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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Man in the Middle

Shortstop Wilson Learned to Play Second Base, Giving Him a Chance to Stick With the Pirates as Reserve

March 18, 2001|JOHN KLIMA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Shade to the hole against a right-handed hitter. Cheat toward the bag in a double-play situation. The art of playing shortstop is about being in the right place at the right time.

It's the quick study of Jack Wilson that has transformed him from a junior college shortstop to the brink of the major leagues in less than four years.

Wilson, 23, in his third full season of professional baseball, is in a major league camp for the first time. With it comes a shot to break in with the Pittsburgh Pirates as a fifth infielder.

The rise of Wilson, who played at Thousand Oaks High and was a modest ninth-round draft pick out of Oxnard College in 1998, is as much a matter of timing as it is a matter of patience and perseverance.

When the Pirates selected former major leaguer Lloyd McClendon as its manager, Wilson got the biggest break of his career.

Wilson played for McClendon in the California Fall League and last season in the Arizona Fall League.

McClendon likes Wilson's defense, strong throwing arm and instincts. Considered ready to play defensively in the major leagues by the time he reached double-A, Wilson's right-handed stroke produced a .314 career minor league average and caught McClendon's eye.

The Pirates' former batting coach, he urged the organization to trade for Wilson when the club unloaded left-handed reliever Jason Christiansen to the St. Louis Cardinals in July.

"I've been incredibly lucky," Wilson said. "I mean that. Guys get lost in pro ball. You can fall off the face of the earth. I was very fortunate that early in my career I got to play for a manager who liked what I could do, which is work my [tail] off."

Wilson could be in the right place at the right time. A gifted shortstop, he played second base for the first time this fall and convinced the Pirates he could play the position in the major leagues.

Wilson could eventually replace shortstop Pat Meares, who has one year left on his contract. Meares made 20 errors in 126 games last season and batted .240, 23 points below his career average.

The Pirates hope Enrique Wilson, a middle infielder obtained from the Cleveland Indians last season, can move to third base and push Aramis Ramirez.

Ramirez, 23, showed considerable power in the minor leagues but has only 12 home runs and 117 strikeouts in 561 major league at-bats over three seasons.

Enrique Wilson, 25, who has a .283 lifetime average in parts of four major league seasons, is more advanced offensively than Jack Wilson, who is considered a superior defensive player.

With a strong showing in the Grapefruit League, Wilson could push his way into a reserve role behind Meares and second baseman Warren Morris.

Wilson's work ethic is mixed with a passion for the game that borders on the religious.

"He made himself a good player," said assistant Buster Staniland of Oxnard College, a former catcher who played 12 minor league seasons. "He doesn't run all that well. His arm is maybe above average. He made some plays you'd turn your back on and say 'I saw it, but I don't believe it.' "

Wilson grew up studying a Rod Carew hitting video. To this day, he carries a laminated baseball card of Kurt Stillwell, former Thousand Oaks High shortstop, in his wallet.

Wilson figures to be a major league shortstop similar to Stillwell, a .249 hitter in nine seasons who was an American League All-Star in 1988.

Wilson was introduced to Stillwell in the off-season.

"I soaked in everything from him," Wilson said. "I'd love to have his career. He was a grinder, and that's what I am."

In the first week of spring training games, the Pirates played the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Texas Rangers.

Those teams have the holy trinity of shortstops: Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

"I am not one of those guys," Wilson said. "I never will be. I think I can have a pretty solid career like Stillwell's. That's my goal."

Chuck Berrington coached Wilson as a freshman at Thousand Oaks High. Now coach at Westlake, he recalls a time when Wilson dived into third base after rain had made the field a muddy mess.

"The thing about Jack was he had a desire to play the game unlike a lot of kids I've ever had," Berrington said.

"This kid is a gamer who'll do anything it takes. Other guys are like, 'This kid is nuts.' I knew this kid would be a good player because he'll do whatever it takes."

A final motivating factor for a strong spring is a return home. The Pirates are in Los Angeles for a three-game series starting April 24. Wilson was so excited he reported to Pirates' camp a week early.

"That's him," Staniland said. "If you padlocked the field at night, this kid would hop the fence and find a skunk to hit him ground balls."

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