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Will he be Willie again ?

Feb. 09, 1981
Feb. 09, 1981

Table of Contents
Feb. 9, 1981

No. 1
Sunkist Track
Boxing
Pro Basketball
College Basketball
Baseball
Florida
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

Will he be Willie again ?

The season's hero and the Series goat, Willie Wilson mulls his ups and downs

In most respects, the affair at the Pines Manor restaurant in Edison, N.J. was a typical winter sports banquet. Manager Dallas Green and Vice-President Paul Owens of the world-champion Philadelphia Phillies made speeches. A "Good Guy" award went to the New York Yankees' Willie Randolph. The master of ceremonies drew the inevitable analogy between sports and patriotism. There was, however, one moment worth treasuring. The part of the program that brought 700 people to their feet and sent them home smiling was a brief address by New Jersey's own Willie Wilson, the Kansas City leftfielder.

This is an article from the Feb. 9, 1981 issue Original Layout

The emcee had hailed Wilson as "the Jersey Jet," who "tracks down anything hit to the outfield faster than anyone in the major leagues, maybe faster than anyone past, present or future." Swelling now, the man went on, "He has already written one record into the books—he has had more trips to the plate [actually, at bats in one season—705] than anyone in the history of the game of baseball."

As he listened, Wilson wondered what to say. "I always speak my mind," he'd said before the banquet. "If I feel happy, I give my happy speech. If I feel sad, I give my sad speech."

In fact, Wilson felt a little of each. After thanking the New Jersey Sports Writers Association for giving him the state's Pro Athlete of the Year award and expressing his joy at attending the banquet, Wilson turned to the emcee. "I got another record you didn't tell them about," he said, good-naturedly. "It's 12 strikeouts in the World Series." There was more laughter, and then generous applause.

"You try to forget things like that, but how can I?" Wilson continued. "I got two Phillies on my right and a Yankee on my left." More laughter and applause. "But it was a pleasure to be in the World Series. I have nothing to be ashamed of. I can hold my head high because I was there." His last words were drowned in cheers.

It was a touching scene: an athlete admitting his fallibility, even making fun of it, and vowing to forge ahead. Responding warmly, the fans at the banquet seemed willing to overlook Wilson's Series, if only he could. But when Green privately told him, "You'll make good money, Willie, you'll get all the accolades in the world," Wilson replied, "I just hope I get a chance to redeem myself in another Series." Wilson hadn't forgotten.

How could he forget? Charged with responsibility for igniting the offense, he struck out to open the Series, struck out to end it and struck out 10 times in between; he batted .154 and was labeled the goat. Oh, how he suffered. Wilson's winter of discontent has been as prolonged as the Phillie celebration.

Historically, ballplayers have recovered quickly from poor Series. Mickey Owen of the 1941 Dodgers, Ted Williams and Johnny Pesky of the 1946 Red Sox, Gil Hodges of the 1952 Dodgers and Eddie Murray of the 1979 Orioles, to name a few, had good seasons in the immediate aftermath. Hodges is the only one of the five who had a chance to redeem himself in subsequent Series; he had good ones in 1953, 1955 and 1956.

But history was of little consolation to Wilson in the anguished moments following his final strikeout in Philadelphia. "When I struck out for the last time, everything seemed to be moving in slow motion," he said recently at his mother's house in Summit, N.J. "I saw the catcher jump in the air, the police dogs in the dugout, the people in the stands, and it was like a dream that wasn't true. I was walking in slow motion back to the dugout. The season wasn't over; it was just another game. Then—boom!—it all came home to me."

The reality was too much to bear. Returning to Kansas City, Wilson went into seclusion. "I was embarrassed to go outside, embarrassed that people would see me in the streets or stores," he said. "I kept replaying videotapes of me hitting during the season. I saw that I was relaxed, not tight, not looking up. I just went up and hit. But when your mind's going bad, you start doing things wrong physically, like turning your head and shoulders before hitting. In the Series I was way ahead of the ball, trying to kill it instead of just throwing my bat out. And I kept doing that, even when I had my thinking straight. In fact, the last time up, I was sure I'd get a hit."

The Phillies had been exploiting Wilson's bent-over stance by pitching him inside and preventing him from extending his arms. Then on Wilson's final at bat, with the tying runs on base, Tug McGraw fed him the high pitch Wilson had been expecting, and it tailed out over the plate. But Wilson's body wouldn't obey his mind. He didn't strike out swinging; he struck out flailing.

Looking back, Wilson believes the strikeouts were as much the product of his frame of mind as of the Phillies' strategy. "I think I got tight because I'm young," he said. "I'm 25, and when it hit me that I was in the World Series, the pressure began. I read how important I was supposed to be, and I took the whole load on myself. I was all right on defense, but not on offense. I could see faces, see people yelling at me, but I wasn't able to listen. It was as if I was a rookie again. I was in a fog." The very memory sometimes seems to disorient him. Talking, cigarette in hand, he reclined on his mother's couch, threw his arms back and burned a hole in a drape.

