September of 2003, I found myself in a card shop on Cape Cod. I wasn’t really looking for anything in particular, but I saw something in a display case that stopped me cold.

Rookie cards are always prized in card collecting–and I still don’t understand why–but a Dontrelle Willis rookie card probably never held any more value than in late 2003, and there it was, in all its glory. And I wouldn’t even be telling this story if he wasn’t decked out in a Cubs uniform on the card.

The Cubs drafted the D-Train back in 2000, and traded him away to the Florida Marlins in 2002. There were other parts to the trade, but essentially the Cubs traded away Willis and got Matt Clement in return. An interesting trade, but not an earth-shaking one.

Both pitchers fared pretty well with their new teams. Clement went 14-12 in 2003, with an ERA of 4.11. Willis matched him in wins and had a better season overall, posting a 14-6 record and a 3.30 ERA on his way to winning the National League’s Rookie of the Year. And that’s why his card caught my attention that day back in 2003.

There wasn’t any way that Willis was going to jump ahead of Kerry Wood or Mark Prior in 2003, but he would have been an interesting part of the Cubs starting rotation. We may remember Clement as being a pretty good pitching option that year, but I’ll take Willis’ numbers that year over Clement’s any time.

And then there is the matter of their head-to-head matchup in Game 4 of the NLCS that year, on a Saturday afternoon in Miami. It was the last postseason game that the Cubs have won, and they did it by roughing up Willis early.

Matt Clement took the mound for the first time that day with a 4-0 lead, thanks to an Aramis Ramirez grand slam. A less-than-stellar outing by Willis probably gave some people the impression that the Cubs had won that trade, but who’s to say that Willis would have fared so poorly in a Cubs uniform that day?

Or for that matter, who’s to say that Willis’ seven-start winning streak in the first part of the season–while the Marlins were still several games under .500–wasn’t an important part of keeping the Marlins afloat? Jack McKeon came in and righted the Marlins’ ship, but Dontrelle Willis kept the team from falling too far out of contention before that happened.

And maybe we’ve forgotten that Dontrelle Willis was on the mound in what will forever be known as That Game, on that horrible Tuesday night in Wrigley Field. Willis didn’t start that game, but he came on in relief of Carl Pavano in the bottom of the sixth inning.

In that pivotal seventh inning–right after the late Bernie Mac told us to “root, root, root for the champions–Willis was on the mound once again. He gave up a single to Paul Bako to lead off the inning, and then came what hindsight shows us was the big moment.

Before we all said “five outs to go!,” and before Juan Pierre doubled with one out, and before Luis Castillo hit that twisting foul ball into the stands…FOCUS, HARRIS, DON’T DO THIS TO YOURSELF AGAIN…before everything that unfolded in the eighth inning, Dusty Baker sent Mark Prior up to the plate against Dontrelle Willis. Prior dutifully bunted Bako over to second, and I’m sure he received a hero’s ovation on his way back to the dugout. He WAS our hero back in 2003, after all.

But if Dusty Baker had only rolled the dice, things might have been different. Sending up a pinch-hitter for Prior to hit against Willis in that situation would have been a gutsy call, and would have earned Baker plenty of grief. But then again, it couldn’t have turned out any worse than what actually happened, could it?

It’s now been well over decade since that awful night, and I had frankly forgotten that the D-Train was still out there, trying to catch on in somebody’s organization. But today he threw in his hand and announced his retirement at 33.

What would have been different if the Cubs had held onto him for longer than they did? Sadly, we’ll never know the answer to that. But as I said at the outset, we sure can wonder about it.

R. Lincoln Harris is a guest contributor for Wrigleyville Nation. He also writes for BlueBattingHelmet.Wordpress.com, ChicagoSideSports.com, ThroughTheFenceBaseball.com, and FiveWideSports.com. Thanks R. Lincoln for the contribution!

Photo: Dontrelle Willis / Keith Allison / CC BY 2.0 / Alteration: Cropped