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
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.
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
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
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
"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
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
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