C.J. Wilson's unique personality defies easy description. But the game's unlikeliest ace has a simple job: help the Rangers return to the World Series
This is an article from the March 7, 2011 issue
What's on C.J. Wilson's mind? Alas, Sigmund Freud never lived to pose this question. If the father of psychoanalysis were around today, however, he could get up-to-date—if not up-to-the-minute—status reports by subscribing to Wilson's Twitter feed. This just in: "Is microphobia the fear of microbes or microphones? Or the fear of being miniaturized?"
str8edgeracer, as the Rangers' most persistent microblogger is known to the Twitterati, positively bristles with such brainstorms, many of which he tweets to his 47,000 or so followers. His recent suggestion for how a certain slugger who's headed for free agency will make out, for example: "Albert Pujols and his agent will end up w/ enough money to make Chuck Norris cry, thereby curing cancer. #chucknorristears"
Even the stodgy Dr. Freud might have cracked a smile at one of Wilson's ad-libs during last year's postseason. Asked what impact Texas's midseason acquisition of former Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee had on his development, the 30-year-old lefthanded starting pitcher quipped, "Before he came here, I was a righthanded second baseman."
Whether at his BlackBerry, in the clubhouse or on the mound, Wilson delivers his best stuff the same way: with a headlong intensity. And last season, his sixth in the big leagues, that intensity helped deliver Texas to the first World Series in franchise history.
To the surprise of practically everyone but Wilson, the southpaw made the difficult transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation in 2010. "I begged for the job," says Wilson, who broke into the big leagues as a starter in 2005 but was moved to the pen during an erratic rookie campaign. "For years I'd been saying I was capable of being really good."
And he was. Wilson finished last season with a 15--8 record, a 3.35 ERA and 170 strikeouts in 204 innings. He was the second-toughest starter to hit in the American League (.217 batting average against), trailing only Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez (.212). Even more remarkably, the onetime lone wolf of the Rangers' locker room transformed into the de facto leader of the staff. Now, after losing Lee and adding little to the rotation over the winter, Texas needs Wilson to repeat that performance—only under the pressure that comes with being ace of the defending pennant winner. That's a lot for anyone to think about.
bullpen to starter, very simple: condition, preparation, routine. Lather, rinse, repeat. Most guys fall short on condition/prep
—Tweeted by str8edgeracer
"Talent is irrelevant," says Wilson in a soft, intent voice, echoing something the essayist and fiction editor Gordon Lish once said. "I've got much less natural talent than lots of other pitchers.... I wasn't even the best player on my Little League team." What counts (more Lishspeak) is perseverance, application, industry, assiduity, will, will, will, desire, desire, desire.
The truth is that Wilson's career is a hymn to the work ethic. Former Texas pitching coach Mark Connor remembers phoning him a few winters back to see what he was up to. "Watching a baseball film," said Wilson.
It turned out he had commissioned a compilation of every at bat during the previous season in which a lefthanded AL pitcher faced a lefthanded hitter. "C.J. was hunting for an edge," Connor says. "He's always on the lookout for new insights and information."
If real knowledge is knowing the extent of your ignorance, Wilson is about as sagacious as athletes come. This is a player whose training drills range from "stress inoculation" to "visuomotorization"—a nightly ritual that requires him to execute his delivery in the dark in superslow motion. "I strive to maximize my ability within my limitations," he says, sounding like a self-help book on tape. "Life is all about productivity."
Wilson said this before spring training, while lounging on a tatty sofa in his tatty Huntington Beach, Calif., condo, his eyes radiating a steady glitter. "What's the John Lennon thing?" he asks. " 'Be yourself and there will be peace in the world.' Lots of ballplayers put on an act—they're just not comfortable with themselves. I accept what I am."
But what exactly is C.J. Wilson?
"Simply put, he's a polymath and an autodidact," says Fran Pirozzolo, the Rangers' former mental skills coach.
