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Tuesday, December 18, 2012
C.J. Wilson talks racing and Angels' future

By Bill Speros
ESPN The Magazine

C.J. Wilson
The Angels pitcher both owns and drives race cars, shoots photos and runs his own auto dealership.
C.J. Wilson is many things.

He's a left-handed pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, race-car team owner, past and future race-car driver, photographer, avid user of social media, webmaster, philanthropist, auto dealer, dancer, chef, writer, musician and world traveler who speaks Spanish, Italian, Japanese and Portuguese.

2013 is shaping up to be a potentially great year for Wilson on several athletic and business fronts. The Angels added significant horsepower to their lineup -- which already features AL Rookie of the Year Mike Trout and Albert Pujols -- by signing Josh Hamilton last week.

Wilson's racing team won the Mazda Playboy MX-5 Cup this year and is poised for more when it returns to Daytona next month.

He also underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove bone spurs from his left elbow in October and said he's fully healed and ready for the start of spring training in February.

"I relate it to racing. You have to repair the transmission once in a while after putting a lot of miles on the track," he says.

So does he view himself primarily as a baseball player who owns a race team or a race-team owner who plays baseball?

"Neither," Wilson told ESPN Playbook during an interview, while his racing team was preparing to compete in the 25 Hours of Thunderhill at Willows, Calif., in December. "I'm a driver who went to film school and takes photographs."

Wilson's love of racing has been a part of his life since childhood. "One of my motivations to playing baseball as a kid was to have cool cars," says the 6-foot-1 Newport Beach native, who owns several Porsches in his personal collection. "I had posters of race cars on one wall and baseball players on the other wall when I was a kid. I looked up to the drivers as much as the baseball players. I was talking to [American Le Mans series driver] Chris Dyson last week. It's funny, I'm wishing I was him and could drive his cars around and he wishes he was me and could play baseball."

When there's a conflict in terms of scheduling, the baseball comes first. But all of Wilson's worlds are connected.

"The racing community is pretty small, as is the baseball community. Baseball has opened doors for me, as has racing. We're a medium-sized racing team. I see myself as a medium-sized star in baseball. I'm not quite a top, top name and I have not achieved all the things I want to achieve. I like sports stuff. I like creative stuff. But this puts me in my own little area. Nobody does both. It makes me a more interesting story. Personality is what sells everything in the racing community. It's much more exciting to be personally involved. If you really want to be popular, you have to be accessible."

Awake in Brasilia reading Angels' fans tweeting about @thejoshhamilton @trouty20 @pujolsfive and @mtrumbo44 - lets get to AZ!

— C.J. Wilson (@str8edgeracer) December 14, 2012


Wilson's Twitter handle, (@Str8edgeracer), serves as a reminder to his 155,000-plus followers that he advocates a "Straight Edge" lifestyle, which includes abstinence from alcohol, illegal drugs and tobacco.

Hamilton, who has battled drug and alcohol addition for many years, and Wilson played baseball -- and a few other games -- together in Texas for four seasons starting in 2008.

Really excited to dust off the Xbox controllers for the next few years on the road- it's a great day to be an Angel/Angel fan!

— C.J. Wilson (@str8edgeracer) December 13, 2012


"Josh is a tremendous ball player and a great friend," Wilson told ESPN Playbook via text message while in Brazil this past weekend. "It will be great to be reunited with him and avoid pitching against him these next few years."

Josh Hamilton and CJ Wilson
Hamilton and Wilson were teammates for four seasons in Texas.
Wilson, who has been active online between his website, (leftylefty.com), MySpace and, eventually Twitter, for 10 years -- in addition to talking to reporters over the phone and via text message -- calls himself a sports fan and adopted social media early on to find out about other athletes who interest him.

While he tries to focus on the positive and offbeat, he's affected by criticism to a point.

"Twitter lends itself to my sense of humor," he says. "I had moments where I felt like I was over it because there was so much negativity. Twitter is a very strange, active, alive thing. Sometimes, fans from other teams will have ugly things to say. It goes in waves where it's cool, then it's like 'you suck.' You take it personally for about a week, then you move on. If you're going to put something out there, it might as well be extremely funny, or normal or very positive."

Wilson, 13-10 with a 3.83 ERA in 34 starts last season, was named to the 2012 All-Star team before being scratched with a hand injury. The Angels signed Wilson and Pujols last offseason but missed the postseason by four games in the wild card and five in the AL West as several key players, including Wilson and Pujols, struggled with injuries.

