Russell Wilson driven at an early age
Although he didn't develop into a big leaguer, it wasn't because of a lack of effort
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Texas Rangers area scout Chris Kemp remembers the first time he saw current Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson on a baseball field four years ago.
"I was watching batting practice, and he's laying out in center field and jumping up against the wall to catch balls," Kemp said. "Then he's sprinting to shortstop when the groups switched and scooping up balls there. I'd never seen anybody get after it in pregame like he did.
"I watched the guy a bunch, and I thought he was athletic enough to play any position. The only question was whether he could hit."
Kemp said defensively, Wilson's athleticism was noticeable. He had terrific character and intangibles. But to make it at the big league level, his offense would need to improve.
"He was 89 to 90 [mph] off the mound, had good hands and, obviously, a tremendous arm," Kemp said. "I thought he could be a super-utility guy and be that 12th guy offensively that could play second, short and even center. I do think he could have been a major league player. An everyday guy? I wasn't so sure. But I knew he could have a role on a big league team. His work ethic was a separator."
Kemp's assessment was echoed the past few days by several scouts and coaches who watched Wilson play before football became his full-time passion.
Wilson will be back on a baseball field Monday, but it's unclear how many -- if any -- drills he'll participate in as a member of the Rangers. Texas drafted the 25-year-old former infielder in December's Rule 5 draft, paying $12,000 for the chance to add what the Rangers felt was a high-character, winning piece to the organization.
Wilson will be in uniform -- wearing No. 3, of course -- when the Rangers host the Indians at Surprise Stadium on Monday afternoon, but manager Ron Washington has said the quarterback won't be swinging a bat in that game. The skipper did offer Wilson the chance to work with him on one-on-one defensive drills, if he wants to do so.
Before Wilson became a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, he was selected in the fourth round of the 2010 draft by the Colorado Rockies, who believed that Wilson's versatility could make him a long-term asset. They showed how much they believed it by paying him a $200,000 bonus, part of which he returned when he signed with the Seahawks.
The scout who pushed the hardest to draft Wilson: Jay Matthews.
The longtime Rockies evaluator -- now a national crosschecker for the organization -- got to know Wilson as a junior in high school as he constantly scouted him. Even then, Matthews was struck by Wilson's attitude, commitment and work ethic, which went alongside a supreme athleticism.
"He wanted to play football and baseball and be the best he could at both," Matthews said. "Years later, he was still that focused, motivated player. We saw him as a Jerry Hairston-type big leaguer -- athletic enough to be versatile at multiple positions, possibly second, third, left field and center.
"The defense was ahead of the offense. But we thought if he had at least 1,500 minor league at-bats, the upside was there and he was going to be a big league player. We wouldn't have drafted him in the fourth round if we didn't think that."
Even before Wilson signed with the Rockies, he made an impression. He was scheduled to fly to Denver for a quick weekend and to get his contract done shortly after he was drafted in 2010.
Matthews happened to be driving not too far from where Wilson was living when the prospect called him.
"He said he was worried he couldn't properly turn a double play at second and asked if I'd teach him," Matthews said. "The only place we could do it was a parking lot. So we're rolling balls and in 20 minutes, I taught him. I get a call a few days later from our infield coach after Russell worked out, and he tells me it looked like Russell had been turning double plays the right way for years."
It's unfair to say he didn't make it. It was his choice to move on to something else. I would never say he failed. I saw him succeed. He succeeded regardless of his numbers.” -- Joe Mikulik, Wilson's last
manager in the minor leagues
But Wilson wasn't as quick a study with the bat, something that most minor league players will tell you takes repetition to really show improvement.
Wilson had just 315 minor league at-bats to his name before football became his life. He hit .229 with 22 extra-base hits, 26 RBIs and a .356 slugging percentage with Class A Tri-City (2010) and Asheville (2011). Those who saw him say he needed work on pitch recognition and shortening his swing, something that comes with time.
Wilson's last manager at the professional level bristles at the idea that those numbers mean Wilson somehow failed in his attempt to play baseball.
"It's unfair to say he didn't make it," said Joe Mikulik, who managed Wilson in Asheville three years ago and is now the Rangers' Class A Myrtle Beach manager. "It was his choice to move on to something else. I would never say he failed. I saw him succeed. He succeeded regardless of his numbers. From where he started to where he was at when he made the decision to go to Wisconsin, I felt like he was improving and he was on his way to being a better player. Who knows? He just didn't have many at-bats."
What if he got them now? Could Wilson get up to speed and try to become a two-sport star?
"That's very difficult to do," Mikulik said. "I don't think at that position he could. You look at the best two-sport athletes and for me, that's Bo [Jackson] and Deion [Sanders] -- and that's a running back and a defensive back. The quarterback position is very difficult. When he leaves here, he'll go right to that video room in Seattle. They won a Super Bowl, and he won't be complacent. There are a lot of demands on his time.
"But I don't want to count him out. He's so athletic and motivated, you never know. If he wanted to pursue something in baseball, I don't know how far he could go. It would be difficult."
Mikulik, Matthews and Kemp see Monday as a terrific opportunity for young Rangers players to pick Wilson's brain and try to learn something about commitment, work ethic and focus.
"I want as many players as possible talking to him," Mikulik said. "Plenty of young players need the mental preparation about what it takes to be a winner in life. It's lacking at times with our young people. This guy's got it. He's got leadership abilities. He's got motivational abilities. He's got something that when he was going into that draft, the NFL draft, I don't think a lot of people saw what they just saw. I saw it. I lived it. These kids can learn from it."