NoCo is what they call it. Technically, it stands for North County, as in, the upper side of St. Louis County, where a few years back, the world had its eyes on America because of what was happening in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown was killed by Darren Wilson in the street, which touched off America’s reckoning with itself as a police state unsafe for Black people.
That’s where Devin Williams grew up.
The Milwaukee Brewers reliever with a vicious fastball and an even more devastating changeup is heading into his second season after racking up a solid amount of silverware in the offseason as both rookie and reliever of the year for the National League.
From a baseball standpoint, the 26-year-old is a phenom. After dialing hitters up with his 95 mph-plus fastball, he’ll drop an off-speed pitch on you that will change your life, whether you’re in the batter’s box or not.
They call it the airbender. It’s the best pitch I’ve ever seen.
But to understand what makes him tick, you’ve got to understand where he comes from beyond geography. His mom, like so many humans on earth, was just trying to make ends meet with three children. And he was just trying to grow up, be happy and play sports.
While most people call him Devin, the guy on the mound who embarrasses batters left and right actually goes by another name: Dave.
Raising Black children in America is a difficult task. Whether it be the mental energy one has to extend worrying about their safety around authorities, never mind peers, or the constant stress of making sure that happiness is even an option in the complicated matrix of their young minds trying to grow.
If you’re a single white mother doing so while trying to hold down a job, it doesn’t get any easier. Angela Norton, however, is a bundle of joy with a solid dollop of reality mixed in. The hours and days she spent on the road, just her and Devin, trying to fulfill his dream are incalculable and invaluable, as she sees it.
“I can remember like driving him to Minnesota and in this little red car,” she recalled, thinking about a trip to a showcase event. “We drive up there, I think we stayed one night, and we didn’t know what time he was going to throw. But he ended up throwing at night, and I did not take off the next day. So I literally drove back from Minnesota, through the night, and then I went to the gym to teach my spin class at 10 a.m.”
Real life means that real effort will reap real rewards. She knew her son was going to be a star and was willing to do whatever it took to make that happen. Including ignoring haters who didn’t have her same interest in mind. Mother and son went to the same middle school, but when recruiters got ahold of him, he ended up in a private school.
“They gave me a little bit of grant money for being a single parent, but it wasn’t that much,” she explained. “So, and here we are in white America, in a reputable school, that’s old white money. We run into some obstacles, like a lot of the kids of color that I talk to. I remember my last meeting being in the dean’s office with him and him telling my son that he would never play professional baseball. And I was like, ‘Oh, you’re never coming back here again.’ ”
Because “the rules” state that you can’t transfer from private to public and play in the same year for fear of potential shenanigans regarding so-called educational ethics, there was a concern that he might be forced to sit out one of the most critical years of his high school career. Instead, she just did the thing that most decent people do when they need help. She told the truth.
She wrote a letter to the powers that be explaining that her son had a magic arm, she was raising three kids by herself and that he flat-out needed to play. It worked. Norton protected her son as best she could and, in 2013, he signed with the Brewers with a $1.35 million signing bonus.
He bought her a house, which meant no more moving every two years, and Williams’ mother and sisters could live safely, and together. Only downside? They miss him dearly. When she put him on the road, alone, to go play baseball, it was an emotional experience to see her only son go off into the world.
“I was crying my eyeballs out, like, ‘My soonnn,’ yanno?” she said only half-jokingly but adorably. “He’s home for a short period of time and then he’s gone.
“He just bought a condo that he moved into before he went to spring training. And so my daughter and I, we were like, ‘Well, can’t you just stay here with us?’ He’s like: ‘I am 26.’ ”
In basic terms, Williams isn’t your average baseball star. Besides the fact that he’s Black, his style is more akin to an NBA player than a big leaguer. He loves Prem League soccer and playing FIFA. He goes overseas to cop luxury streetwear and his playlists include Lil Baby (“a staple, of course”), Young Dolph and Jack Harlow. He is not your father’s bullpen setup man, from a personality standpoint.
But just like so many other young Black players in this game, the path was tough sledding. He missed all of 2017 after Tommy John surgery, an experience that almost broke him mentally when it came to playing one of the many sports he loves.
“We were in Zebulon, like right outside of Raleigh. That was the worst year I’ve ever had playing baseball. ‘Cause I was terrible. There was one point where like, I just, I couldn’t even, I couldn’t throw a strike,” he said last month from his spring training home.
“There was one game I gave up a home run. And the next guy came up and it wasn’t even intentional. I was just pissed off. I’m like, all right, I’m throwing it right down the middle, as hard as I can. It didn’t go right down the middle. It went right over the dude’s head. Umpire ejects me immediately,” he recalled from his days with Bob Milacki, Williams’ pitching coach for the Carolina Mudcats in 2018, the Brewers’ high-A affiliate. “I was just, I was done with it. I walked off the field, there was a kid down the line. I threw my glove, told him he could have it. I was ready to go home at that point. I didn’t even want to play.”
It was a make-or-break moment for a kid who passed up a chance to play and study at the University of Missouri, a big-time program, to live with a host family in minor league towns while his mom worried about his living situation back in St. Louis. After that year, he would have been in a relatively dreaded purgatory after not being on the Brewers’ 40-man roster: a minor league free agent.
Thankfully for all of us who love seeing batters getting corkscrewed trying to hit off-speed pitches, Williams comes from strong enough stock and didn’t give up.
One of the people the Williams family credits for his fortitude is Kerrick Jackson. He was the coach at Missouri who recruited him and furthermore was simply a dependable friend in life. Williams even lived with the Jackson family for two offseason stints while he worked on himself.
“I think what it comes down to is understanding that specifically when we’re dealing with our young Black males, I’m tending to you as a young Black male, first and foremost, take baseball out,” said Jackson, who used to manage the historically Black Southern University’s baseball team, was a pro scout and now is president of MLB’s Draft League.
“I told him when we were going through the recruiting process … I said, ‘Listen, make sure you understand, regardless of whether you show up on campus or whether you signed in the draft, I’m going to be with you for life. Unless you tell me to go someplace else.’ I said, ‘I have a sense of obligation to make sure that you become the man that I think you can be. And I’m not worried about the baseball part.’ ”
Thankfully, that worked itself out. His fastball is high 90s, and again, we cannot emphasize this enough, his changeup is from another planet. Oh, and he’s working on a slider.
He figured out his fastball was best when he just threw it as hard as he could and nobody could touch it. He learned that in Pensacola, Florida, where according to Williams, the radar gun is legit accurate, unlike many minor league parks.
“There was a little scoreboard, like right behind home plate where it had the velo as well. And I just went out there with that same mindset. It’s just a place that I go to now,” he explained of his process. “I just said, here it is. I threw the first one 97. I was like, OK. … Let me see if I can get a 98. It was 97 again. I’m like, all right. 98, boom, 98. I’m like, all right. Let’s just keep going. Let me see a hundred. I can go. And I struck out three guys that didn’t even, uh, with nothing but fastballs.
“That’s where Dave came from.”
The minor leagues of baseball are a tough slog. Bus rides, not-great living accommodations, pay below living wage – none of it is easy. The argument, functionally, is that paying one’s dues in the bush leagues is what makes a player ready for the bigs. In practice, it means that while you might not be living the life of Kevin Costner in Bull Durham, you come across a lot of quality instruction as a baller that helps one figure out if Major League Baseball is a realistic dream.
Milacki realized the dream, even if briefly. You might remember his work from the complete game shutout he threw against the Minnesota Twins in 1989 where he faced the minimum 27 batters. (He allowed three hits and two walks in that game – meaning his fielders behind him did work.) What you’d more likely recall is his participation in one of the strangest no-hitters in baseball history in which he was pulled from a game after a line drive hit him in the arm. The out was still made and then three other pitchers combined to blank the Oakland A’s – on the road, no less. There was a baseball card with all four guys on it, which was both weird and dope at once.
In Wake County, he saw Williams mature as a human, not just a thrower during his time with the Mudcats.
