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A look back at Willie Wilson

The original That’s what speed do

A player like Willie Wilson would probably not exist in today’s game of baseball. Wilson was a gifted athlete who excelled at football and basketball in addition to his prowess as a baseball player at Summit High School in Summit, New Jersey. Standing 6’3 and 190 pounds and blessed with blazing speed, Wilson most likely would have been a football player in today’s day and age. Maybe a tight end, most likely a wide receiver. He very nearly became a football player, having signed a letter of intent to play for the Maryland Terrapins, before the Royals drafted him with the 18th pick in the first round of the 1974 draft. Maryland, under coach Jerry Claiborne, was a bit of a power in those days, winning three consecutive ACC championships between 1974 and 1976. They were in the running for the National Championship in 1976 before losing their bowl game. It’s easy to understand how Claiborne got them there, recruiting athletes like Wilson.

Instead, Wilson opted to try for a major league baseball career and what a career it was. In today’s game, some batting coach most certainly would try to convince Wilson to become a power hitter. After all, 6’3 and 190 pounds is certainly good power hitter size. Add in a few years in the weight room, the proper launch angle and Viola! you’ve got a player who could probably hit 25 home runs a year. And strike out 150 times a season while hitting .240. Doesn’t sound so good, does it? Thankfully, Wilson listened to Royals coaches Chuck Hiller, Charlie Lau and manager Whitey Herzog, who convinced him to stroke down on the ball and use his speed to leg out singles, doubles and triples. He did and it made him one hell of a player. Wilson was a switch hitter, which made him extra dangerous. He still had some power. While playing for AAA Omaha in 1977 he became the first player to belt a ball into the third deck of the Louisiana Superdome.

After signing with the Royals, the 18-year-old Wilson played 47 games with Kansas City’s Gulf Coast rookie team, hitting .252. The following season saw him in Class A Waterloo, where he started to assert himself, hitting .272 and stealing an astounding 76 bases in 88 attempts. The Royals brought him up for a 12-game cup of coffee at the tail end of the 1976 season but left him off their playoff roster. He only got 6 at-bats and collected his first major league hit on September 10th with a 7th inning single off the Twins Jim Hughes at the old Metropolitan Stadium.

Wilson spent most of 1977 in Omaha, hitting .281 and stealing 74 bases in 82 attempts. The 74 steals broke a 56-year-old American Association record. It was at Omaha that Wilson made the transition to being a switch hitter. Once again, he was called up late in the season, getting 34 at-bats and hitting a solid .324. He was in Kansas City to stay in 1978, splitting time between left and center field. Wilson moved into a full-time role in 1979 when Al Cowens took an Ed Farmer fastball to the jaw. He blossomed into a star in 1979, hitting an excellent .315 and leading major league baseball with 83 stolen bases while scoring 113 runs. 148 of his 185 hits were singles, but who cares? When you bat leadoff in front of players like George Brett, Hal McRae and Darrell Porter, your job is to get on base and score. And Wilson excelled in that area.

Wilson was even better in 1980, hitting .326 while leading the American League in runs (133), hits (230) and triples (15). He racked up a career high of 297 total bases and stole 79 bases in 89 attempts. He was overshadowed by Brett’s other worldly 1980 season, but his efforts helped the Royals to their first World Series. Wilson finished 4th in the MVP vote, while winning his first (and only) gold Glove and his first Silver Slugger award.

After seeing Wilson beat out a ground ball to his first baseman, Cleveland manager Dave Garcia said, “If Wilson continues to improve the next two seasons the way he has the last two, he could be the next .400 hitter. I’m not kidding. There’s nobody in the league like him.” Minnesota manager Gene Mauch, who saw a few players in his day said of Wilson: “He’s a productive, disruptive, concentration breaking ball player. He is to the American League what Maury Wills was to the National League in the ‘60’s. I mean no disrespect to Amos Otis, who’s been a great centerfielder for a long time, but Wilson is going to be the greatest centerfielder this league has seen in a long, long time.”