"It was a big adjustment for a lot of people and for the organization. It took a little bit of time to get Mike Trout some playing time, and he was a game-changer. He was our MVP. For myself, the second half was disappointing. I felt I was helping the team in the first half of the season, then in the second half, my arm started giving me problems. You put a lot on yourself. After all, that's why you work so hard," Wilson says.

"Yes, it was disappointing. But we also lost two games to a guy who was banned for using steroids. [The Angels went 1-2 against Bartolo Colon, who was suspended for 50 games on Aug. 22 after testing positive for testosterone.] It depends on how you want to shake it out, but we didn't deliver. We still won 89 games, that's not bad, it's not like we won 65 games and finished in third place. There's a lens of perspective you develop as a player. There were a lot of things stacked up against us and we didn't do everything we could at a certain point.

"The first 15 games of the season, we were literally terrible, then we played much better. Sometimes it was the starters, sometimes it was the bullpen, sometimes it was the defense and sometimes it was the hitting. And sometimes it was all four. Baseball is unique in that everything has to go right for a team to win. This year we had enough things go wrong so that we didn't win."

The Angels have overhauled their rotation this offseason, losing Zack Greinke to the crosstown Los Angeles Dodgers, Dan Haren to the Washington Nationals via free agency and Ervin Santana in a trade to the Kansas City Royals. They added starters Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson and relievers Ryan Madson and Sean Burnett.

"I'm happy for Zack and his family -- they all love California and the Dodgers are a great team to pitch for as well," Wilson wrote via text.

Wilson said he's not familiar with the newcomers in the rotation, but sees tremendous upside in the team's younger talent -- much like his race team -- in players like Trout, Mark Trumbo, Peter Bourjos, Erick Aybar, as well as the other lone starter left from 2012, Jered Weaver.

"The younger core of the team all has room to get better and be more polished," Wilson said. "It's funny with Trout. At 20, he was the MVP besides [Miguel] Cabrera. There's still upside in Mike Trout. But if you look at his numbers [.326, 30 HRs, 89 RBIs and 49 steals], you say, 'Where?' It's going to be great to watch him. I think if everyone is healthy, we'll be a force."

While the Angels may have missed the playoffs this past season, Wilson's racing team won its first championship in 2012 when Stevan McAleer took the Mazda MX-5 Playboy Cup championship.

"The corporate culture you set is really important. You have to make sure everyone is pulling their own weight," he says.

Wilson doesn't always get to watch his team up close due to his baseball commitment, so the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, run Dec. 8-9, offered him the rare chance to be an on-site owner from practice to the checkered flag. His "Young Guns" team featured McAleer and three drivers (Spencer Pigot, 19, Tristan Nunez, 17, and Elliott Skeer, 18) who aren't old enough to rent a car. They finished 10th overall and second in the E1 Class.

Wilson's racing team will be back at Daytona International Speedway in January for the Grand-Am Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge Series race run prior to the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.

"In MX-5 racing, everything is done to spec. So if you make up the car better than everyone else, you can go faster," he said. "In Grand Am, you have cars from different manufacturers. You have Porsche vs. Mazda vs. Honda vs. Ford. It makes it great for fans because they can say, 'I want to root for that team because that's the car that I have or want to have.' It becomes a little bit more connective. We think it's cool. And as a Mazda dealer, it's nice to sell the cars that we race. You know the old adage -- race on Sunday sell on Monday -- is how we've grown our dealership property as well."

His Chicago auto dealership carries the not-so-creative name of CJ Wilson Mazda, and bills itself with the online slogan: "Not Your Typical Car Guy -- Not Your Typical Car Dealership."

Everything is by design.

"The whole point between the connection of the race team, the charity, the dealership and me as an individual is that Mazda is pretty important. I want to emphasize that whenever I can," Wilson says.

Wilson, always looking for an edge -- straight or otherwise, "donated" his 32nd birthday, Nov. 18, to “water” by asking fans to give money through his website to organizations promoting clean drinking water in parts of the world where it’s needed.

“A lot of people ask me, 'how can I give back or help your charity?' I just put it out there. It’s one of those projects where if you can make a difference, it’s worth it. Hopefully, there’s some benefit.”

Allow us to add to C.J. Wilson's growing list of titles: charitable birthday donator.