Connor puts it a lot more simply. "C.J. is a perfectionist," he says. "No matter how well he pitches, there's always something about his performance that he's unhappy about."
He's also a free-thinking Southern Californian, a martial artist, an aspiring novelist, a painter of oils, a maker of omelettes, a groupie of LOST, a fervent champion of the straight edge lifestyle, a collector of Porsches, a dater of swimsuit models and the subject of a neuroscientific experiment by Pirozzolo based on the Ten-Year Rule—the idea that it takes about 10 years to become an expert at something.
What C.J. Wilson is not, says C.J. Wilson, is a flake. "Sportswriters hung that label on me," he says, "but I think of a flake as someone who can't get his act together. I study physics. I compete in a sports car racing series. I'm a Taoist. I guess an 'engineering-minded, race-car-driving lefty who follows the teachings of Lao Tzu' just doesn't roll off the tongue."
I live in the now, or try at least
—Tweeted by str8edgeracer
Wilson was seven years old when he started saving up his allowance for a Ferrari Testarossa. He had decided to become a race car driver because his father, Jeff, who had been a fighter pilot, talked him out of joining the Air Force. Recalls C.J., "Dad said, 'I've gone to war, and it's not the coolest thing. You can die.'"
Young C.J. did the math and concluded that without a job, it would be hard to come up with a hundred grand. He thought about what careers could make him the necessary swag. Being a squirty kid with a slight frame, the NBA didn't seem like a realistic option. Nor did becoming a surgeon. "I don't like blood," he says. But baseball....
In the autumn of 1989 he signed up for a youth league in Huntington Beach. His coach stuck him at third base. "I was a lefty playing the hot corner," he reports. "I sucked."
So he read a book by a celebrated cornerman, Wade Boggs's The Techniques of Modern Hitting. When it became clear in his early teens that he'd never hit for power he turned to the mound, and at 15 he found a mentor in former major league pitcher Bud Black, now the manager of the Padres. One of Wilson's aunts brought him to Black's house in Rancho Santa Fe for an assessment. After the two pitchers played hard toss across the swimming pool, Black announced, "This kid's got it."
Wilson's adolescence was marked by athletic triumph and family tragedy. During his junior year at Fountain Valley High his mother, Lisa, got into a car accident on her way to one of his ball games. She slipped into a coma, was put on life support and spent six months in the hospital. (She recovered fully.) Meanwhile, Wilson says, an uncle struggled with substance abuse, prompting the teen to adopt the straight edge ethos: no booze, no drugs, no promiscuity. A tattoo of the words STRAIGHT EDGE now runs up Wilson's torso, where there's little but skin and bone. "I wanted the inscription in the spot it would hurt the worst," he says, "because it means the most."
Wilson is fueled by what Pirozzolo calls "negative conversion"—a need to prove his critics wrong. "Through college I was told I wasn't good enough to make it to the majors," Wilson says. "That just motivated me to train harder."
He often finds inspiration in solitude. Before his sophomore year at Santa Ana Junior College, he wrote CALIFORNIA STATE MVP on an index card and propped it up by his bed. Every morning he'd eye the card while doing push-ups.
It worked. Wilson was the state's juco co--player of the year, with a 3.34 ERA, 68 strikeouts in 62 innings and a .405 batting average. He went undrafted, so the following fall he enrolled in the film program at Loyola Marymount. After he wrote a heist screenplay and finished 3--9 with a 6.95 ERA, Texas signed him as a fifth-round pick in 2001. Wilson had learned to fail upward—an art he hasn't practiced much since.
Players who knew Wilson in the minors describe him in terms usually reserved for serial killers: aloof, solitary, standoffish. He tended to sit at his locker, plugged into headphones. As a corrective, he took an off-season job at a Nordstrom department store selling men's clothes. "I forced myself to be more sociable," he says. "My logic was: If I don't talk to customers, I won't sell anything."
