We’ve all been told what it takes to become a great athlete. Drive, determination, heart, inspiration, perspiration, preparation, positive attitude, hard work, some talent, and so on. Oh yeah, some good coaching can help too. Want to become a great batter? According to The Superstar Hitter’s Bible, “hitter’s nirvana . . . comes from within.”
Yes, it mostly comes from disposition, greatness does. And that’s one reason we are so eager to transform winning quarterbacks and heat-throwing pitchers into our biggest (only?) public heroes.
What we forget — or perhaps don’t want to contemplate — is that our sports stars are much more the product of situation than we generally assume. A recent New York Times article about Reggie Willits helps underscore just how significant situation can be — from an understanding and supportive spouse and family to happenstance and from budget constraints to a home inside a batting cage. Together those situational factors plus some luck helped transform an undistinguished minor league prospect into the lead-off hitter of the division-leading Los Angeles Angels.
We have excerpted parts of the article by Lee Jenkins below.
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When Amber Willits is cooking dinner — crack! — or putting the baby to bed — crack! — or trying to get a little sleep herself — crack! — she has to wonder why she ever agreed to live in a batting cage.
“I may have thought that a few times,” she acknowledged. “But I never said it.”
Baseball wives are an understanding breed. They endure 12-day trips and meals at midnight, and move their families from minor league towns like Yakima, Wash., to Pulaski, W.Va.
But Amber Willits, the wife of Angels outfielder Reggie Willits, has taken hardball devotion to a new level. For the past three years, she has made a home, raised a son and helped develop a .300 hitter — all in an indoor batting cage.
“I could not have gotten here alone,” Reggie said. “I have an extremely supportive wife.”
At this time a year ago, he was a fringe prospect who had never started a major league game. Today, he is 26, the leadoff hitter for the first-place Los Angeles Angels, batting .337 with 18 stolen bases and a shot at the American League rookie of the year award.
He credits his emergence, at least in part, to the cage he calls home. While other players travel long distances to workout centers in the off-season, Willits merely has to roll out of bed and start taking his hacks.
“It’s very convenient,” said his father, Gene.
Reggie and Amber never planned to live in a cage. In 2003, they decided to build a 3,000-square-foot house on five acres they own next to his family in Fort Cobb, Okla. The batting cage happened to be the first part of the house that they built.
From the outside, it looks like a warehouse, 60 feet long and 32 feet wide. But inside, it has everything a baseball family would ever need: a place to eat, sleep and hit.
When houseguests open the front door, they see a small bathroom and kitchen on the right, and two sofas and a television set on the left. The floors are covered with Berber carpet. The dining room table is adorned with a vase of flowers. There are no closets.
Toward the back, the pitching machine, the weight room and the master bedroom are clustered together. “I did put in one wall,” Reggie said.
When he wants to bat, he pushes aside the sofas to form his personal playing field. He steps inside the net, suspended from the ceiling. If Amber is busy, he hits off a tee.
If she is free, she feeds balls into the pitching machine. Amber stands behind an L-Screen, the kind used to protect batting-practice pitchers. Still, line drives sometimes rip through the screen.
“I know she’s taken a few in the helmet,” said Mickey Hatcher, the Angels’ hitting coach. “But that’s part of the game.”
Two and a half years ago, the Willitses produced a bat boy, their son, Jaxon. They took him right from the hospital to the cage. Jaxon fell asleep to the whir of the pitching machine and the crack of the bat.
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The Willitses are staying in a hotel in Anaheim during the season, but Amber and Jaxon will go back to the cage this summer. In addition to helping Reggie with batting practice, Amber is an elementary-school counselor in Fort Cobb, and she cannot be gone all season.
Heading into spring training, the Angels knew they could count on veteran players like Vladimir Guerrero. Reggie, on the other hand, was just a kid in a cage.
He made the opening-day roster as a reserve, mainly because he could run. But after an injury in April to Garret Anderson, Reggie took over a starting outfield spot and never gave it up.
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Soon enough, Reggie will have his own house. He is making $382,500 this season, and in a few months, the place that he planned to build four years ago will be finished.
Gene Willits, the family contractor, announced proudly, “The batting cage will be a thing of the past.”
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