Childhood playing soccer prepared Jack Wilson for a career in the major leagues
Mariners shortstop chose baseball, but says playing soccer helped make him the player he became.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Mariners' next five games
Today | @ Kansas City, 5:10 p.m., FSN |
Rowland-Smith (1-1, 3.12) vs. Hochevar (6-4, 5.28)
Wednesday | @ Kansas City, 5:10 p.m., FSN |
French (1-2, 3.38) vs. Davies (3-7, 5.76)
Thursday | @ Kansas City, 5:10 p.m., FSN |
Vargas (3-5, 4.71) vs. Chen (0-6, 5.73)
Friday | vs. Tampa Bay, 7:10 p.m., FSN |
Hernandez (12-4, 2.78) vs. Niemann (10-5, 3.62)
Saturday | vs. Tampa Bay, 7:10 p.m., FSN |
Snell (0-0, 3.00) vs. Shields (6-8, 3.75)
The grass fields of his youth were hardly the place Jack Wilson expected to make a life-changing decision.
But the genesis of a major-league career now nearly a decade old, one that led the new Mariners shortstop into a lasting bond with the city of Pittsburgh, was actually forged in California on grass that had nothing to do with baseball. Wilson's first and enduring sports love was the game of soccer, and it was on high-school pitches where the high-scoring striker dazzled opponents both American and international, that he was forced to choose between head and heart.
The way Wilson tells it, he picked baseball after high school because that's where the money was. Major League Soccer was just getting started and there was no solid professional soccer infrastructure in this country to earn a living. So, Wilson ditched his cleats for spikes, a longshot move for a skinny, 165-pounder left undrafted out of high school and forced to go to junior college to get professional scouts interested enough to take him in the ninth round two years later.
But in an interesting twist, it wound up being soccer that helped make his baseball dreams come true.
"I think it helped make me the player I am today," said Wilson, acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates last week, along with pitcher Ian Snell, for Jeff Clement, Ronny Cedeno and three lower minor-league pitchers. "No question, the footwork, the coordination, that's where it all came from."
And without it, Wilson might never have escaped the minor leagues. He was in Class A with the St. Louis Cardinals, who had drafted him in 1998, trapped behind three others at his position. That's when Pittsburgh Pirates hitting coach Lloyd McClendon spotted Wilson's soccer-generated footwork and agility.
"I remember he told me he thought I could make it to the major leagues based on my defense," Wilson said. "I was stunned. I mean, I never imagined I'd make it to the major leagues, even then. My goal was to just to play professionally in the minors as long as I could."
Wilson even had a fallback plan in the event he got cut: play college soccer and try to make a living off that in the fledgling MLS.
Nowadays, Wilson, 31, is low-key about his soccer abilities, saying he'd never have made it as a pro.
"You have to be ridiculously good to go to the national team, stuff like that," he said. "I was nowhere near that level. I think I could have played college ball and been a decent player."
But those close to him say he'd easily have played Division I in college and likely taken his career as far as he wanted.
It's a call he didn't have to make. McClendon had been Wilson's manager in the Arizona Fall League and recommended the Pirates trade for Wilson. The deal went down in July 2000.
Wilson was immediately promoted to Class AA, broke into the majors the following year, became a regular by 2002 and earned an All-Star nod in 2004. The Steel City's fans loved his hard-nosed style, dubbing him a "dirtbag."
He'd learned that from his father, Carl, now a junior varsity baseball coach back in Wilson's hometown of Westlake Village, Calif.
"I was playing a pretty high level of softball back then," Carl Wilson said. "If I didn't come home bleeding, my wife would know I didn't play hard enough."
He made sure young Jack and his older brother, Andy, who later played minor-league baseball, gave it their best between the lines.
"I always told them, 'Give it everything you've got that day,' " he said. "Especially in the pros, there are people paying good money to watch you play every day."
With the Pirates, Wilson once got hit in the face by a one-hopped throw from right field. He finished the game.
Two years ago, in the second-to-last game of the season, Wilson was knocked out cold after a head-on collision with his second baseman. He lay motionless on the field and was hospitalized with a concussion.
His dad caught a redeye flight from California, only to find Wilson dressed and ready to leave the hospital. Wilson wanted to be with his team for its final game and talked doctors into allowing it.
"If Jack ever gets drilled by a pitch, he'll take the base without even looking at the pitcher," his father said. "If there's a collision at second base and he can get up, he will, and won't say another word about it."
Wilson's father encouraged his sons to play multiple sports, rather than specialize.
Wilson set a school record his junior year at Thousand Oaks High School, hitting .581. He also joined the football team as a kickoff specialist, then added field-goal duties as a senior and booted a 52-yarder.
But it was on the soccer pitch he truly excelled. He'd been playing since age 4.
Wilson twice led the Thousand Oaks soccer team in scoring, notching a school-record 18 goals one year. Southern California was the country's soccer hotbed in the mid-1990s and Wilson nearly captured the scoring title of his highly competitive league.
