Altitude Adjustment Climbing back after two down years in Florida and a family tragedy, new Rockie Preston Wilson is off to a smashing start in Colorado

April 27, 2003

At the bottom of Preston Wilson's locker, wedged alongside a
portable DVD/CD player that bumps the new Snoop Dogg through
surround-sound speakers, sits a Hi8 video playback machine linked
to a nearby clubhouse television. Last Saturday morning the
machine was loaded with a tape of San Diego Padres righthander
Clay Condrey, who would be working against Wilson's Colorado
Rockies that afternoon. It is one of around 100 tapes that
Colorado's new centerfielder possesses showcasing National League
pitchers. Speaking to a visitor, the 28-year-old Wilson
broke his train of thought and pointed to the TV, where the tape
had been running on a loop for an hour or so. "Hold on, we gotta
watch this. Now this right here is bad," he said, shaking his
head as his video image flailed at a changeup, which he bounced
to third. "That's what happens when you try to pull the off-speed
pitches."

That afternoon Wilson would have even less luck against Condrey:
In Colorado's 10-9 win he struck out in each of his three at bats
against the Padre. Nevertheless, by week's end Wilson was more
chipper than he had been in some time. Cast off last off-season
by the Florida Marlins, Wilson was batting .338 with four home
runs and 14 RBIs, and his 13 extra-base hits led the league.

Over the last two emotionally and physically trying years, Wilson
lost his first child, Preston V; was separated from his wife,
Trista (they are in the process of divorcing); and suffered back,
thumb and toe injuries that hampered his performance with the
Marlins. He sees his trade to the Rockies not as an insult but as
an opportunity. "I'm definitely happier," he says. "I think
anywhere [other than Florida] I could have been this year, I
would have been happier. Growing through the stuff that I went
through changes your perspective."

Considered a franchise cornerstone for Florida after producing a
31-home-run, 36-stolen-base season in 2000 and signing a
five-year, $32 million contract the following March,
Wilson--along with the three years and $28 million remaining on
his deal--was shipped to the Rockies in November along with
catcher Charles Johnson, infielder Pablo Ozuna and lefthander Vic
Darensbourg. Florida got lefthander Mike Hampton (later sent to
the Atlanta Braves), centerfielder Juan Pierre and cash. Like
Gauguin, who moved to Tahiti, an artist must often relocate to
rediscover his muse. In the thin air and mile-high altitude of
Coors Field, where baseballs famously fly, Colorado believes it
has the environment to reinspire Wilson, who last season (his
fourth in the majors) had career lows in batting (.243), home
runs (23) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.758) while
striking out 140 times, once in every four plate appearances.
(That was still 47 fewer times than he fanned in 2000, when he
came within two whiffs of tying the single-season record set by
Bobby Bonds in 1970.) "We told him what a benefit we thought
playing in this ballpark, on this club, could be for his future
and his career," says Rockies manager Clint Hurdle. "We didn't
look at the strikeouts first; we looked at what happens when he
puts the ball in play. He drives in runs and scores, and that's
the bottom line."

During spring training Hurdle and hitting coach Duane Espy
reviewed video of Wilson's at bats in 2000 and helped him
re-create the open stance he employed then. In that stance the
righthanded Wilson sets his front foot wide and opens his body to
the mound, then straightens his front leg, squares as the pitcher
turns his back, and plants his front foot as the pitcher drives.
"There's very little head movement, body movement," Espy says.
"The setup is simple, which creates a consistent swing path and a
nice short swing." The approach (which he had gradually abandoned
for a more closed stance) gives Wilson wide plate coverage and
allows him to use the opposite field; in Florida's Pro Player
Stadium, one of baseball's least accommodating parks for
righthanded power hitters, Wilson often tried to pull everything,
which contributed to his hefty strikeout totals.

"If you hit a ball 390 feet [to right center] there, it was an
out; 400 feet to center, it was an out," Wilson says. "Plus the
ball didn't carry because it was so humid. Here, you feel you'll
be rewarded for a good swing. If you know a guy is going to throw
you away, you don't feel like your only chance to drive the ball
is to pull it." In addition to retooling his swing, Wilson has
rededicated himself to daily study of his Hi8's, a habit that
lapsed in Florida. Wilson watches tape of his own at bats against
the next day's starter immediately after a game, then continues
the next morning.

