- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 10, 2009

VIERA, Fla. | Exactly three players from the University of North Alabama, a Division II college in Florence, reached the major leagues before Josh Willingham. When Willingham hit his second major league home run on April 4, 2006, he officially became the most prolific alumnus in the history of North Alabama baseball.

That was after Willingham juggled college baseball and a biology major, thinking he would teach and coach at a high school somewhere if his pro career didn’t work out.

It was after Willingham toiled in various levels of Class A ball for the better part of four seasons, agreeing to try his hand at catching in 2003 if that meant he could get out from behind Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Gonzalez in the Florida Marlins’ system. And it was after Willingham hit his first big league homer on July 18, 2004, only to get sent back to Class AA nine days later, spend the rest of the season there and miss much of 2005 with a forearm injury.

So when Willingham says the Washington Nationals‘ current logjam in the outfield doesn’t bother him because he has never been the type who has had a starting spot gift-wrapped for him, he has the back story to go along with it.

“I don’t like to get handed a job anyway,” he said. “I’ve always had to earn what I’ve gotten. It’s gotten me to where I am today, so that doesn’t bother me at all.”

After an offseason that began with the Nationals introducing Willingham as Exhibit A in their quest to improve their lineup, the 30-year-old is right back where he’s comfortable - fighting for his playing time.

He all but had the left fielder’s job secure when Washington announced it had traded Emilio Bonifacio and a pair of minor leaguers for Willingham and Scott Olsen on Nov. 11. Two days before pitchers and catchers were scheduled to report to spring training, the Nationals signed Adam Dunn, a better power hitter than Willingham and possibly the guy who would take his spot in left field.

Willingham signed a one-year, $2.95 million deal with the Nationals on Feb. 18, finally cashing in on all those years in the minor leagues just hours before his first arbitration hearing. The financial security might be there now, but the job security still isn’t.

“He’s got a good formation from his home,” manager Manny Acta said. “I always heard that about him from Day One when he was with the Marlins. … He doesn’t take anything for granted.”

Willingham has never had much to take for granted. The Marlins took him in the 17th round in 2000 and shuttled him from the infield to the outfield, then to catching and back to the outfield. Catching facilitated his first call-up in 2004, even though he hadn’t done it before the age of 23.

The idea of calling a game stoked his intellectual side. But more than that, he wasn’t the type to turn down a challenge.

“Baseball is always something I’ve dreamed of playing in the big leagues,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to make it to the big leagues from college. I just kept trying to be the best player I could be in rookie ball, then A ball and Double A. I think it’s paid off.”

Unless the Nationals are in an emergency, Willingham probably won’t be behind the plate. His catching days are mostly over thanks to a nagging back injury that limited him to 102 games last season. He said his back is completely healed, and team physician Wiemi Douoguih said Willingham should be able to play a full season when the Nationals traded for him in November.

But at the least, the injury has probably kept Willingham from putting up the kind of numbers that could have secured him a job this spring. Instead, he’s in a similar situation to Austin Kearns, another injured outfielder trying to fend off competition for the right field job.

Willingham, who said he has always been interested in animals and toyed with the idea of becoming a marine biologist, seems almost fascinated by the idea of so many outfielders fighting fiercely for three spots.

There’s a chance Willingham could be on the move. He’s under club control for two more seasons after this one and is making less than Kearns ($8 million this year) or first baseman Nick Johnson ($5.5 million), possibly making him more attractive to another team if the Nationals need to unload a player.

All that would mean is one more food chain, one more fight, somewhere else.

“He’s as good as advertised — as a person and as a player,” Acta said.

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