In fact, Wilson was good enough, starting at age 12, to be chosen for a Southern California select club team in Agoura Hills, Calif., that played in international tournaments. He faced the Russian under-15 national squad, as well as select teams from Mexico, Costa Rica and Germany.
"Our team was No. 1 or No. 2 in the state of California so that was a big deal," Wilson said. "The type of level we had to play at, you had to really be good with your feet, your footwork and making moves, so, that kind of gradually translated over to playing shortstop and the footwork you need around the bag."
Wilson's soccer passion has never abated. He attended a World Cup match in Los Angeles in 1994 when Team USA lost to Romania. Years later, as a minor-league baseball player, he returned to coach the Thousand Oaks junior varsity soccer team during the offseason.
"He once told me if there was any money in soccer, he'd have played," Wilson's father said. "He said, 'If I could have taken care of my family with soccer, I'd have played soccer.' "
Wilson returns every year to Thousand Oaks for its alumni soccer game. He was the oldest player last year but still scored three goals.
One of his best friends, Trevor Tom, who played soccer with Wilson at Thousand Oaks and now serves as his personal trainer, also participates in the annual event. He sees how soccer helped Wilson's baseball career.
"As far as his footwork and athleticism, that coordination is what allows you to get to balls and make plays that an average athlete wouldn't," said Tom, who played Division III college soccer. "Jack's just a D-I athlete in general. He could have played at a high level. That guy could score goals. He just made one quick move and he'd find the spot he needed."
Tom remembers fun times as a high-school senior when Wilson, a year older and playing baseball for Oxnard Junior College, would wake him up in the middle of the night after working a shift as a Blockbuster video clerk.
"He'd knock on my window and I'd be sleeping and he'd wake me up and we'd watch the videos he brought over," Tom said. "Then we'd go to Denny's afterward and make a night out of it. And I had to be up at 7 the next morning. He didn't because he was in junior college. It's just the simple things in life that you end up remembering."
Tom said Wilson taught him to "live for the moment."
Wilson had picked up on that mantra starting at age 9. Over the next nine years, he had four cousins die before age 22 and also lost an uncle.
"I just live life every day and I enjoy it," said Wilson, who doesn't like to go into detail about the deaths. "Because things happen and sometimes life gets cut short for a lot of people and you take that into account. I had a lot of family members die at a very young age and it affected me."
Wilson developed a stubborn streak as a sometimes hard-to-control teenager. He became intensely competitive. His junior-college coach at Oxnard, Pat Woods, remembers Wilson's stubborn tendencies.
"He'd swing at anything that was thrown up there," Wilson said. "It took us awhile to convince him he couldn't do that."
But Woods also remembers a natural leader with high demands on himself. Woods would have to tell pro scouts to watch Wilson over a period of time.
"You couldn't watch him just one time," Woods said. "I'd tell the scouts, 'You've got to watch him at practice. This guy never takes a second off.' He went full-speed in games and full-speed in practice."
Wilson's "soccer speed" — he'd be in a half jog, then accelerate toward a loose ball — is evident in his baseball approach. Never a serious threat to steal bases, he has been known to routinely score from first on extra-base hits.
The Pirates were quick to fall for Wilson's athletic defensive style, even though his bat was mediocre. Wilson's only .300 season at the plate came in 2004 and his lifetime mark stood at .267 with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .691 at the time of the trade to Seattle.
But Wilson became the Pirates' longest-serving player. Players moved in and out of Pittsburgh's revolving door, but Wilson — nicknamed Steve-O for his resemblance to the star of "Jackass" — remained a steady, unifying team force.
Those close to Wilson say he's mellowed considerably in the majors, attributing much of that to his wife, Julie, who guided him toward a more active Christian faith. The couple has three children and became so embedded in charity work and with Pittsburgh's community that the Pirates allowed Julie to fly home from a trip on the team charter even after Wilson had been traded to Seattle.
Wilson has an $8.4 million option for next year and word is the Mariners might want to tear it up in favor of a longer, more cost-effective annual deal so the shortstop can become a more permanent fixture and one of the club's veteran leaders.
"You see some of the plays this guy makes and I think the fans in Seattle are really going to appreciate him," Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said. "We see him as somebody who can have a positive impact on some of our players."
But Wilson, still living for the moment, won't fret about contracts and other matters. If it's meant to be, he said, he's sure something will be worked out.
Nor will he torment himself about what might have been had he opted for a career in soccer. He now realizes his first sports love was merely a means to a very satisfying career end.
"Soccer helped me get to where I am today," he said. "I've gotten to where I am because a lot of things went my way. I've been fortunate. I believe there's a plan for all of us and I'm just following along, trying to enjoy it as best I can."
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or email@example.com.
Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners
For the record
v. AL West: 17-18
vs. L.A.: 7-6
vs. Oakland: 6-3
vs. Texas: 4-9
vs. AL East: 14-10
v. AL Cen.: 12-16
vs. NL: 11-7
vs. LHP: 18-17
vs. RHP: 36-34
Extra inn.: 5-4
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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