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Wilson fights adversity to become leader

by Jerry Crasnick
April 29, 2004

PHILADELPHIA --Paul Wilson is approaching the 10th anniversary of his selection as the No. 1 choice in the 1994 draft. He remembers the press conference at the College World Series in Omaha, where Todd Walker and Nomar Garciaparra were also introduced as first round picks, and it makes him feel old.

"A lot of things make me feel old," Wilson said, smiling. "I get out of bed every day and it makes me feel old."

Wilson remembers feeling excited by the challenge, yet overwhelmed by the attention. The Mets talked him up as if he might save the franchise. But no matter how advanced Wilson seemed for a college pitcher, Tallahassee was a world away from Flushing.

At Florida State, Wilson embraced radar gun readings for the sense of validation they provided. It was comforting to know that if you missed your spot and threw a fastball down the middle, the pitch was traveling 96 mph and the hitter might swing though it regardless.

Then Wilson blew out his shoulder and elbow in the mother of a bad-luck quiniela. Nothing changes a man's perspective like two arm surgeries in three years. And nothing cultivates loneliness like rehab, which teases an athlete by allowing him to be just close enough to the action to realize how desperately he misses it.

Now Wilson, 31, is at the top of the Reds' rotation preaching the gospel of finesse. He wears a beard that makes him look professorial, and drops all sorts of astute life insights on you that make it clear he's been tested by adversity and come through whole. But all he really wants is to play baseball.

"I'm going to pitch until this thing comes off, or I have to start pitching with my left arm," Wilson said. "I still feel like I have a lot of baseball left. I really do."

Bonus baby

When the Mets signed Wilson for $1.55 million in 1994, he tied Brien Taylor for the largest bonus in draft history. Wilson threw three pitches for strikes, took the same businesslike approach to the mound each time and drew comparisons with Tom Seaver. "He's the best college pitcher I've ever scouted," Mets scout Ron Hopkins said at the time.

Hopkins wasn't alone in his exuberance. "To all of us, Paul looked like the total package," said Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker, then the Mets director of baseball operations. "In our minds, he had 'cant miss' written all over him."

Wilson and his "Generation K" buddies, Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen, generated enormous buzz in New York, and made life easy for the writers by fitting into neat little compartments. Wilson was the cerebral, gentlemanly one. Isringhausen grunted with each delivery and was quick to show emotion. And Pulsipher was the lefty with the obligatory alien tendencies.

But the experience was never as much fun as it should have been.

"There was so much hype, it was scary not to be good," Wilson said. "I was afraid of failing at Shea. I wanted to live up to those expectations, and when I didn't, it compounded the problems and made it worse. The pressure just built and built and it consumed me."

One by one, Generation K dreams were deferred on the operating table. Isringhausen had arthroscopic shoulder and elbow surgery in 1996 and a Tommy John two years later. He returned to average 30 saves as a closer for Oakland and, now, St. Louis. Pulsipher blew out his elbow in 1995 and eventually began taking Prozac for depression. He's trying to make a comeback with Long Island of the Atlantic League.

Wilson went 5-12, 5.38 in 149 innings in his rookie season in New York. As it turns out, that would be the high point as a Met. In November 1996 he had arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder. He barely pitched the next two seasons, then underwent an elbow reconstruction in the spring of 1999.

Second chance

Strangely enough, there was no fork in the road--a moment where Wilson took an inventory of all the bad things that had happened and decided to persevere. Thanks to the support of his wife, Shannon, and his parents in Florida, he always assumed he would pitch again.

"I bawled my eyes out after the second surgery," Wilson said. "I couldn't believe it had happened again. But it made me want it even more. It was another challenge. I was like, 'You've had a second arm surgery. Now you really can't get back to the big leagues. You really can't be successful.' Oh yeah well, watch."

The Devil Rays gave Wilson a chance, and while his 15-25 record over two seasons was nothing special, he stayed healthy enough to average 172 innings. His performance was encouraging enough for the Reds to give him a two-year, $4 million contract in January 2003.

In Cincinnati, Wilson has been fortunate to find a pitching coach, Don Gullett, who can pinpoint a flaw or set him straight with just a look and a well-placed word of advice. "He's just an unbelievable teacher of pitching," Wilson said. "I respect him so much, it's hard to put into words."

Lessons learned

The "new" Paul Wilson aspires to pitch 200 innings this season and figures everything else will take care of itself. He relies on a curve, occasional slider, a changeup that's a work-in-progress and a fastball in the 88 mph range. Maybe he'll hit 90 here and there. But as Wilson is quick to point out, 90 with sink is a greater challenge for a hitter than 95 straight.

If Wilson had stayed healthy, won 20 games and bagged a Cy Young Award by now, he would have fulfilled his early promise. As things stand, he entered this season with a 28-47 record. But he's considered a leader on the Cincinnati staff for a reason. His teammates admire him because he overcame so many obstacles and learned to work with what he had left, rather than moan about what he'd lost.

"He's the kind of guy you root for," Hunsicker said. "We always thought he was not only going to be a special pitcher, but a special person. To see him finally find a way to be successful after all he went through is a tribute to his determination and his fortitude."

When Phil Mickelson won the Masters in April, he observed that the victory was more meaningful because it came after so many setbacks. Paul Wilson, former Mets savior-in-waiting, can relate.

"I never took this game for granted," he said. "But after I came back, it was just so much nicer. For some guys everything is smooth. For the majority of us, there are breakdowns and there's drama."

And sometimes there are happy endings.

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