Over the next seven seasons, Wilson was a force. He led the league in triples four more times and won the 1982 batting title with an excellent .332 mark. Wilson became the first switch hitter since Mickey Mantle in 1956, to win a batting title. Unbelievably, he only made two All-Star teams: 1982 and 1983. It’s hard to imagine that there were five or six better outfielders in the American League than Wilson in those days. In 1980, Jorge Orta had a fantastic first half, hitting .327 and made the team over Wilson. In 1981, Gorman Thomas, a career .225 hitter, with 15 home runs and .262 batting average at the break, somehow made the AL All-Stars. Sometimes the fans and manager get it wrong. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, there were a lot of good outfielders in the American League and All-Star teams or not, Wilson was one of the best. Wilson also had the unenviable task of pushing Amos Otis to right field. The Royals made the move permanent in 1983. Otis was already 36 and his once legendary skills had been in decline for several seasons. The Royals elected to not re-sign Otis after the 1983 season and the job went to Wilson full time. Except it didn’t.

Wilson, like many players of his era, enjoyed using recreational cocaine. It caught up with him, as it does to everyone. Wilson, Vida Blue, Willie Mays Aiken and Jerry Martin were all arrested in November of 1983 after a multi-state investigation centered around a small time Kansas City dealer. Wilson later served 81 days at the Fort Worth Federal Correction Institution, becoming the first active baseball player to serve time in prison. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended Wilson for the entire 1984 season. Wilson appealed, and won, and was reinstated on May 15th, 1984.

The Kansas City busts were just the tip of the spear. In February of 1986, new commissioner Peter Ueberroth suspended 11 players and doled out punishment to 14 more after the infamous Pittsburg drug trials. Keith Hernandez testified that an estimated 40% of all major league players were using cocaine.

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Wilson, the only player involved who was retained by Kansas City, returned to the Royals In a game a Comiskey Park on May 16th. He was greeted by a banner that said, “Willie, Coke is it.” Wilson laughed off the banner, drew a walk and promptly stole second. He took a big lead off second and when the pickoff throw caromed into center, he motored home. He was mobbed by his teammates in the joyous dugout.

Let’s talk about that speed for a moment. In his time, Wilson was almost universally acclaimed as the fastest man in baseball. His running style reminded me of another star in different sport, Eric Dickerson. Both men were nearly identical in size and ran in an upright, easy style. This allowed Wilson to play a shorter centerfield, taking away hits in front and behind him. It also put incredible pressure on opposing pitchers and outfielders. A ball hit down the line was a guaranteed double. Anything in the gap was three bases. You want to see some crazy speed? Watch this replay from June 9, 1979. This was one of the more exciting baseball plays I’ve ever seen. The Royals and the Yankees hated each other in those days. Bottom of the 13th, game tied at 8, Wilson leading off against Ken Clay. He loops one into left-center. Mickey Rivers makes a half-hearted attempt as the ball bounces to the wall. Roy White gives chase, but Wilson has his motor opened full bore. He looks like an Olympic sprinter as he steams around third. The throw home isn’t even remotely close. The video doesn’t show the entire run, but my estimate is that he covered the bases, from contact to home, in 14 seconds. 360 feet in 14 seconds. That’s moving.

That speed allowed Wilson to collect 13 inside the park home runs over his career. That number is far and away a Royals club record. In fact, it’s the most inside the park jobs for any player since 1950. To put it in another perspective, Wilson hit 41 career home runs. A third of those were the inside the park variety. Baseball people say the triple is the most exciting hit in baseball. They must not have seen Wilson legging out an inside the parker.

There is another stat that illustrates Wilson’s greatness. The Run Scored Percentage (RSP). RSP measures how often a player scores once he gets on base. In his standout 1979 and 1980 seasons, Wilson’s RSP was 50%, which is just crazy. His career RSP was 43%. The only player I can find with a higher career RSP was former Cardinal speedster Vince Coleman at 44%.

Wilson stayed with the Royals through the end of the 1990 season. The Royals let him walk as a free agent, after his age 34 season, and he signed with division rival Oakland. He spent two years with the A’s and two more with the Chicago Cubs before retiring at the age of 38. His career numbers are impressive: 19 seasons. A slash of .285/.326/.376 with 2,207 hits and 668 stolen bases. His stolen base total still ranks 12th all-time. Wilson would have received more renown as a base stealer but unfortunately most of his career overlapped that of Rickey Henderson, the greatest base thief in baseball history.

His name still dots the top-ten in the Royals record book in several categories and his Royals stolen base mark of 612 might never be broken. In 8,317 plate appearances, he only grounded into 90 double plays. 22 of those came during his two seasons in Oakland. To me, that is just incredible.

In retirement, Wilson coached in the Toronto Blue Jays system for a couple of years. He was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 2000. He currently runs the Willie Wilson Baseball Foundation in Kansas City.