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Patience pay off for a pair of Pirates
by Jerry Crasnick
PHILADELPHIA--The Pirates like to sell Pittsburgh as baseball's Land of Opportunity, which is a handy euphemism for the "Land of Working Cheap." Lots of playing time awaits the overlooked free agent who wants to re-establish himself, provided he's willing to wait until February for a contract and money is not a priority.
In the case of Kenny Lofton and Reggie Sanders last season, or Jose Mesa and Daryle Ward so far this year, the approach can be beneficial for both player and team. Then there's Raul Mondesi, who led the majors in petulance, greed and personal baggage before abandoning the Pirates and signing with the Angels in late May. In his case, gratitude wasn't part of the package.
Opportunity can also be a long-term proposition. The Pirates haven't had a winning record since 1992--Tim Wakefield's rookie year and the start of the Cam Bonifay era. When expectations are low, the revenue-sharing money flows freely and a team's history is so sorry, it has the luxury of being patient.
Patience has certainly benefited the Steel City Sensations, Craig and Jack Wilson. At a combined salary of $3 million, they're giving the Pirates production befitting hitters that most of the country has actually heard of.
Jack Wilson, who entered this season with a reputation as a "good field, no hit" shortstop, rolled into June among the National League leaders in hits, and had a better OPS than Luis Gonzalez, Jeff Kent, Andruw Jones and Ken Griffey Jr.
Craig Wilson, whose part-time body of work made you wonder how he might fare with a full-time job, is proving he'll do fine with 550 at-bats. He's played right field, left field and first base, and hung around the .340 mark while sporting the best blond mullet since Joe Dirt. It's business in the front, and a party in the back.
Paying their dues
Over the past year or so, some big league executives questioned why Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield didn't just trade Craig Wilson, and fantasy mavens wondered why manager Lloyd McClendon seemed so insistent on spotting him. But as the numbers showed, Craig Wilson had difficulty with righthanded pitching and tended to produce in streaks. In hindsight, he concedes the Pirates might have done him a service.
"It might have been the best thing for me," Craig Wilson said. "If you're thrown into the fire and don't produce, you're always looking behind you and wondering if you might get sent down. I was put into situations where I'd have the best opportunity to succeed."
Jack Wilson, in contrast, was thrown into the deep end of the pool with lead weights strapped to his bathing suit. He was named the sixth best prospect in the Pittsburgh chain by Baseball America in 2001 after batting .373 for Johnson City, .343 in Peoria and .296 for Potomac in the Carolina League. Nobody was calling him "good field, no hit" in those days.
The Cardinals, who already had a top-flight shortstop in Edgar Renteria, traded him to Pittsburgh for reliever Jason Christiansen in July 2000. The following spring the Pirates named Wilson their Opening Day shortstop and told him they'd be happy if he hit .230 to .250. It was a license to be mediocre.
"Being a young player, I listened to them," Jack Wilson said. "Every time I'd go 0-for-3 or 0-for-4, I would say it was OK, because I wasn't supposed to hit. I just sat back this offseason and said, 'This has to change. Just go out there and prove that you can hit.'
"Everything is faster up here. It's a whole different level. I knew it wasn't going to be an overnight thing where I came in raking against major league pitchers. I knew in my heart that I could get back to the way I used to be. But I had to be patient."
Jack's resurgence is a product of old-fashioned sweat and modern technology. He's 20 pounds heavier than the scrawny kid from 2001, and line drives that used to land in the center fielder's glove now reach the gaps. With time, he's become more selective at the plate and more confident with two strikes.
Jack Wilson can also testify to the value of video. He's spent hours in front of a television screen watching Albert Pujols, Todd Helton and other elite hitters to see how they do it. Through the magic of split-screen, he can admire their flawless mechanics on one side while critiquing his own swing on the other.
He's learned that the best hitters have a lot in common: They see the ball longer, rarely overswing, use the entire field and hit home runs because they have the self-restraint not to try and hit them. While Jack will never be a go-yard kind of guy, he's begun to pile up doubles and triples.
"He has a fast bat," said a National League coach who's familiar with Wilson. "He's always on top of the ball. He's always inside the ball. Even in batting practice, everything he hits, he squares up. It seems like he never mishits a ball. It's impressive."
It's enough to make Pirates hitting coach Gerald Perry a proud man.
Pirates fans warm up to Jack because he's approachable, signs every autograph and looks as menacing as a grocery store bag boy. They cheer Craig in part for his haircut, which hasn't generated the buzz of Johnny Damon's 'do but is cool nonetheless. Craig recently posed for the cover of the Pirates magazine with fans on full blast to give the coif the full effect.
"It's hair," Craig said. "I just didn't feel like cutting it this offseason--that's it. I guess I was lazy."
Yes, we're talking Southern California free spirit here. Craig Wilson plays chess in the clubhouse and has been christened the "Mel Kiper Jr. of fantasy football" by Pirates beat writer John Perrotto. He frequently wears a San Diego Chargers cap in honor of his favorite team, so that tells you something about his pain threshold.
He's actually the third Craig Wilson to play in the majors since 1989. The first Craig Wilson was an infielder with the Cardinals and Royals. The second was a U.S. Olympian and an infielder with the White Sox.
"I know," said the Pirates' Craig Wilson, "because people send me their baseball cards to sign."
If he keeps this up, the confusion won't last. Only once in the past 10 years (Jason Kendall and Brian Giles in 2000) have the Pirates sent two players to an All-Star Game. This year they've got Mesa cranking out saves and two guys named Wilson among the league's top 10 in hitting.
With production like that, it's tough to stay anonymous. Even in Pittsburgh.