Rockies' Parker, Wilson Making Strides On The Diamond
ASHEVILLE, N.C.—The South Atlantic League and Atlantic Coast Conference share footprints that are as similar as their names. The overlapping familiarity has generated more than casual interest in a pair of players for the Asheville Tourists, who feature two starting quarterbacks in manager Joe Mikulik's lineup.
The Rockies caught the fancy of ACC football fans last June by taking Clemson's Kyle Parker in the first round of the draft before nabbing North Carolina State's Russell Wilson in the fourth. Both signal-callers guided their schools to bowl games last fall before turning their attention to the diamond this spring. Their presence with Asheville has piqued the interest of sports fans and media alike.
"It's nice to have people around who know about you, seeing some familiar faces and playing in front of them," Parker said. "That being said, I'm trying to pursue this as my professional career. Sometimes it gets a little tough always being in the shadows of football. I'm a pro baseball player now, but sometimes in this part of the country it's hard to get away from things I accomplished in college."
Such difficulties are on the verge of disappearing, at least as far as the 21-year-old Parker is concerned. The 26th overall pick in 2010 has displayed impressive all-around tools while manning right field for Asheville. In his 10th game as a professional, on April 29, he stepped in the batter's box with the bases loaded in three consecutive innings and produced hits on every occasion, including a grand slam, a two-run double and an RBI single, giving him seven RBIs for the evening. Eight days later against Delmarva, he made three circus catches, ranging from deep right-center field to 20 feet past the foul line.
"I think I've been able to go out and show a lot of upside and tools and other things the Rockies want to see," said Parker, who was hitting .291/.352/.449 with 30 RBIs in his first 127 at-bats. "But the key is doing that consistently and bringing everything to the park every day."
While Parker is making his professional debut this spring, Wilson took the field 32 times at short-season Tri-City in 2010 and batted .230/.336/.377. He opened the current campaign slowly before hurdling the Mendoza line in late April. The second baseman was batting .224/.381/.327 with 49 strikeouts in 35 games but showed an excellent eye with 22 walks and made several early adjustments at the plate.
"I'm blessed to be here and to be able to come out every day and work my butt off," Wilson, 22, said. "That's my mindset, to get better every single day. You go through your ups and downs but the key is to stay at an even keel and keep working. It's a process and I'm enjoying it."
The Rockies have a track record of drafting former quarterbacks who went on to have major league careers, beginning with Todd Helton and continuing with the likes of Matt Holliday and Seth Smith. The organization mentioned both players' leadership, competitiveness and work ethic upon signing them last summer, believing that Parker and Wilson will blossom by focusing on baseball on a full-time basis.
"They're tough players who do lots of pre-game work and really focus on the little things to get better," Mikulik said. "You can tell Kyle has played more baseball than Russell, but both of them bring a lot of tools and promise to the field."
Parker became the first Division I athlete to throw for 20 touchdowns in football and hit 20 home runs in baseball in the same academic year while at Clemson. He was a freshman all-American in both sports before guiding the Tigers to the College World Series and earning second-team All-America honors as a junior.
After being drafted by the Rockies last June, Parker turned down a reported signing bonus of $2.2 million to give up the gridiron. He instead inked a $1.4 million deal to play baseball only after the fall of 2010, when he endured an up-and-down football season before suffering two broken ribs in his final game, against South Florida in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
"The broken ribs put me out of commission for about a month and a half," Parker said. "Once that was over, they've held up fine. Playing in the minors is about what I expected. It's difficult playing every day with the long bus rides. But it's not too bad, especially if you enjoy playing this game and want to get better."
Keeping Options Open
Wilson became the first freshman named a first-team all-ACC quarterback in 2008 while garnering the league's rookie of the year award. In his three years in Raleigh, he placed among the top five in most career categories, including third with 48 touchdown passes. Wilson's tenure on the Wolfpack baseball team was not as notable. His 2009 season was cut short after he sprained a knee in a bowl game and he was limited to a platoon role in 2010.
"I actually didn't play that much (baseball) at State, but I knew I had the tools to play this game at a higher level," Wilson said. "I knew I was going to get drafted high. Once it got close to draft day, I wasn't surprised with the way everything turned out."
The big question revolving around Wilson is his future. He graduated from N.C. State in three years and received his release from the university in early May. As a result, he is free to play the 2011 college football season with any team, except those on the Wolfpack's schedule this fall. While Wilson politely declines to speculate on possibilities, reports suggest as many as a dozen schools are interested in his quarterbacking services.
In the meantime, Wilson's focus is on improving his performance in baseball. He arrives as early as 11:30 a.m. for 7 p.m. games to take ground balls and extra batting practice. Mikulik raves about how Wilson has shortened his swing and asks questions to become better. The immediate efforts show improved basestealing skills with his plus speed. After swiping only four of 10 attempts in the Northwest League, Wilson stole seven in his first eight tries this spring.
"I know I'm making improvements," Wilson said. "I want to be a complete player, a five-tool player who produces consistently. It's a process, and I just need to keep working at it because I know it's going to come."
Parker can tell he's making strides as well, although he envisions his greatest gains taking place in 2012, after he experiences something for the first time.
"I've never had an offseason so I'm looking forward to seeing what that's like," Parker said. "I've also never had the chance to be only a baseball player and dedicate myself to getting better. I was always limited to 60 games we played in college. I never played summer ball or had a chance to get in a rhythm by playing over a long period of time. I can tell I'm sharpening my game right now while also noticing areas where I need to get better, and that's all because I'm playing every day."