After the Series, Wilson mulled over his failure for hours on end, leaving the house only to collect mail at Royals Stadium. "And that's what cheered me up," he said. "I got letters from all over, and people were so kind it was unreal. They'd say, 'What are you hanging your head for? Don't forget the great season you had. We'll be rooting for you when you come back here.' I must have read 250 letters, and only one, from somebody in Philadelphia, was nasty. So after a week or so, I felt fine."

But as he ventured into the world, Wilson met precious few of his sympathetic correspondents. Everywhere he went—to clubs, restaurants, stores—people reminded him of the Series. "They tried to be nice, but they didn't know how to do it," he said. "Some guys came up to me and said they'd lost money on me. I didn't know whether they were kidding or not. And some of my buddies said, 'I try to stick up for you, but people say you choked.' That just made me feel worse." Wilson's private moments haven't been particularly pleasant either. "I hear the battery commercial that has the 'Is the World Series just another game?' line in it, and I start thinking about striking out all over."

When Wilson reviews the 1980 season, he thinks of little but the Series. That's a shame, because he had a regular season and a playoff that were well worth remembering. During the season Wilson batted .326, stole 79 bases in 89 attempts, led the American League in runs (133) and hits (230) and tied for the lead in triples (15), set league records of 32 consecutive stolen bases and 184 singles, and was the Royals' Iron Man, playing in 161 games. Wilson also won a Gold Glove for his exemplary work in leftfield. His was a year for the books. "Some of the things I did," Wilson says, "were hard for me to believe."

Just how valuable was Wilson? Just before the playoffs, when Moss Klein of the Newark, N.J. Star-Ledger asked some Royal and Yankee players for their MVP preference, nine of 11 Royals and seven of nine Yankees chose Wilson over his teammate George Brett, who only batted .390. "I pointed out to Darrell Porter that the Royals were 22-26 without Brett, and he said, 'Without Willie we might have been 8-40,' " says Klein. "Reggie Jackson told me, 'He's a walking double. When I'm in rightfield, I hope he doesn't get a hit in my area because he'll be running around the bases laughing while I'm juggling the ball.' The Yankee pitchers talked about how Wilson upset them when he was on base, and the hitters spoke of how he ran everything down in the outfield. Here I was trying to argue in favor of Brett, and guys were turning it around! I began to realize that, unlike the other candidates, Wilson had no argument against him: Brett missed too many games, Reggie slumped in September, and Goose Gossage is a relief pitcher who didn't play every day and blew some games during the last week of the season." Klein eventually cast the only first-place vote Wilson received during the MVP balloting, in which Willie finished fourth. Wilson continued his fine play in the playoff sweep of the Yankees, batting .308 and driving in four runs.

Then came the Series. Wilson's statistics looked awful, but did he doom the Royal cause, as his critics charge? On the contrary. He had his good moments, too. In the 10th inning of the third game Wilson walked on four pitches, stole second despite a pitchout and scored the winning run on Willie Aikens' hit. The next day Wilson sparked a four-run first inning by singling and advancing to third upon drawing a wild pickoff from the Phillies' rattled pitcher, Larry Christenson. The lead held up, in part because Wilson made a spectacular catch of Bob Boone's seventh-inning drive.

The Royals lost the Series the same way they'd won in the regular season and playoffs: as a team. But Wilson's bad stats singled him out for attention, and when he was questioned, he was characteristically frank, admitting his own short-comings, but also pointing out team deficiencies, thereby earning himself a label almost as odious as goat: alibier. Had he really wanted an alibi, he had one as credible as Brett's hemorrhoids. A wisdom tooth was coming in, and the pain kept Wilson up nights and bothered him during games. "When the painkilling shots wore off, the tooth would go wild," he said. "I'd be rubbing it with my tongue and at the same time trying to keep my mouth shut so the wind wouldn't get it." He disclosed the ache to no one but the team doctor.

"As far as I'm concerned, everything's fine now," he said. "I can talk about what happened and I can't wait for the 1981 season to begin. I look forward to another Series. Every year I've had a challenge of some kind, and this will be the next one. I just had to be by myself for a while, to think things over without 20 different people telling me what to do, without having to be nice to everyone."

Wilson's feelings are easily hurt, so it's natural the Series would leave him traumatized. His personality provided no defenses. Self-effacing and deferential, Wilson calls older men "Mister," has little use for scrapbooks or trophies and speaks earnestly of building a much-needed laundromat in downtown Summit. He's happy in a crowd, miserable when watched at close quarters. "I just want people to keep in mind that I'm human," he said. The World Series and its aftermath should be proof enough of that for anyone.

PHOTOSwitch-hitter Wilson hit .326 in the season but only .154, with a record 12 whiffs, in the Series.PHOTOA sensitive realist, Willie surveys his future.