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Thursday, August 11, 2005
Surprise! Wilson hangs on for 2,000 hits

By Jeff Merron
ESPN.com

SURPRISE, ARIZ. -- Desi Wilson's world is a big one -- played out, usually, on a small stage .

The 37-year-old first baseman and outfielder was drafted by the Red Sox, Astros and Rangers, the team he finally signed with in 1991.

He's made temporary homes in Butte, Charlotte, Tulsa, Shreveport, Hanshin (Japan), Tucson, Harrisburg, and Sioux City.

He's played in the Florida State League, the Pioneer League, the Texas League, the Pacific Coast League, the Eastern League, the Northern League, and, in Japan, at both the major- and minor-league level.

He's been a Copper King, a Ranger, a Driller, a Captain, a Firebird, a Tiger, a Sidewinder, a Knight, a Senator, and a Canary.

Desi Wilson
Wilson reached the bigs for 41 games in 1996.

He's also played in San Francisco, for the Giants. In 1996, when he finally made it to the majors, Desi Wilson did just fine. In 41 games, he hit .271 with two home runs.

But he never made it back to the bigs.

Now, in his 15th season as a pro ballplayer, he's playing for the Surprise Fightin' Falcons in the independent Golden Baseball League. It's a new league with the Samurai Bears, a Japanese team that plays only road games. Rickey Henderson is playing for the San Diego team. A league where, if you're so inclined, you can pick up a Pat Sajak bobblehead doll. Sajak is one of the league's owners.

These are some things that have gotten the Golden League some attention. But celebrities and gimmicks don't have anything to do with what Wilson -- and his teammates -- are trying to accomplish.

*****

Just three days after his fiancÚ, Kristi Bronson, gave birth to their daughter, just hours after he stepped off a plane from South Dakota, without having slept since having left town, Desi Wilson steps up to the plate.

It's the first game of a Wednesday twi-light doubleheader against the Mesa Miners. On the scoreboard, his stats are displayed below his head shot: .413, 5 HR, 50 RBI. Wilson was smoking through the end of June, when he hit in 30 straight games, and through the first half of July, when he raised his batting average to .477. But he's been slumping lately.

Wilson stands almost upright at the plate; at 6-feet-7-inches, he gives the pitcher plenty of vertical strike zone. Think Chipper Jones hitting lefty, and you'll have a pretty good idea of his stance. After running the count to 2-and-2, he grounds out to second, leaving two runners stranded.

It's in the field -- at first base (he also plays left field) that Wilson shows his experience. In the top of the third, he dives for a hard grounder down the first-base line, and it slides past his outstretched glove for a double. The next batter, Mesa pitcher Julian Harris, bunts, and the ball dribbles out 15 feet or so in front of home plate. Wilson charges, but it's the catcher's ball, so he hits the grass to get out of the way of the throw to first. When he gets up, he patiently picks up a couple of infield divots and carefully places them back between the pitcher's mound and the first-base line.

Seconds later, bam-bam, there's a rundown between third and home -- perfectly executed by the Falcons -- and Wilson's there, having hustled from the moment the play started, to finish it off with a tag on the runner near home plate.

*****

What's a 37-year-old man, who had his cup of coffee nearly a decade ago, still doing out here, playing at one of the lowest professional levels? His teammates talk about his love of the game, and that seems sincere. But there has to be something more. And there is.

"My goal is to get 2,000 hits," says Wilson, "and from there, maybe coach, stay in this league, be a manager. My main concern is to help the young kids on my ballclub get picked up by an organization. Maybe some of them will get a chance to play in the big leagues, like myself. So my goal is to get 2,000 hits, and if I get it, I get it, if I don't, I don't."

It's likely he will. Entering the doubleheader, Wilson had 1,632 minor-league hits. (And 32 in the majors.) His lifetime minor-league average coming into the season was .308, and now, of course, it's a few points higher. A thousand more at-bats -- two, three seasons -- and he's a lock for 2K.

Not many minor leaguers hang on for that kind of mark, or even pay attention. Crash Davis -- the fictional one -- was closing in on the minor-league home run record, and nobody even knew. Trenidad Hubbard, now playing for the real Durham Bulls, has been going up and down from the majors to the minors for the past decade. But he wasn't even aware that he was closing in on 1,000 hits in the Pacific Coast League until a reporter alerted him to the fact. And, he told me a few weeks ago, he wasn't sure it was the kind of record he really wanted to have.

Understandable.

But something else keeps Wilson playing ball, night after night in the sweltering Arizona desert. In a way, he's found his team. Or, to put it another way, he's found a team that really likes having him around.

"He's just like having another coach," says former major leaguer Pete LaCock, who's the official hitting coach of the Fightin' Falcons. "A coach that plays and plays well. And he's a fabulous teacher."

Other players agree, almost in sync.

"I've known Desi throughout his whole career," says Pete Hartmann, a starting pitcher and pitching coach for Surprise. "I was the one who brought him out here to Surprise, because I know what he brings to the table. He's very quiet, but he leads by example. He's kind of a coach on the side."

"Desi's a 6-foot-8, 200-plus pound man that just has the softest heart and the easiest voice," says Falcons closer Brett Grebe, who's put in 15 pro seasons himself. "He and I've pretty much got the same career. Except he's got a little bit more time in the big leagues than I do. He helps these kids ... He knows about the game, he knows about positioning. He knows this game as much as anyone I know."

Two thousand hits. A potential coaching career. Is that what keeps Wilson going? When asked if he thinks he has a chance to get back up to the majors, he shrugs it off, saying he doesn't think about it much anymore and he just enjoys the routine of going to the park and taking batting practice and playing. It's a routine that's become his life.

"I know I can still hit in the big leagues, wherever, it doesn't matter. It's just getting the opportunity, that chance." He knows the chances are slim. But he must know that the possibility is there. After all, Julio Franco is going to turn 47 in two weeks, and he's hitting .287 for the Braves. The 40+ club in all sports keeps getting bigger and bigger. And, consider: Wilson is leading the Golden Baseball League in hitting -- by far.

"He can hit there [in the majors]," says former All-Star catcher Ozzie Virgil, the Falcons' manager. "He's tearing it up. He knows how to hit. But it's tough for an older guy to get a chance unless someone really wants him."

But does he really have any chance? "Absolutely," says Hartmann, who remarks that Phoenix is awash in scouts looking for a hidden gem.

"I think he could still do it," says Grebe. "I think whoever gets Desi is going to be lucky. He's in great shape. He runs like a deer."

For sure? Of course not. "If I don't," says Desi, smiling easy between turns in a hitting cage, "hey, I was there. How many people can say that?"