Josh Willingham had dreams about his baseball career growing up, big ones. The kind of can-you-imagine fantasies that boys in Little League uniforms like to make-believe about but coaches who know how long the odds actually are try not to encourage too much. Sure, you'll get there someday, they say half-heartedly, just keep working hard.
Willingham, a precocious and accomplished athlete from the time he first picked up a bat, had such a dream. But he never achieved it.
"Growing up, I wanted to go to Alabama. That's where I always wanted to play," the 32-year-old Southerner said. "When I graduated from high school, they offered me a scholarship, but it was very small. I realized if I went there, I might be pushed to the side my freshman year, and I'd have to pay my own way. So I just decided to stay home."
Staying home, after all, is what Willingham likes best. And it's worked out better for him than even his 8-year-old Little League self could imagine.
The quiet, humble Alabamian, always one of the most popular players in his clubhouse, last month signed a $21 million contract to spend the next three seasons patrolling right field in Target Field, a financial jackpot and a baseball opportunity -- born of a career-best 29-homer, 98-RBI season with the Oakland A's in 2011 -- that Willingham says won't change him. He still lives in Florence, the northwest Alabama town where he was born and raised, the river hamlet where he went to college at North Alabama and became a local celebrity, the neighborhood where he met Ginger, married her and fathered two young sons, Rhett and Ryder.
"If I haven't moved away by now," he said with a laugh, "I guess I'm never going to."
Instead, he keeps cementing his roots even deeper. He built a home on the Tennessee River, the heart of the Shoals area of Alabama that he loves so much, so he and his sons can do a lot of fishing from home during the offseason. He lives across town from his parents, who work at the Bible school where he attended all 12 grades and nearly won state championships in both baseball and basketball. And he lives not too far from the spot where his younger brother and only sibling, Jon, was killed in a car accident in June 2009, a death that both scarred and strengthened him.
"That's when you rely on your faith. It's tough to get through, but it helped me put baseball where it should be -- it comes after faith and family," Willingham said.
Giving back in Alabama
When he returned to the Washington Nationals after Jon's funeral, he went on the best two-month tear of his career, hitting .332 with a dozen home runs and 44 RBI in his next 57 games. Willingham believes that's no coincidence.
"I went out there and played carefree. Sometimes that's hard to do because there's so much pressure and anxiety in the game, but I just said, whatever happens, happens," Willingham said. "That was definitely a turning point in my life."
Among other things, it made him more determined to give back to his home. Willingham established a foundation which holds an annual golf tournament, named for his brother, to raise money to help underprivileged, orphaned and abused children in the Shoals.
"When you see people in your hometown who are hurting, well, I'm just glad we're in a position where we can help," he said. "It makes you feel very lucky."
When a catastrophic chain of tornadoes caused destruction all over Alabama last spring, Willingham spearheaded a fund drive among his fellow major leaguers. Including a $12,000 donation from the Players Association and $5,000 from A's owner Lewis Wolff, the effort raised more than $100,000 in just a few weeks. The money initially went to fund emergency supplies, and since then Willingham has spent it building tornado shelters in rural areas and rebuilding playgrounds and baseball diamonds for schools obliterated by the storms.
"This is a place where people help each other. It wasn't just me -- all kinds of people stepped forward to help out. It makes you feel good," Willingham said. "This is home, and it always will be."
A season in the north woods
But if his roots are 99 percent Alabama, at least there's a tiny part of him that considers Minnesota an important part of his life, too, and not just as a Twin. After Mars Hill Bible School finished runner-up in the Alabama state baseball tournament his senior year -- just as the Willingham-led basketball team had done the previous year -- he enrolled at North Alabama and had "an OK season," he said, as a freshman.
Eager to test himself against better competition, Willingham agreed to play for the Southern Minny Stars in the Northwoods League in 1998, the first time he had ever lived away from Florence. It meant rooming for a summer with host families in Austin, Minn., riding buses to Waterloo, Iowa, Grand Forks, N.D., and Wausau, Wis., and using wooden bats for the first time.
"You could tell he had a lot of potential. He was playing shortstop and third base, and even at that young age he stood out," said Paul Spyhalski, an Austin attorney who played host to Willingham for part of the summer. Off the field "he was just a genuine, pleasant man. He still is -- when we drive someplace to see him play, he still calls my wife 'ma'am.'"
The Minny Stars finished in last place, but Willingham took something valuable from the experience: confidence.
"That's when I realized maybe I could play beyond college," he said.
His sophomore season at North Alabama -- Willingham batted .489, slugged .863 with 15 homers, and posted a .585 on-base percentage -- made scouts realize it, too. The Florida Marlins drafted him in the 17th round of the 2000 draft, and he began his pro career in Utica, N.Y.
By 2004, he was making his major league debut, as a catcher. By 2006, he was a regular, and he's been a starter ever since, despite being traded twice, first to Washington before the 2008 season, then to Oakland a year ago.
"My 5-year-old, the Twins will be his third team already," Willingham jokes. "He said, 'Daddy, what team are we on this year?'"
Willingham will replace Michael Cuddyer in right field for the Twins, who hope he'll keep up, or even surpass, the power he has developed over the years. Having added more than 20 pounds to the frame of that collegiate shortstop, Willingham has launched more than 20 home runs in four of his six full seasons despite never playing in a true hitter's park. In 2009, after being traded to the Nationals, he hit two grand slams in a game at Milwaukee, and he has recorded some tape-measure shots.
Hitting for power
"I used to hit the ball the other way more, but I've kind of evolved into a pull hitter," Willingham said. "Maybe the longest home run I've ever hit was at Target Field. It was last year, early in the season, and ... "
Willingham paused and reconsidered describing his towering, 427-foot blast into the left field upper deck. "Well, that pitcher's going to be my teammate," he demurred.
That pitcher is, and he's excited about it.
"You can just look at him and tell he's super-strong," said Scott Baker, who remembers very well leaving that fastball over the plate last April 10. "He made Target Field hitter-friendly, in my opinion. It's going to be nice" having him here.
Well, of course it is. Target Field is now home -- and home means everything to Josh Willingham.