Wilson is a hand-in-glove fit for the Rockies. For three straight
seasons Colorado's centerfielders have been last in the NL in
home runs; last year (when speedy singles hitter Pierre manned
the position most of the time) they ranked at the bottom not only
in homers (1) but also in RBIs (42) and slugging percentage
(.339). When not batting fifth, Wilson gives the team a cleanup
option between first baseman Todd Helton and rightfielder Larry
Walker against lefthanded starters. During spring training
Walker, the usual number 4 hitter, suggested to Hurdle that
Wilson be used to break up the two lefthanders; he has done so
this season and at week's end was batting .389 at cleanup, a job
he had lost in Florida. "We've never had anybody good enough that
you could even think about breaking those two guys up before,"
Hurdle says.

As upbeat as Wilson is about his fresh start on the field, he is
even sunnier about an off-field event: the birth of his daughter,
Taya, six months ago. In his locker are five photographs of the
chubby-cheeked girl. Four of the snapshots, taped to a cabinet
door, are candids--two of Taya in her stroller, one of her gaping
goggle-eyed at the camera, another in her father's arms. The
fifth is a portrait, Taya in a pink bonnet, set in a plain wooden
frame and perched on a shelf. "Just got that one back," Wilson
says with a smile. "I got that taken during spring training. We
went to J.C. Penney when she came out to visit and got some
little portraits done. I cut that one out this morning. Couldn't
leave home without putting it in a frame and bringing it here."

Taya lives primarily with Trista in Miami, where Preston also has
his permanent home. (Preston and Trista have no contact outside
of Taya.) "She's the best thing going," Wilson says. "The hardest
thing right now is being so far away from her, but next month I
get lucky because I see her when we go to Florida for a few days,
and then she comes to me at the end of the month."

Wilson cherishes a father's small delights. During the
off-season, he reports, Taya "held her own bottle for a few
seconds, so that was my big kick. It was just me and her, sitting
on the couch. I was holding her, and she held her own bottle."
Wilson doesn't have a crib; his daughter sleeps snuggled next to
him in his bed. "She's so innocent, so uncorrupted," he says.
Even now, however, Wilson's mind occasionally lingers on his son,
who was born three months premature in July 2001 and died 10 days
after birth. Wilson continues to point skyward after touching the
plate on home runs, his five fingers extended to acknowledge
Preston V. "The only time I really think about him is, it's
weird, but whenever Taya leaves me, I go through a thing where I
get depressed for a few days," he says.

It is a lot to lose a son and your professional promise all at
once. But it is heartening to gain a daughter and find a new home
where your talent can flourish. From now on Preston Wilson's
collection of photographs and tapes will continue to grow.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER SWING SHIFT Comfortable in Coors, Wilson topped the NL in extra-base hits, thanks partly to a retooled batting stance. COLOR PHOTO: JEFFREY LOWE PIX POCKET Six-month-old Taya might live 2,100 miles away, but her doting dad always has her photograph nearby. COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON (RODRIGUEZ) RODRIGUEZ

Starting Fresh--AND FAST

Here are five players whose off-season change of scenery (like
Preston Wilson's) has been good for them and their new clubs
(statistics through Monday).

Jose Cruz Jr., RF, GIANTS
2002 TEAM: Blue Jays
2003 STATS: .294, 5 HRs, 11 RBIs

SKINNY: Landed on the cheap with one-year, $2.8 million deal, has
played eye-catching defense and, batting fifth, supplanted Edgardo Alfonzo as Barry Bonds's protection.

Erubiel Durazo, 1B/DH, A'S
2002 TEAM: Diamondbacks
2003 STATS: .328, 4 HRs, 20 RBIs

SKINNY: Showing the discipline (4.24 pitches per plate appearance)
and pop to justify Oakland G.M. Billy Beane's obsession with
acquiring him.

Tom Glavine, LHP, METS
2002 TEAM: Braves
2003 STATS: 3-1, 3.14 ERA

SKINNY: Throw out Opening Day debacle, and longtime ace has been
at his nibbling finest, with 3-0 record, 1.80 ERA and seven walks
in 25 innings.

Hideki Matsui, LF, YANKEES
2002 TEAM: Yomiuri Giants (Japan)
2003 STATS: .293, 2 HRs, 19 RBIs

SKINNY: Superb bat control (had put ball into play on AL-high 63%
of swings) and flair for dramatic (.360 average with runners in
scoring position) were expected; solid defense a pleasant bonus.

Ivan Rodriguez, C, MARLINS
2002 TEAM: Rangers
2003 STATS: .267, 3 HRs, 14 RBIs, 5 SBs

SKINNY: One-year deal at $10 million from ostensibly cost-conscious Marlins raised eyebrows, but Pudge is healthy and productive, and achieving a rapport with young Florida staff.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)