Willits' discipline passed down from dad
Halos outfielder learned work eithic from early age
It started with the morning jogs. Gene Willits would have daughter Wendi and son Reggie out of bed at 6 a.m. for chores and a run. It became a routine, and while they had no idea at the time, Dad was preparing his kids for what was ahead.
"My dad was raised on a farm in Oklahoma by older parents, and that's what shaped him," Willits, the Angels' versatile outfielder, said. "We didn't live on a farm, but he didn't let us sleep in. We were up at 6 on school days, and he'd have us doing stuff.
"My dad was athletic in high school but got married young. He stayed in shape, running, lifting weights. It was important to him, and he instilled that in my sister and I. From the third or fourth grade on, I would go on those morning jogs. It was the three of us -- and even if it was freezing outside, we'd go for our run."
Reggie and big sister Wendi never did really stopped running. Wendi became a big-time basketball star in high school and college, nationally known and recruited. She made it into the professional ranks with the WNBA, winning a championship with the Los Angeles Sparks as a dead-eye outside shooter with serious game.
Like another Reggie -- Miller -- Willits followed in his sister's footsteps, their sibling competition driving them to extraordinary heights. Cheryl Miller, arguably the greatest women's basketball player ever, drove and inspired kid-brother Reggie in their asphalt confrontations in Riverside, Calif. Wendi had the same impact on her Reggie in Oklahoma.
"My dad worked with both of us, and we competed against each other," Willits said. "When she went to college, that was one of the hardest times for me. She'd always been there, competing with me. We kept running with our dad right on through high school, every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, before church.
"My dad's attitude was, `Whatever you do, work hard and be the best you can at it.' I think it's something Wendi and I both have carried with us, that passion and drive to succeed. My dad is a custodian at an elementary school, and he told us that it didn't matter what you did as long as you gave your best effort. He gave us life lessons when we were young that he used to make his points. He was very good at that."
Willits recalls one incident that reflects his father's parenting approach.
"In my junior year in high school, I had practice one day and it was really cold, and I didn't really want to go," Reggie said. "My dad said, `OK, here's what you'll do.' He told me to go wax our car with a hair dryer. It took me hours. When I was done, he said, `Well, would you rather practice or do that? You're going to have choices in life.' He made his point."
Reggie's path took him to baseball, to the University of Oklahoma, finally to the Angels' organization.
He made a major impact on the 2007 American League West championship team, finishing fifth in the Rookie of the Year balloting after setting club rookie records for batting average (.293) and on-base percentage (.391)while playing superb defense at all three outfield positions.
Willits has evolved into a valuable bench player for manager Mike Scioscia, capable of handling a variety of roles and stepping in at a moment's notice in left, center or right field.
In reflection, Willits sees how his father's work ethic shaped and molded his own, along with his sister's.
"He's really my best friend, along with my wife," Willits said of his father. "We talk just about every day. If it's 3 in the morning and I've had a rough day, I can call him and we'll talk it out. He was raised in the Christian faith and that became a big part of my life. He believes in doing things the right way, and that Christian faith is something he always points me back to."
Gene and Judy Willits married young and raised their children well. One professional athlete emerging from a family is remarkable. Two is off the charts.
Reggie is named after Reggie Jackson. Mr. October was Gene Willits' favorite player. When Reggie met Reggie at Yankee Stadium a few years ago, brought together by Angels PR man Tim Mead, it was an overwhelming experience for the young athlete and his father.
"He's always been there, pointing me in the right direction," Reggie said. "I can't thank my dad enough for that."
All those morning jogs, all those life lessons.
Father knows best.
"I want Dad to enjoy his day," Reggie said. "He deserves it."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.