Perfect Pitch

UPDATED 09/01/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/01/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

If rookie sensation Dontrelle Willis is looking to credit anyone for his baseball career, he might start with Mom. Even in utero the Florida Marlins pitcher was absorbing the game—thanks to his mother, Joyce Harris, a softball catcher (and ironworker) who was still playing when she was seven months pregnant. A few years later Harris, who raised Dontrelle in Alameda, Calif., began teaching him pitching. He proved so precocious that during one fourth-grade game, "the umpire jumped back," recalls pal Mazonie Franklin, "and said, 'Oh my God, a curveball!'" Most kids don't throw a curve until their teens.

These days Dontrelle is still having much the same effect. Since breaking in with the Marlins, the 6'4" lefty has been compared to such past pitching greats as Vida Blue and not just because of his Rockette-high leg kick and funky windup. "I can't be compared. I haven't earned the right," Willis demurs. "But I'm trying." The 21-year-old's sparkling 9-1 first-half record earned him a trip to the All-Star game. (As of press time, he's 11-3.) And his ebullient personality is proving equally winning. This is, after all, a kid who still bunks with a teammate and his wife, calls his mom almost every day and wears her name inside his cap. "There's a charm about him, that joy of being there," says FOX baseball analyst Tim McCarver. "He has all the makings of a star."

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