Hello again: Waiting to meet the real Jack Wilson
Mariners shortstop Jack Wilson didn't make a great first impression with the Mariners last year, but the veteran says he isn't worried about proving himself.
Seattle Times staff columnist
PEORIA, Ariz. — One look at Jack Wilson, and you realize his reputation wasn't built on a first impression.
The shortstop expected to fortify the Mariners' infield, if his cranky hamstring ever stops fussing, is listed at 6 feet tall, but he's a couple of phone books shy of that. His hairline is doing the Moonwalk. He comes across as regular, neat. Gosh golly gee, you might even call him swell.
But you can't judge Wilson too soon. He's a gradual charmer. As a ninth-round draft pick in 1998, he made himself into a one-time All-Star and one of baseball's most respected defensive shortstops. Now, as a midseason acquisition who was too injured to produce last season, he's back to trying to defy a first impression.
Wilson joined the Mariners last July and signed a fresh two-year contract in November, but it still feels like he's in the awkward, getting-acquainted phase. He's not the new guy, but you still don't know him.
Wilson played only 31 games after he was traded from Pittsburgh to Seattle, hit only .224 and spent most of the time nursing hamstring and heel injuries.
Four days ago, he tweaked his right hamstring, left a spring-training game early and hasn't played since. He says he's healthy and ready to play any day now. You're still waiting to see the real Wilson and understand why Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik wanted him so badly.
Just don't expect him to share the eagerness. After nine seasons in the big leagues, after building a career on substance, the even-keeled Wilson knows better than to become obsessed with proving himself.
"I'm not really worried about leaving my mark," Wilson said. "I don't really think about it like that. I came over hoping to play well last season. It didn't really happen, but at the same time, you go through stretches in your career where you don't really play well or you get hurt. If you play the whole time and just stink, that's one thing. But it's out of your control when you get hurt.
"So, I don't really look at it that way as, 'Oh, I wish I would've played better because I was the new guy.' The circumstances are against you to go over and play well when you're going into a different league. It's going to be much harder when you play in the National League for nine years and then come over here to the American League. So I knew it was going to be a tough adjustment."
Wilson remembers facing pitchers he'd "never heard of before." He realized quickly that, with only two months left in the 2009 season, he couldn't mask all of the adjustments he needed to make. Then the injuries came, and all of a sudden, an opportunity to win after all those fruitless seasons in Pittsburgh had turned into disappointment. He didn't mope, though.
"I'm not a guy who's going to really show my emotions on the outside," Wilson said. "I just kept it in and went through the learning process. It was something I'd never gone through before, something my family had never gone through before. Never did I get frustrated with anything. I just realized, 'Hey, this is going to be tough and just do the best you can.' "
Maybe most of the learning is over. Maybe Wilson can stay healthy, too. If this team wants to compete for a playoff spot, the Mariners need his veteran presence and, especially, his glove. The infield is in a bit of flux with manager Don Wakamatsu experimenting, sometimes comically, with Jose Lopez at third base and Chone Figgins at second. The Mariners also have a new first baseman, Casey Kotchman, who is considered an excellent defensive player.
But Wilson, who won a Fielding Bible award last season proclaiming him the best defensive shortstop in the game, must be the stabilizing presence for a team built on pitching and defense. When healthy, he's fully capable of being both dependable and spectacular.
Zduriencik didn't give Wilson a two-year, $10 million contract on hope. He's a known commodity, a 32-year-old whose career credentials outweighed an unfortunate two-month hello with the Mariners.
For the first time, Wilson is at spring training with a legitimate contender. It feels foreign to him, but typical Wilson, he won't approach it any differently.
"Being healthy, I think you'll see me bring a lot more to the table," he said. "I can't say there's this completely different player, though. What I'll always give is 100 percent when I'm on the field. So, when you're healthy, you do good things more often, so hopefully that's the case this year."
Another difference: He'll be settled. His wife and three children, who live in California, will be in Seattle next week to look for a summer residence. "We'll get settled in real quickly," Wilson said.
The more comfortable Wilson gets, the better he will be. For a gradual charmer, persistence is always a virtue.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer
About Jerry Brewer
Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
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