“It was fun to watch him grow into being a man,” Milacki said. “It has nothing to do with me as much as him and who he was hanging around. You know, we kind of guide them the right way. We lead a horse to water. We can’t make him drink it, but he was hanging around some pretty good guys in the bullpen. And they’re all hungry to get to the big leagues and they’re all talking and they kicked him on the straight and narrow.”
As a young man in the toils of pro ball, what clearly kept him motivated was that Williams can do something that no one else on earth can. The quality of his fastball alone is enough to put him on a major league mound. Once you add the cambio? Forget about it.
“The spin rate on his changeup is just off the charts,” Milacki said. “If you look at [other pitchers], they’re in the low two thousands, like 2,100 or whatever. You look at him? Like 2,800.”
It’s a pitch he’s been throwing since he was a kid, when he was often the only Black kid on the team and understood full well what that meant in America.
“We were catch partners for years, man,” said Jared Fosdick, his boy to this day after the two met at 12 years old. “That changeup, that came out the womb.”
Fosdick, also a pitcher, hung up his cleats after playing college baseball and now is a family man. But he recalls growing up in Missouri with Williams. Fosdick, who is white, knew that being a friend meant more than being nice. It meant being an ally.
In the world of travel ball and competitive showcase tournaments, never mind high school sports, the world can be cold, even among teammates. But Fosdick was raised better than many. It wasn’t just the overt nonsense, it was the microaggressions that he knew to flag.
“Those statements that necessarily weren’t supposed to, you know, for them, they weren’t meant to be racist, but were very racist. A lot of it was just kinda like, hey, man, that was too far,” Fosdick said, recalling the days of him and Williams repping NoCo, even though they played at Hazelwood West High School, more colloquially known as Hazelhood.
“We played in a conference where we were playing a lot of inner-city teams. We were playing teams that were predominantly Black. And so for me in high school, I got to see firsthand schools that really didn’t put the same amount of, whether it be funding or time or money or coaching resources, whatever it was, at the school level.”
Nowadays, besides polishing his awards on his mantle, Williams thinks about what it is to be him. The odds were stacked against him on quite a few fronts. But after growing up and figuring it out, he’s doing pretty well. And is still serving plenty of Blackness if you need it.
When he etched the letters BLM into the mound before pitching on Aug. 24, 2020, life was completely different. The Milwaukee Bucks had yet to decide not to play a playoff game to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. His Brewers teammates had yet to join their city’s fellow pro athletes in solidarity, leading several other MLB teams to do the same.
“What really opened my eyes was Mike Brown back in the day, back in 2014,” Williams said. “He’s a year younger than me. Lived 10 minutes from where I lived. At that time like that, that just really shook me. You know what I mean? And then to see him, essentially, the guy just got off scot-free, you know, for shooting an unarmed kid in the middle of the street. It really just kinda hardened me in a way, honestly, you know, because that’s just something that you have to deal with growing up in this country.”
Black child, white mom, whatever. Family is family.
“My mom is supersupportive. You know, she’ll back me up in anything and that’s, especially if I feel that powerfully, you know, that strongly about something, she would always have my back.”
This season, his approach to life is not changed, but matured and evolved. He wants a little more emotion in baseball, but then again, don’t we all.
“I think I’d like to see like more freedom in the game. You know what I mean? More freedom to be yourself, to express yourself. I don’t have a problem with a guy pimping a homer off me, but when I punch you out, don’t say nothing. When I pump my fist and I yell into my glove either. So that’s how I feel about it. You know, it goes both ways, but I think that that is good for the game.”
You can expect to see plenty more changeups this year for the Brewers, including perhaps, the new slider. From a pitch approach standpoint, his repertoire could go from untouchable to lethal.
“Honestly, I’m getting really comfortable with it, so I think I’m going to have to break that out. The metrics on it are like really good. It’s like creating a triangle, essentially,” he detailed with hand motions. “Fastball’s here, changeup here, slider’s there. So yeah, just locking that down. Just keep them off balance. Like they can’t expect one or you can hope for one, but you might get the other, no matter the count.”
As far as his pitches, it’s simple. It’s just like his identity as a Black man in life and his will to win on the field.
“I have confidence in both of those.”