By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Jeff DeWillis dug into the batter’s box at Comiskey Park with two outs in the top of the fifth inning with the Toronto Blue Jays trailing the Chicago White Sox 3-2.
One of his catching heroes, Carlton Fisk, was crouched behind the plate inches away, flashing signs to veteran left-hander Floyd Bannister.
Sure, the Sox southpaw had lost a tick or two off his fastball since he led the American League in strikeouts five seasons earlier, but Bannister could still dominate. In fact in this contest, he had retired the first 13 Blue Jays batters he had faced.
It was April 25, 1987 and DeWillis, in just his second major league start, peered out at Bannister for any hint of what he might throw.
Beyond the lefty, the Blue Jays rookie couldn’t miss Cecil Fielder taking his lead off second base. “Big Daddy” had doubled home Blue Jays first baseman Willie Upshaw two batters earlier.
And while DeWillis readied himself in the batter’s box, his mom, Evelyn, and step-dad, Bobby, sat anxiously in the crowd of 18,644 fans at the venerable Southside ballpark.
The count was 2-and-1 and Fisk relayed his sign to Bannister.
“He threw a changeup and it was high, right over the plate,” recalled DeWillis in a recent phone interview. “I really didn’t hit a ton of balls hard in my baseball career, but I hit that one well. I knew I hit it hard, but I wasn’t going to look at it. I’m thinking that’s a double and getting my tail to second base. But I remember after I rounded first base, I could see the umpire do the home run sign.”
The home run, unbeknownst to DeWillis, was a no-doubter that landed in the second deck in left field.
“I don’t remember hearing anything,” said DeWillis of rounding the bases. “It was like I was deaf. So I rounded the bases and I get in the dugout and the guys congratulate me. Then [Blue Jays teammate] Rick Leach says, ‘Come here.’ He says, ‘I need to tell you one thing: When you hit one like that, you take your time rounding the bases. You don’t sprint around the bases.’”
DeWillis chuckled and continued to celebrate in the dugout, but while he was doing that, his mom sprang into action to retrieve the home run ball. She gathered $20 from her husband and headed out to the upper deck.
She discovered that it was a man who was at the game with his son and two friends who had the ball.
“At first when she asked him about the ball, he was like, ‘Well, why do you want it?’ And then she said, ‘Well, that was my son who hit it and it was his first home run,” said DeWillis. “And so he bartered a little bit and he said, ‘Do you think maybe your son can get some autographs on this bat for my boy here? How about we trade?’”
So following the game, DeWillis’s mom was waiting eagerly outside the Blue Jays’ clubhouse.
“After the game, I see my mother and she says, ‘Jeff, come here. You have to go get this bat signed by some of the players,’” said DeWillis. “You see that man over there? He has your home run ball.”
The rookie backstop secured some autographs for the man who then turned over the ball.
That home run turned out to be DeWillis’s only major league round-tripper, so that ball and the story behind it has made it one of his most prized possessions.
Now 56 and working as a grade eight Social Studies teacher, while doubling as a football, basketball and soccer coach, at Santa Fe Junior High School in Texas, DeWillis is happily married to his wife, Lori, and they have a six-year-old daughter named Raelyn.
DeWillis is a delight to talk to. He talks humbly about his time in the big leagues, which consisted of 13 games with the Blue Jays in 1987. He caught his last professional pitch when he was 23, but there’s no trace of bitterness or sadness in his voice when he reflects on his pro career.
“I wouldn’t trade my time with the Blue Jays for the world,” said DeWillis. “I had 83 days in the big leagues. It was a cup of coffee, as they say. But I consider myself very fortunate. I’m blessed.”
And his students, family and friends are likely to say the same about knowing him.
DeWillis is the kind of guy who still visits his old high school coaches, volunteers at baseball clinics and speaks glowingly about his family, his students and ex-teammates. And by the end of a 90-minute interview with him, you feel like you’ve known him for 30 years.
“As a little boy, my dream was to have the opportunity to play a sport professionally and then go into coaching. And that’s what I’m doing now – coaching and teaching,” said DeWillis. “So as I’m talking to you right now, I can say I was very lucky that I was able to live out my dream.”
Born in 1965, DeWillis was raised in Pearland, Tex., which is about 15 miles south of downtown Houston. His dad, Allen, introduced him to baseball and helped him hone his skills at an early age and DeWillis credits his father for much of his athletic success.
In Little League, DeWillis was primarily a pitcher and an infielder. It wasn’t until his sophomore year at Pearland High School that he became a catcher.
“They had won the state championship the year before and they had graduated two catchers,” explained DeWillis. “The coaches thought I was a good athlete so they put me back there.”
DeWillis quickly took to the position.
“Catching was good for me because I was very hyper, so I probably would’ve went nuts standing in the outfield,” he said. “With catching, I was always in the game and once I started doing it, I more or less fell in love with it.”
