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Phil Miller / Minneapolis Star Tribune, Published January 31 2012

Time for a change for Willingham

Minneapolis - 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 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 and became a local celebrity, the neighborhood where he met Ginger, married her and fathered two 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 Alabama Shoals area that he loves so much, and does 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.

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.”