Selected by the Cubs in the eighth round of the 2000 amateur draft, Willis spent two successful seasons in the minors before getting traded to the Florida Marlins. In 2003, he made his big league debut.
--And What a debut it was!
The 21 year old left-hander with the high leg kick and buoyant personality went 14-6 with a 3.30 ERA, earning Rookie of the Year honors while helping his club to a World Series upset of the New York Yankees. After an off-year in '04, he returned to form, leading the National League in wins (22), complete games (7) and shutouts (5). It was a feel-good story. The son of a single mother who worked as a welder had become the most dynamic hurler in the game.
--And he hadn't even celebrated his 25th birthday yet!
In the years that followed, it became clear that something was wrong. Willis's earned run average rose more than 100 points in '06. He had difficulty finding the plate and began to experience problems off the field as well. In a highly publicized incident, he was arrested for driving under the influence. It was all downhill from there. By 2007, he was no longer a reliable starter. Cast adrift by the Marlins, he wound up in Detroit, where he fashioned a stratospheric ERA and began a long series of minor league stints. In 2009, a mental health diagnosis surfaced as Willis was placed on on the disabled list with Social Anxiety Disorder.
People with SAD have an irrational fear of being judged or evaluated and worry incessantly about embarrassing themselves. The anxiety created by the illness is acute enough to interfere with daily functioning. Physical symptoms include profuse sweating, trembling hands, muscle tension and a racing heart. SAD is one of the most common mental disorders with up to 13% of the population experiencing symptoms at some point in their lives.
Willis's diagnosis had been made in the absence of any apparent symptoms and he disputed it. "Even when I went on the DL, I felt fine," he told reporters. "I'm not a depressed guy. Maybe I'm hard on myself, but I wouldn't have gotten here if I wasn't...As far as how I feel, I don't have a condition." Regardless of Willis's perception of the situation, he has yet to get back on track. He retired in frustration after compiling an 0-5 record with Cincinnati in 2011. In January of 2013, he decided to give it another try, signing a minor league contract with the Cubs. He posted an unwieldy 6.43 ERA at the Triple-A level and was granted free agency.
Whether or not Willis's story will have a happy ending is unknown at this point, but he is not alone. In 2009, Reds' first baseman Joey Votto suffered debilitating panic attacks after the death of his father. He sought medical attention twice. The following year, he was named NL MVP. Pitcher Zack Grienke nearly quit baseball due to depression and anxiety early in his career. With the help of counseling and anti-depressants, he went on to capture a Cy Young Award with the Royals in 2009. One can only hope that one day Willis will return to his former glory. At the time of this writing, he was only 31 years old.