Under high school coach Bill Bratcher, whom DeWillis still visits today, he developed into one of the top catching prospects in his state. But baseball wasn’t even his favourite sport. His first love was basketball and he was a standout 6-foot-2, All-District forward/guard on his high school squad.
It was his hoops coach, Larry Brandt, however, who advised him that baseball was his best route to a pro career.
“He pulled me aside and he said, ‘I know you love basketball, but if you want to go further in sports, you stay behind that plate in baseball,” said DeWillis
DeWillis took Brandt’s advice and by his senior year, scouts were regularly at his baseball games. He vividly recalls a visit from Blue Jays’ legendary scout Al LaMacchia who showed up during batting practice prior to DeWillis’s last home game in his senior year and offered him some advice on his stance and his swing.
“He said, ‘I just want you to turn your shoulder just a little bit.’ And I did and it felt good,” recalled DeWillis. “And I’ll be doggone if I didn’t hit a home run in the very last at bat of my high school career.”
DeWillis obviously impressed LaMacchia and the Blue Jays who selected him with their third pick (63rd overall) in the 1983 draft. The Blue Jays dispatched scouts Jim Hughes and Wayne Morgan to DeWillis’s parents’ place to sign him. They initially offered a $32,500 signing bonus, but the two sides eventually settled on $50,000.
DeWillis was sent to the Blue Jays’ Rookie Ball affiliate in Medicine Hat, Alta.
“I can recall leaving at some point that June and taking about six different flights and the last flight we flew from Calgary to Medicine Hat . . .. I don’t even know if there were 15 people on that plane and that thing rocked you around,” said DeWillis. “When I flew in on that, good God, I really had to hold my breath.”
The teenage catcher was homesick at first, but on his second day, he met Mark Dickman, a relief pitcher who had been drafted out of the University of Houston, and the two became fast friends.
Today, DeWillis has fond memories of Medicine Hat.
“I remember we walked to the ballpark from the Silver Buckle Hotel. That’s where they put all the players up,” he said. “I always say that one day I would like to go back and make that walk again just because the way we had to do it is that we had to walk through some neighborhoods and we stopped at a store and got some of those ice pop things (Mr. Freezies).”
DeWillis would bat .244 and belt five home runs in 73 games that season and he was promoted to class-A Kinston the following year.
In 1984, he topped Carolina League catchers in games (122) and putouts (848) and established himself as one of the top defensive catching prospects in the organization.
He began the 1985 season in Kinston again before he was promoted to double-A Knoxville where John McLaren was his manager.
“John McLaren was a former catcher, so we had a bond,” said DeWillis. “I give him a lot of credit for helping me out catching wise and learning the game at another level.”
In 1986, DeWillis was loaned to the Kansas City Royals’ double-A Memphis Chicks for 49 games at the start of the season before being transferred back to Knoxville
DeWillis was again assigned to double-A Knoxville in the spring of 1987, but when right-handed hitting catcher Matt Stark was sidelined with tendinitis in his throwing shoulder on April 16, DeWillis received his first big league call-up.
It was the first time DeWillis had been in Toronto and he remembers walking into Exhibition Stadium, which some have described as the worst ballpark of its era.
“I liked it,” said DeWillis of the stadium. “Hey, I was a 22-year-old kid playing in the big leagues. If they had asked me to play on concrete, I would’ve said, ‘Hey this is great.’”
The young catcher made his major league debut on April 19 when he came in as a defensive replacement and caught Mark Eichhorn and Tom Henke in the ninth inning in a Blue Jays’ 4-1 loss to the Boston Red Sox.
The next day, in his first major league start, he caught Dave Stieb as the Blue Jays took on Cleveland.
“I was nervous because I wanted to make sure I was calling a decent game and that he was not calling me off on every pitch,” recalled DeWillis.
Fortunately, DeWillis had caught Stieb in spring training and the two shared an interest in WWE wrestling, so they already had somewhat of a rapport.
“I can remember after the first inning of catching Dave Stieb, thinking, ‘This is fun. This is a blast,’” said DeWillis.
Unfortunately, Stieb wasn’t sharp, lasting only two innings in the Blue Jays’ eventual 8-7 win. But in the top of the second inning, DeWillis secured his first major league hit in his first at bat.
“The count went to 0-and-2 in that at bat,” recalled DeWillis. “And the second pitch was a fastball and I turned on it and I hit it foul and I believe it was out [had home run distance].”
Cleveland catcher Rick Dempsey then walked out to the mound to confer with lefty Scott Bailes.
“The next pitch was a changeup, and I’m so far out in front, but I hit it right off the end of the bat and the shortstop probably missed it by an inch when he jumped for it,” said DeWillis. “So I got the single and I got the ball.”
Five days later, DeWillis made his second start against the White Sox with Stieb on the mound again. It was in this contest that he clubbed his only major league home run.
