Thursday, April 14, 2005
More to Wilkerson's repertoire than hitting cycles
By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine
Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson calls it Plan B, which basically covers anything that could go wrong with Plan A. The "B" should stand for Brad, as in Brad Wilkerson, who plays whatever position is needed, and hits wherever needed in the batting order.
"Whether I'm hitting first, fifth, third, whatever, all I want is a consistent spot in the lineup," Wilkerson said. Last season, he started at least one game in each of the first seven spots in the batting order, including 107 games at leadoff and 14 at cleanup. He played 86 games at first base, 59 in left field, 18 in center field and 10 in right field.
Late in spring training this year, Nationals center fielder/leadoff man Endy Chavez was sent to the minor leagues because he was, as always, swinging at anything that moved. So, Wilkerson was moved from left field, and the middle of the order, to center field and leadoff.
His versatility comes from great athleticism. "As a kid, if there was a game being played, I was in it," Wilkerson said. In high school in Kentucky, he was all-state in four sports: baseball, basketball, football and soccer. He was Kentucky's Mr. Baseball, and runner-up for Mr. Soccer. He was the punter and place-kicker on the football team, which played the same season as soccer; after soccer practice ended, he went to football practice. He is a 5-handicap in golf. "I'm no John Smoltz," Wilkerson said, "but I'm OK."
He has been more than OK as a baseball player this season. He began the season with 10 hits in his first 16 at-bats. In the second game of the season, the first win by a Washington baseball team since 1971, Wilkerson hit for the cycle, the second time he has done that in his career (Babe Ruth and Willie Mays never did it). At 27, he seems to be getting better every year. Last season, he hit 32 home runs and 39 doubles, walked 106 times, and stole 13 bases in 160 games. He strikes out too much (152 last year) and takes too many strikes, not your classic leadoff man, but, as always, he does whatever it takes to help his team.
This spring, he gave up his uniform number, 6, to new right fielder Jose Guillen in exchange for Guillen's donation to the soon-to-be-formed Brad Wilkerson Foundation that will aid needy kids. Wilkerson's new number is 7, which has always been his favorite. "That's Mickey Mantle's number," Wilkerson said. "When you see No. 7, you think of Mickey Mantle. When you see No. 23, you think of Michael Jordan. I'm not making any comparisons, but I've always loved Mickey Mantle. He came from a small town in Oklahoma; I came from a small town in Kentucky. He was a switch-hitter, I was a switch-hitter until I gave it up for some reason in high school. ... I think it was affecting my golf swing, I play right-handed. Mickey's dad worked with him a lot. My dad worked a lot with me."
Wilkerson says he has seen Billy Crystal's movie "61*" "at least 20 or 25 times. I just pop it in when I need a boost. There's nothing better than watching 'Field Of Dreams' or 'Bull Durham.' But '61*' is my favorite. I'll come home some night after a ballgame, pop it in and it helps me to relax."
There hasn't been much time for relaxation this spring. The move from Montreal to Washington has been hectic, but rewarding. The first game by a baseball team from Washington in 34 years has brought tremendous excitement, and some stress. The Nationals will play their home opener Thursday at RFK Stadium, which will be an event few Nationals players, if any, have experienced. "It has been real, real busy," Wilkerson said. "But it's going to be great playing 81 games at the same place in front of a lot of people."
So far, everything has gone very well. Wilkerson hit .368 on the nine-game road trip to start the season. The Nationals returned home with a 5-4 record and a share of first place in the National League East. The fans in the Washington area are thrilled about the play of the club, specifically that of Wilkerson, who has hit leadoff and played center field in every game. It might not go this smoothly, or this well, the entire season for the Nationals, but if anything goes wrong, there's always Plan B. And Brad Wilkerson will be part of that.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight.