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Angels journeyman still fielding his dream

Reggie Willits, 30, has been demoted from Anaheim to Salt Lake, the Angels' top farm team, nine times in the last five years. His career has been a roller coaster, but he doesn't want off the ride.

September 04, 2011|By Mike DiGiovanna
  • Bees outfielder Reggie Willits gets ready to take the field with his teammates before a recent game.
Bees outfielder Reggie Willits gets ready to take the field with his teammates… (Brent Asay / Salt Lake Bees )

Reporting from Salt Lake City -- It is five hours before game time and Spring Mobile Ballpark, the picturesque home of the minor league Salt Lake Bees, is empty except for two figures on the field.

Reggie Willits, wearing a gray T-shirt and black athletic shorts with No. 7 on one thigh, is at the plate, bat in hand, honing his craft with a hitting coach.

For Willits, 30, an outfielder unassuming in character and undersized at 5 feet 9 and 185 pounds, this does not involve slugging baseballs over the fence; in 414 major league games, he has never hit a home run.

Instead, he spends 45 minutes bunting balls toward third base and first, polishing one of the fundamental skills he used to carve out a niche as a valued Angels reserve from 2007 until this past June.

For every familiar leading man like Torii Hunter, the Angels' right fielder who is guaranteed $18 million a season for five years, there are dozens of bit players like Willits whose survival depends on a mastery of nuances such as bunting, pinch running or being a step quicker on defense.

The stars have job security, but the reserves are always looking over their shoulder, agonizing over every mistake and hoping management doesn't find a younger or cheaper alternative.

Willits, who earned his major league salary of $775,000 more by determination than talent, has been demoted from Anaheim to Salt Lake, the Angels' top farm team, nine times in the last five years. His once-promising career with the club now hangs by a thread.

On June 4, he was demoted from the team's 25-man major league roster. In late August, when the Angels needed a spot for an extra pitcher, he was bumped again, this time from the 40-man roster, which is composed of the best players in the organization, major leaguers and minor leaguers.

The move, Willits says, "was like getting punched between the eyes" and a sure sign the team will not offer him a major league contract next season.

It wasn't that long ago when injuries to two Angels regulars gave Willits his big break and he started 118 of 162 games. That was in 2007, and he was a sparkplug in the leadoff spot, hitting .293 and scoring 74 runs to help the team win the American League West title.

Willits finished fifth in AL rookie-of-the-year voting that season and drew comparisons to David Eckstein, the catalyst of the Angels' 2002 World Series championship team.

His hard-nosed, unselfish play and old-school appearance — Willits chose jersey No. 77, had a crew cut and wore his red socks up to his knees — made him a favorite in Anaheim, where fans gave him enthusiastic ovations.

But now the Angels have at least five outfielders ahead of him, with highly paid veterans Hunter, Vernon Wells and Bobby Abreu signed for 2012 or beyond, plus two faster and more physically gifted youngsters in Peter Bourjos, 24, and Mike Trout, 20.

Still, Willits' loyalty to the Angels has not wavered.

"When I get sent down," Willits says, "it's not the Angels' fault. It's mine. In a sense, I've failed."


Willits grew up in the ranching town of Fort Cobb, Okla. (population 633), and never attended a big league game. But, he says, "all I dreamed about when I was running up and down those old dusty roads, and there was nobody around for miles, was playing in the major leagues."

He met Amber Klugh in the sixth grade and they began dating in high school. They graduated in a senior class of 20, went to the University of Oklahoma together and got married after their sophomore year. They celebrated their 10-year anniversary in July.

Willits was drafted by the Angels in 2003 and started playing professional ball that summer for the club's rookie-league team in Provo, Utah. In 2005, he was with the double-A Arkansas Travelers. Money was so tight, Amber says, she decorated the couple's tiny one-bedroom apartment in Little Rock with lawn chairs.

She didn't complain then or in 2008, when Reggie asked her to quit her treasured job as a guidance counselor so the family could be with him in Anaheim. Nor did she complain later that year when he was sent to Salt Lake and all four of them — they have two young boys — lived in a hotel room for a few weeks before he was called back to the Angels.

Willits frets that his baseball career has taken a toll on his family. They've had to live apart for much of that time, and for the last three years they've had to deal with the uncertainty of where he would be playing.

"I feel like I've let my family down by constantly being sent back, because I haven't done my job the way I should have," he says from the living-room couch of their rental in Salt Lake City. As he speaks, 6-year-old Jaxon is on his lap and 3-year-old Eli is at his feet. Amber, who is seven months pregnant, sits on a love seat.

"I don't feel like he's let me down," Amber says. "He knows that I don't care where we're at, what we're doing. I'll do whatever we need to do to get through this."

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