“Tom Cheek did something very, very nice for me,” recalled DeWillis. “We were on the West Coast. We were out in Seattle, Oakland and Anaheim . . . And on the plane, Tom hands me this cassette. He said, ‘I made this for you. I want you to have it.’ It was his call of my home run. And I have that cassette to this day and that’s really, really special to me.”
DeWillis made 10 more appearances with the Blue Jays, but when the club acquired veteran right-handed hitting catcher Charlie Moore, he was sent back down to Knoxville in June.
He was recalled, however, for the September stretch run and caught bullpens and was in the dugout for one of the most devastating months in Blue Jays’ history that saw the team lose their final seven games and the division to the Detroit Tigers.
“I was heartbroken, especially for the players that had been playing there the whole year,” said DeWillis.
The following spring DeWillis attempted to make the transition from behind the plate to the mound.
“I called Bobby Mattick and I said, ‘I would like to try pitching.’ And I had to sell myself. I had to tell him, ‘Bobby, I think I can throw as well anybody in the minor leagues,’” said DeWillis. “So I go to spring training and I really enjoyed it. In spring training, I probably pitched about 11 or 12 innings and didn’t walk anybody. I could throw strikes and I developed a changeup. I threw a little slider or slurve.”
DeWillis was assigned to class-A Myrtle Beach, but unfortunately was released in April without his pitching career getting off the ground.
After spending 1988 at home, DeWillis decided to catch again and signed a minor league deal with the Oakland A’s, but that spring his passion for the game started to wane.
“I just didn’t feel it anymore,” said DeWillis, only 23 at the time. “I talked to myself and said, ‘Jeff, I don’t think you want to play minor league baseball for another 10 or 12 years. I don’t think that’s your goal. Your goal is to get back to the major leagues.’”
“So it was either A, let’s get this thing going or B, get out and go to college and do whatever it is you had planned after baseball,’” said DeWillis. “I chose the latter and I have absolutely no regrets.”
DeWillis returned home to work in the dealer trade department at Bill Heard Chevrolet in Sugar Land, Texas, coach baseball and work towards obtaining his teaching degree at the University of Houston.
“For the past 23 years, I’ve been an educator and I love it,” said DeWillis. “I love teaching. I love the middle school kids.”
Relentlessly positive and enthusiastic, DeWillis seems like just the type of teacher you’d want for your child.
“The kids that I teach sometimes say to me, ‘You’re just so upbeat all the time.’ I say, ‘I don’t make it a point. It’s just kind of my personality,’” said DeWillis. “Hey, I get tired like everyone else, but when you enjoy something, it’s kind of hard not to get excited about it.”
DeWillis is also upbeat when he talks about his family. He married his wife, Lori, in 2014 and they have a six-and-a-half year daughter named Raelyn, who’s clearly the apple of his eye.
On top of his teaching, coaching and spending as much time as he can with his family, DeWillis also serves as an instructor at MLB Players Alumni Association youth clinics in his region.
And it’s clear in talking to him that his baseball allegiance still lies with the Blue Jays.
“Anytime it’s jersey day at school, I wear my jerseys from Toronto that say DeWillis on the back,” he said.
The former catcher remains in touch with several of his former Blue Jays teammates, but hasn’t been back to Toronto since 1987.
“I would love to go back and I hope to do it before I pass,” said DeWillis. “It’s a bucket list thing to do – to go back and to take my family to a ball game.”
But even if he never makes it back to Toronto, you get the impression that DeWillis is content with his life. And who could blame him? After all, he hit a home run in the big leagues. He loves his teaching job. And he has a beautiful wife and daughter.
“I was able to live out a dream,” said DeWillis. “I wanted to play a sport professionally and then go into coaching. And, of course, I love teaching. I love being in the classroom. And I’ve got a beautiful wife and daughter.
“All I know is that I’ve been blessed. I’ve been very blessed and very lucky.”
Jeff DeWillis on some of his former Blue Jays teammates:
Jimmy Key – “Jimmy Key was such a joy to catch, wherever you put the glove, you didn’t have to move it much . . . He had that great curveball and for a catcher, his ball was not heavy, so it was easy to catch him.”
Dave Stieb – “Dave Stieb was always good to me. His slider was the most unusual thing I’ve ever seen. His slider did not break down like a normal slider. From what I remember, his slider seemed like it would break down and then it almost seemed like it would go parallel to the ground. I’d never seen anything like it.”
Tom Henke – “I loved catching Tom Henke. He threw the ball hard, but it was like catching a sponge ball because it wasn’t a heavy ball.”
Ernie Whitt – “Ernie was super. I had known him some in spring training. Ernie was very helpful to me . . . When people say, Ernie Whitt, I just think of a really nice guy. He was a really nice gentleman. He was a just a gentlemen who was really helpful to me when I was just this young rookie. He took me under his wing.”
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