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Wilkerson Is a Man On Move

Versatile National Shows His Value

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page E01

VIERA, Fla. -- Walk into the clubhouse and pick him out, the kid who hit 32 home runs last season but is so versatile that when the Montreal Expos needed someone to fill in for a failing leadoff hitter, he became the leadoff man. When the Expos' first baseman went down with injuries, he played first base. When they needed someone to man center field, he trotted out there, entrusted with running down balls in the gaps.

And just the other day, before one of the Washington Nationals' final Grapefruit League games, he climbed atop a mound in the bullpen down the right field line. He motioned to Nick Johnson, the first baseman, to crouch down as a catcher. And with no coaches around to stop him, he tossed a few pitches -- just like back in his days at the University of Florida, when he'd throw a shutout one day and hit a homer the next.

"He means more to this team than I can tell you just sitting here," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson says of Brad Wilkerson, signing autographs in Florida. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

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There he is, over there, the most versatile -- and maybe the most athletic -- Washington National, Brad Wilkerson. Now hold on a minute before you instinctively yell: That guy's Brad Wilkerson?

"He doesn't look like he has an athletic body," Manager Frank Robinson said, "but he's a very good athlete."

Or, to put it more bluntly, leave it to an old buddy. "He's not going to be the guy that's all cut-up and ripped-up and look like the greatest athlete," said Todd Lillpop, a high school teammate. "But he's unbelievably talented, and he knows the game."

Robinson's lineup for today's exhibition game against the New York Mets at RFK Stadium -- not to mention Monday's season opener at Philadelphia, the first regular season game in Nationals history -- sits somewhere between flux and turmoil in part because Wilkerson could hit in any of four or five spots, play any of three or four positions. Yes, he would like to hit lower in the order -- say fifth, where he was for much of the spring -- so he could see if he could drive in 100 runs. But he is almost resigned to leading off because he, unlike anyone else on the roster, has proven he can do it. He would like to set up shop in left field, so he could improve at that position and not have to check the lineup card every day to see where he will play. But he knows that if Robinson needs to find a spot for Terrmel Sledge's bat, he could end up in center, and if the injury bug that has plagued Johnson's career shows up again, he could wind up at first base.

"He gets on base, takes his walk, can still hit the home runs, can run," catcher Brian Schneider said. "You put those combinations together, you can play him in a lot of different places. I think it's a blessing. But sometimes, he just wants to be in one place."

Wilkerson, in one place? Not the kid who, in the course of growing up in Owensboro, Ky., held massive backyard basketball tournaments, played friends in tennis, became all-city in swimming, relished in Whiffleball, played point guard on his varsity basketball team, became all-state in soccer, grew angry when losing Ping-Pong games, played football for a single season and became an all-state kicker, got his golf handicap down to 5 and -- oh, by the way -- was named the state's Mr. Baseball.

This guy, in one place?

"When I was a kid," Wilkerson said, "I was doing something different every day. Every day."

The backyard basketball games were legendary. It was a league, really, and kids would come from all over the city, toting a ball and a partner, for games of two-on-two. Wilkerson and his partner, Eric Robertson, came up with all kinds of gimmicks to get themselves fired-up. They pumped Metallica or hip-hop tunes before they emerged on the "court," which boasted an eight-foot hoop. They wore tear-away warmups. Wilkerson, a fan of Shaquille O'Neal when he was still at Louisiana State, sported bright yellow knee pads, just like Shaq's. They kept standings.

"We did anything and everything you could imagine," Robertson said.

Anything and everything. A precursor to Wilkerson's on-field career, not to mention his off-field attitude. That's the way he was at this time two years ago, 25 and carefree, willing to do anything and everything. A first-round pick in 1998, he became a major leaguer from a small town who, naturally, reveled in the fact that he had made it.

"I guess he was just like several other athletes that you'd hear about," Robertson said. "He came and went as he wanted. He took things for granted."

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