Jimmy Rollins and Dontrelle Willis grew up in the same town, attended the same high school and both had mothers who played professional softball. They have long traded barbs about who is better — Rollins, for the record, is only a career .239 hitter in 63 at-bats against Willis — and fostered a kinship as two Bay Area African Americans playing baseball.
But they've never been teammates until now.
"He was probably more excited about the deal than I was," Willis said of Rollins.
Willis officially became a Phillie on Thursday when he passed his physical. The Phillies signed the former rookie of the year to a one-year deal for $850,000. Performance incentives could push his salary above $1 million.
For the first time in his career, Willis will be a reliever, one the Phillies hope can successfully retire lefthanders. The soon-to-be 30-year-old said he had interest from a handful of other teams and could have possibly remained a starter elsewhere.
The allure of Philadelphia — and a possible reunion with Rollins — was too enticing.
"I wanted to win," Willis said, "and what better ballclub to be with than Philadelphia? So at this point in my career, that's what it's all about; enjoying the game and having fun."
Playing with Rollins would be a bonus. The longtime Phillies shortstop remains unsigned, but indications are that the two sides will eventually reach an accord. Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has engaged Rollins' agent, Dan Lozano, in negotiations since last week's winter meetings. Both sides are steadfast in their demands, despite the market all but evaporating for shortstops.
Willis said he talks to Rollins often. At Encinal High in Alameda, Calif., the two were never teammates. Willis played with Rollins' younger brother, Antwon. But Willis remembers shagging for Rollins during batting practice and watching Rollins learn to switch hit with instruction from his father.
Willis spoke Thursday like it's all but guaranteed he'll play alongside Rollins in 2012.
"It's pretty surreal to come full circle," Willis said. "I think our families are more excited for this than we are."
With Willis' signing, the Phillies have committed $124 million to 15 players for 2012.
Read more in Friday's Inquirer about Willis' role next season.