This story appeared in the Greater L.A. edition of the Jan./Feb. ESPN RISE Magazine.
By all accounts, Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.) senior Austin Wilson is the perfect kid.
Academic dean Sharon Cuseo: "One of his teachers described him as just about perfect in every way, and that's hard to live up to. Then you meet him and it's hard to find any flaws. He's straight out of central casting for a student-athlete."
Teammate Andrew Shanfield: "He hasn't changed one bit since he got this attention. He doesn't think he's better than anyone or deserves more than anyone." Coach Matt LaCour: "He's such a great kid off the field, so well-liked and he gets along with everybody."
But on the field, that's not always such a good thing.
From the day he arrived at Harvard-Westlake, Wilson has been a supremely talented, five-tool, ticketed-for-superstardom phenom. And when he finally brought a mean streak onto the diamond, it enabled him to become the star he is today -- California's best baseball player, a Stanford-bound outfielder and a possible first-round pick in June's MLB Draft.
It started with a ground ball up the middle as a sophomore.
The opposing first baseman stepped into the base line to field the throw and Wilson awkwardly tried to avoid contact, injuring himself in the process. LaCour wanted him to run through the first baseman.
"Austin had to figure out what kind of player he wanted to be," LaCour says.
So after the season, LaCour and Wilson had a conversation. "He said, 'Look at yourself in the mirror. You're 6-4, 200 pounds. You shouldn't be afraid of anyone. These people should be afraid of you,'" Wilson recalls.
In the team's first summer game, a nearly identical play unfolded. This time, Wilson ran through the first baseman.
"I don't remember exactly what happened, but the first baseman was on his back and Austin was on first base," LaCour says.
Wilson has a slightly better memory.
"I got ejected for that one," he says. "It was a clean play, but since it's a high school game, they kicked me out. [Coach LaCour] had my back. He probably didn't mention this, but he got ejected for protecting me and arguing the call."
Since then, it's mostly been opposing pitchers who've been absorbing punishment from Wilson.
His junior season got off to a good start with a display at last February's Southern California Invitational that put him on the radar of every MLB team. Wilson turned 17 the night before, but the celebration would have to wait.
"My friends wanted me to go out, but I knew I had a big day the next day," says Wilson, who was one of only two non-seniors in the event. "I knew the pressure was on the seniors, so I thought there was a chance for me to sneak in and steal the show."
Mission accomplished. Wilson peppered the left-field bleachers with tape-measure bombs in batting practice, then showed his powerful arm in the outfield. Keith Law, who used to work in the Toronto Blue Jays' front office and is now the lead baseball analyst for ESPN's Scouts Inc., was on hand that day and called Wilson "probably the best prospect" in attendance, ahead of 2009 first-round draft picks like Matt Hobgood and Jiovanni Mier.
The good times continued from there, as Wilson batted .543 with seven homers, 29 RBIs and 33 runs scored in 23 games last spring.
Along the way, Wilson disproved several myths about becoming a great player.
Compared to that of many top baseball prospects today, Wilson's baseball education has been downright old-fashioned. He never played 100 games a year as a 10-year-old, jetting across the country with some high-priced travel team. Instead, he spent his time in the Wilshire League, which had six teams and never left SoCal.
As a result, he was pretty raw when he got to Harvard-Westlake. Sure, he was the team's most talented player, someone who could make jaws drop with his natural ability. But he didn't know the first thing about plate discipline or pitch recognition.
Instead of sending him around the country to showcases for top young talent, LaCour put Wilson to work.
"You don't get better traveling around the country week to week," LaCour says. "You get better by getting in the weight room and on the practice field. He could have had that exposure after freshman year, but when it comes down to it, that stuff doesn't matter."
Taking his own path has never bothered Wilson. He's not one who does things by the book. Unless, of course, you're talking about a textbook.
Wilson's father, Alan, went to MIT, while his mother, Ina Coleman, went to Stanford -- they both also have MBAs from Harvard -- so it's no surprise that education has always been a priority in Wilson's life. While he had his pick of colleges, his decision would be based on athletics and academics. Baseball factories need not apply. In addition to Stanford, Wilson looked at Vanderbilt, Virginia, UCLA and USC.
When Wilson settled on the Cardinal in August, though, it didn't mean he'd slack off just because he had a college scholarship and potential million-dollar signing bonus waiting for him.
"He always tells me he has work to do, and I'm like, 'You're going to Stanford, how can you still have work? If I don't have work, you can't have any,'" Shanfield says.
But Wilson knows his work is just beginning. With a good performance this spring, he can stamp himself as a sure-fire first-round draft pick. At that point, it will be tough to turn down millions of dollars in signing-bonus money. But whether or not he enrolls at Stanford in the fall, Wilson says he will eventually get his degree.
"Regardless of what happens, I will still need another job after baseball and I want to succeed in that job," he says.
Sounds like a perfect plan.
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