Blending in is okay with Willard, who, in 16 years as a professional baseball player, had his fair share of moments in the spotlight, including two World Series appearances.
“I don’t publicize it to the students,” said Willard, an Oxnard native. “I’m just normal—that’s the past.”
But the 52-year-old will never forget his career-defining moment as a member of the Atlanta Braves during the 1991 World Series against the Minnesota Twins.
It was the bottom of the ninth in game four of the best-of-seven series. The score was tied 2-2, and the Braves had players at first and third. Mark Lemke, representing the winning run, was 90 feet from the plate, and the Atlanta crowd was on its feet.
The Twins had won two of the first three games, and the Braves desperately wanted to tie the series.
Willard, who played catcher, was called in to pinch hit for Francisco Cabrera.
“I remember walking on deck and right behind me was Ted Turner, Jane Fonda and President Jimmy Carter,” said Willard. “I said, ‘Isn’t this fun?’ and the president said ‘I’m having a great time! Go win the game!’”
Willard hit a game-winning sacrifice fly ball.
“Every day you enjoyed going to the park knowing something was going to happen because you had a great team,” Willard said. “To get in the playoffs was very exciting. Every day was fun and you just couldn’t wait.”
The series, regarded by many fans as one of the most exciting ever played, went to game seven, which the Twins won 1-0 in the 10th inning.
Willard admits the loss of the series was devastating. He has all seven games recorded at home but has never watched them.
“Because we lost,” he said. “It was a great experience, but yet it was disappointing. . . . I am not a good loser. That’s a problem I’ve always had.”
The Braves and Willard played again in the 1992 World Series, losing to the Toronto Blue Jays in six games.
Willard’s baseball career began when he was 19. He played for seven major league teams and retired in 1995 due to his age and what he called the “politics of the game.”
“It was the shuffling back and forth between the major leagues and minor leagues,” Willard said. “I was just a number. . . . I was 35 years old (and) the opportunities weren’t there anymore.”
After his retirement, Willard coached baseball at Oxnard College from 1998 to 2002. He began working at Camarillo High as a campus supervisor and assistant coach in 2007.
The baseball veteran assisted Richard Jacquez, also an Oxnard native, who was Camarillo High’s head baseball coach at the time.
“He came in at a perfect time,” said Jacquez, now a biology teacher and junior varsity football coach at the high school. “We had an above-exceptional team in 2007.”
Camarillo High’s baseball team made it to the CIF Southern Section Division II title against Vista Murrieta at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles that year.
The Camarillo team walked away without a win, but Willard was able to tell the players what he’d learned about the sting of losing.
“That hurt,” Willard said of the CIF championship loss. “But we talked about that and the fact that we got there. Not too many people get there, and that’s something special.”
Jacquez remembers Willard as one of the most passionate and versatile coaches he’s ever worked with.
“He is very competitive,” said Jacquez. “He has pretty much one speed—full-blown, go get them, doing baseball business to the fullest every day. He is as intense a baseball person as I’ve ever been around.”
Willard is taking a hiatus from coaching, calling it a “wait and see” approach to the future.
He is content with his morning routine and his ability to blend into the background of the school’s bustling hallways. For Willard, baseball is in the past, and the tapes from the ’91 World Series will go unwatched for a while longer.