Span learned, trial and error, one token at a time. He still calls it by its former name, the Malibu. His mother, Wanda Wilson, worked 12-hour days, first as an insurance claims adjustor and then operating a day-care center, to raise Span and Ray, his older brother. He has a relationship with his biological father, but he lived in Fort Lauderdale, largely out of Denard’s life. Span grew up in a middle-class part of Tampa wanting for nothing. “We were blessed,” he said. But his mother did not have the time or money for camps, personal instruction or private coaches.
“What clinic?” Wilson said, laughing. “He and Ray was the clinic.”
Once football season ended or after bad games during baseball season, Wilson took Span to the Malibu. One dollar bought 20 pitches, yellow, rubber balls flung at him by a mechanical arm. After he fed $4 or $5 into the machine, Span had ironed out the flaws in his swing.
Wilson signed Span up for T-ball when he was 4. By the time he was 9, he would meander over to Ray’s games at the senior field and stand behind the backstop, barking instructions: Choke up! Line your knuckles up! Stretch your legs! Ray always hit better when his kid brother came.
“I knew he was something special in baseball,” Ray Span said. “I’m not saying that because he’s my brother. He wanted to be that leadoff hitter. He wanted to be the center fielder. He wanted the ball in his hands. He wanted to win.”
As Denard grew older, he toggled from one season to the next, never specializing in baseball. He received attention from college football coaches, and his baseball talent led him to transfer from Hillsborough to Tampa Catholic, a local powerhouse.
“To be a great player and make good, mature decisions — as coaches, you’re always trying to get your best athletes to do that,” said Chuck Yingling, Span’s coach at Tampa Catholic. “That was something that was a little different to him. He’s definitely a rare case to have the tools you want your kids to have and was also a great team player to go with it.”
‘Baseball is the sport for me’
Span still thought of himself as a football player first until late in high school, when he received an invitation to a tryout for a national youth team that included the country’s top prospects, future top draft picks like B.J. Upton and Scott Kazmir.
“I was expecting them to be like God, 7-foot tall,” Span said. “I got there, and they were great players. But I said, ‘They’re no better than I am. These guys are going to be top-five picks. I’m right there. Baseball is the sport for me.’ Before that, I thought I was going to go to college and play football.”