My New Favorite Baseball Player

When I was a nine-year-old Little Leaguer, the picture day photographers made the players our own baseball cards.  On mine was my picture and some facts about me, including my favorite player.  I was on the Yankees and my dad had probably shown me the Gary Cooper classic, The Pride of the Yankees, so when they asked me who was my favorite player, I said Lou Gehrig.  I was definitely a strange kid to pick someone who had died nearly 50 years earlier, but The Iron Horse is still a pretty solid choice. 

Now, many years later, I have a new favorite player who is even more unexpected.  Jack Wilson spent most of his 12-year Major League career as a shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  While Gehrig is an all-time great who hit .340 lifetime with 493 home runs and six world championships, Wilson hit .265 with 61 career homers and never appeared in the postseason.  You probably think I’m crazy to put them in the same sentence, but let me explain. 

As many of you know, I am a baseball player.  I pitched for a few seasons in Mexico and I still play in some pretty competitive leagues and tournaments, including spending most of October each year playing in Arizona.  Many of the better teams are full of very good ballplayers who played minor league or college baseball but fell short of their Major League dreams for one reason or another.  There are even some guys who got a cup of coffee in the big leagues.  Last year when we showed up at the first game, Jack Wilson was in our starting lineup.  Apparently, he was in Arizona because his son was starting college out there, and decided to sign up for the tournament.  Our manager was happy to snap him up onto our team because, although he is no Lou Gehrig, he is also not one of us “almost made it” guys or even a flash in the pan September call up who played a few games in the Majors.  He had a successful big league career, including a Silver Slugger Award and making an All-Star team in 2004.

Let me be clear, I am not easily star-struck and have played with quite a few other Major Leaguers.  As I told Jack, he is not even the most accomplished athlete I’ve spent time with in the last two months.  That honor would go to former “world’s greatest athlete” Caitlyn Jenner.  Jack is not my favorite player because he is good, although that certainly helps.  He is my favorite because he shows what baseball is supposed to be:  fun. 

Today, far too many players forget that baseball is ultimately a kid’s game.  On one side of the coin, some guys seem to be going through the motions and thinking more about their next contract than winning.  On the other side of the coin, some guys talk about being businesslike and “respecting the game.”  Those are the people who complain when a hitter bat flips, admires a home run, or swings at a 3-0 pitch when batting against a position player.  My favorite players are the ones who look like they are having fun and love being on the field.  I was at game 1 of the 1988 World Series as a kid and the other moment that stood out to me besides the Kirk Gibson home run was Mickey Hatcher hitting a home run in the first inning and flying around the bases with his arms in the air like an excited little kid.  That is the joy that players should have on a ballfield.

Jack’s love of the game is obvious and his energy is infectious.  He was a shortstop during his professional career but he wanted to play in the outfield for us.  We put him out there.  Then, when I showed up for the game I was pitching, the manager told me, “Jack wants to catch.”  I was thrilled and figured I certainly would not have to shake off my catcher that game.  He was really into catching and talked to me between each inning about how we should adjust and set up hitters.  I ended up striking out 14 in the game.  Jack enjoyed catching so much and was so good behind the plate that we had him catch in the championship game of the tournament, which ended up being an 18-inning marathon win.

When our manager sent out the roster for this year’s tournament, one of the first things I looked for was Jack’s name.  Sure enough, it was on there.  (I heard someone congratulate our manager on getting him back, to which he replied that Jack had been the one excitedly asking him about it.)  At the first game, Jack was smiling and ready to go like a kid on Christmas.  Then, early in the tournament he hit a ground ball and pulled a hamstring running to first base.  He limped back into the dugout looking dejected and said it was pretty bad and he couldn’t play.  Nobody would have blamed him if that was true.  He has nothing to prove to us and was obviously hurting.  However, about 5 minutes later Jack got up, went out to the bullpen, and started testing his leg.  He came back in and said, “I can’t swing the bat, but I think I can catch.  It doesn’t hurt when I crouch or throw.”  We thought he was crazy, but we loved that he wanted to play so badly.  It gets better, though.  The next day when we showed up to the game, Jack told us he thought he could hit left-handed because it’s easier on his hamstring.  He was not a switch hitter during his career, but he barreled up everything and was by far our best hitter for the rest of the tournament.  It was impressive.

On top of having talent and a great attitude on the field, Jack is a really good guy.  He never acts superior to us and enjoys talking baseball and answering our questions when we ask.  I heard guys ask him things that he’s probably been asked 100 times before and he graciously answered, sometimes eagerly telling stories along with it.  When I asked him about his All-Star Game appearance, he told me about the All-Star weekend and his two at-bats; a lineout to left against Ted Lilly and a pop out to second against Mariano Rivera. 

Now, Jack is the head coach at Thousand Oaks High School, which had the highest-ranked baseball team in California last year. The way to get better at anything is to emulate people who are successful at it, so his players have a great advantage.  His enthusiasm is an example that I want to follow in everything that I do.  As a coach, when I do lessons for kids, the biggest predictor of success is enthusiasm.  If a player is thrilled to be on the field, enjoys watching baseball at home, and loves competing, he is more likely to become a good player than a kid with more natural ability who is not passionate about the game.    

Seeing Jack’s childlike excitement and zeal to play helped me gain wisdom that can be applied not only to baseball, but to other areas in life as well.  Off the ballfield, enthusiasm should help tell us a lot about people.  If you are dating someone who acts ambivalent about you, why keep wasting your time?  I want somebody who is enthusiastic about me, wants to spend time with me, and is eager to talk to me.  If I have to struggle for their attention, they probably are not really into me and the relationship will fail.  If you are starting a business, choose a business partner who is enthusiastic about your product.  Otherwise, expect to do most of the work yourself.  In general, if you surround yourself with ambitious, happy people, your life will be better.

As far as baseball goes, Hall of Famer Roy Campanella summed it up best when he said, “You have to have a lot of little boy in you to play baseball for a living.”  Jack certainly has that, and when you really think about it, my picks for my favorite player are actually more consistent than the statistics would indicate.  Jack Wilson plays baseball like he considers himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. 

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