'Santa Dontrelle' spreads some cheer

'Santa Dontrelle' spreads cheer

REDFORD, Mich. -- "What's up?" Dontrelle Willis shouted as he broke into a smile. "What's good? Y'all seem quiet today."

His words sent the 66 boys in front of him into an uproar. They cheered wildly. They jettisoned any fit of nerves that might be expected in youngsters who are seeing a baseball star in their company.

But this wasn't any old star. This was Dontrelle Willis -- the 25-year-old "D-Train," the newest star on a Tigers team filled with stars. He insisted on being on hand at the Methodist Children's Home Society, a foster home on West Six Mile Road that these 66 boys from abused and neglected backgrounds called their home.

And Willis was there on Thursday afternoon with these boys for a reason. His hat gave that reason away.

The boys could not mistake the meaning of his hat, either. No, it wasn't a royal blue hat with an Olde English D stitched on its front. This one was red -- bright red with white fur trim. The hat had meaning that no boy could mistake.

"In all seriousness," Willis told the boys, "this is a time for giving -- for sharing."

So on this cold December day, they could rightly call him "Santa Dontrelle," for absent the long white beard and the potbelly, he came bearing bags of Christmas cheer.

"I got gifts for all of y'all," he told the boys.

Well, what remained of their quiet decorum minutes earlier gave way to the youthful energy and smiles of joy that boys display.

The smiles grew broader as one boy after another walked up to Willis, who was standing in front of the auditorium, and accepted a bag filled with Christmas goodies. For them, Christmas came five days early.

They almost didn't know what to do.

"Open the gifts!" one of the adults in the room yelled.

The boys didn't need to hear another word. Pulling wrapping paper off everything, they rifled through their bags and found gifts that would brighten any boy's Christmas.

Santa Dontrelle had filled their bags with wristwatches, MP3 players, boom boxes, Tigers and Lions jerseys, CDs, CD players, motorized cars. Each bag seemed tailored to fit the boy.

"Thank you, man!" one of the boys said. He stuck his hand out and slapped five with Willis, who was walking among the boys.

The Tigers southpaw had made an impression, which is only a piece of what Willis hoped to accomplish. He wanted to show these boys, all from circumstances that don't usually lead to the merriest of Christmases, that somebody cared about them.

"They appreciated Willis being here," said John Schmidt, the executive director of the home. "The gifts, the talks, the autographs and the handshakes meant a lot to these boys."

"Ian here is one of our biggest Tiger fans," said Schmidt, pointing to a youngster who was deep into his Christmas presents. "I asked Ian, 'You're not gonna wash your hand for a while, right?'

"He said, 'You'd better believe.'"

Ian's sentiments weren't lost on Schmidt.

"I think for a lot of these kids, it's a very, very happy surprise," he said. "Not only the gifts, but seeing a baseball star and having a chance to interact with him -- to say hello. That's neat for these kids.

"I'm 68 years old, and it's neat for me."

It was neat for Willis as well.

Going to meet these boys reminded Willis of his childhood in Oakland. He'd meet ballplayers like A's stars Rickey Henderson and Dave Stewart and remembered what those meetings had come to mean to him.

"I don't think I'd ever have picked baseball if I didn't get a chance to meet Dave Stewart," Willis said. "So I figure if I can do something just to help one person, it's a victory in the community, and that trickles down."

What trickled down immediately was the joy he brought. The room brightened with smiles as the boys enjoyed Willis' gifts.

"The kids are having a ball," one of the adults in the room told Willis. "Thank you!"

He smiled.

Justice Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.