Wilson has always incorporated that sort of gamesmanship into his pitching, mostly out of necessity. "He sets up hitters pitch-by-pitch the way a great tennis player maps out a volley," says Texas righthander Colby Lewis. "C.J. looks three or four or five pitches ahead at all times."
Sure, he led the AL in walks last year, with 93. But that had less to do with wildness than meticulousness. "I aim for the extreme corner of the strike zone," he says. "If I miss it, I don't care."
What sets Wilson apart is not his catalogue of pitches—six, at last count—as much as his ability to make the ball move in different directions. "You never see hitters get comfortable with C.J.," says Thad Levine, the Rangers' assistant general manager. "Rarely does he throw two pitches in the same place back-to-back."
Wilson made the majors for good in 2005, when he had six disastrous starts (0--5, 12.05 ERA in those games) but 18 effective outings as a reliever (2.73 ERA). At first Wilson got by in the bullpen with a fastball and a curve. Midway through the 2007 season, Connor suggested adding a slider. "We were on the road in Minnesota," Connor says. "C.J. spent that afternoon polishing the pitch." That night, Wilson used the pitch three times while pitching a scoreless inning. Then he walked off the mound, smiling a private smile.
Dear Icebergs, Sorry to hear about global warming. Karma is a bitch. Sincerely, Titanic.
—ReTweeted by str8edgeracer
Over the first five years of his career, Wilson filled every conceivable relief role, from mop-up man to closer, without ever fitting into the team dynamic. In an online interview with ESPN.com during the 2008 presidential primaries, he seemingly went out of his way to depict his fellow players as selfish, ignorant and politically indifferent. (For the record, Wilson supported Barack Obama.) He didn't stop there, arguing in a blog, "You have to admit the median or average guy in a baseball clubhouse does drive an SUV, drinks beer, golfs, likes college sports, chews or dips tobacco and is relatively a douche bag." Teammates—many of whom drove, drank and dipped—lambasted Wilson.
He arrived at spring training in 2009 feeling alienated from the team, the front office and fans who had booed and heckled him. "C.J. hated his situation in Texas," says a friend who requested anonymity. "He wanted out."
Still, Wilson soldiered on and had an outstanding season—2.81 ERA and 84 strikeouts in 73 2/3 innings. He had carved out a niche as a lefthanded reliever who was effective against hitters on both sides of the plate. He had even fulfilled his childhood dream: He owns several performance vehicles, including a Porsche GT 3RS, and has raced against pros in dozens of sports car events. But the following spring he pleaded with the Rangers for a new job. By the end of camp he finally got his wish and joined the rotation.
The rest is current events. Levine theorizes that once Wilson blossomed as a starter, he no longer needed negative motivation to prove his worth: "C.J. shifted from a guy who felt he had to do everything by himself to one who embraced the team concept and learned the value of strength in numbers."
The qualities in Wilson that most impress Pirozzolo are accountability and selflessness. "He's got a big heart," says the coach. He mentions the closed-door meeting that manager Ron Washington had with players last March to reveal he had tested positive for cocaine in 2009. After the skipper apologized, Wilson addressed the stunned gathering. "A team sport is like a family," he said. "When somebody makes a mistake, you have to back him. I, too, have done stuff that people haven't been cool with."
During the regular season Wilson provided a unique support system for outfielder Josh Hamilton, a recovering alcoholic with a history of substance abuse. "Josh and I formed a bond, in an odd way," he says. "I was the safe guy for him to hang out with. I knew what he'd been through." When the Rangers won the pennant on Oct. 22, Wilson and Hamilton toasted each other with ginger ale.
Later that night Wilson turned on his BlackBerry and read a message from one of his tweeps: "This boat is real!!!!" To which the engineering-minded, race-car-driving lefty who follows the teachings of Lao Tzu replied, "thank you to all the fans that rocked it—so proud of my teammates!!!"
Wilson was never more aTwitter.