By Tracee Hamilton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Josh Wilkie hopes one day to ride the Metro to work, just like you and me. He'd like to hop on the Orange Line at Foggy Bottom, head to L'Enfant Plaza and then take the Green Line straight to his office. There's where his commute would differ from ours. His office would be the pitching mound at Nationals Park.
He's so close. If anything, Wilkie, 25, has overachieved. The right-handed pitcher was an undrafted free agent out of George Washington University, signed by the Nats in 2006. He worked his way through every stop in their minor league system until reaching Class AAA Syracuse, just one phone call short of the big league roster, and he was one of seven Nationals prospects chosen to participate in the prestigious Arizona Fall League.
Now it's decision time for the Nationals. Because he is one phone call short of the majors, Wilkie would be eligible for next month's Rule 5 supplemental draft if he doesn't make the 40-man roster the Nationals must submit by Friday. To put it mildly, Wilkie hopes to stay put.
"I've made D.C. my home," he said.
Wilkie, who grew up in Alpharetta in what he calls "semi-rural Georgia," made his recruiting visit to Washington shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. Rather than being put off by the fear and tension that was nearly palpable here at that time, he instead fell in love, with GW and with D.C. He was offered a scholarship -- three quarters baseball, one quarter academic -- and arrived in Foggy Bottom intending to major in engineering. He had a 3.0 GPA after his first semester. Then came the baseball season.
"We don't have lights on the field, so all the games are in the day, which really crushed you in classes," he said. "I missed a lot of classes."
His father had one request of Wilkie: graduate in four years. He needed to take 18 hours in the spring to do that, and it became too much. He needed to find a different major.
"My dad said, 'Why don't you do something you really want to do?' " Wilkie recalled.
He had always liked music. He could play the piano, some drums, the guitar, the saxophone. "I grew up playing music," he said. So he took a look at the music department, and the music department took a look at him.
"He started quite late," said Douglas Boyce, the deputy chairman of the music department. "The first class he had with me was the second semester of his sophomore year, which is the point at which you have to declare your major.
"Many students come and take a course or two and toy with the idea of a music major and find it's actually a lot more work than they thought it would be. One thing that I didn't realize was his discipline and focus. He sat down and got to work. I was impressed."
Boyce became a mentor to Wilkie; he still occasionally attends concerts with Wilkie and his fiancee at the Kennedy Center. In turn, Boyce saw Wilkie pitch during his time with high Class A Potomac in 2008. "I don't really follow baseball; I follow Josh," Boyce said.
"Josh is now sort of a type in our department," Boyce said. "I think we would have been not as good a music department if we hadn't encouraged him. I think we're a better department having Josh in it. Even though when he arrived, he didn't look like the kind of student who would make us a better department. He might contribute in a variety of ways but might not be a star performer. He can be easily overlooked.
"There were better guitar players, better piano players, but that's not all that a department is; that's not all that a community is. He reminds me of those things."
But of course, even in the music lab, baseball was never far away.
"There was one instance where he did call me 'Coach,' " Boyce admits.
Playing for his other coaches, Tom Walters and Steve Mrowka, Wilkie put together a 25-12 record with a 2.97 ERA in leading GW to a 144-79 record during his four years. His wins are third on the school's career list and his 291 strikeouts rank second.
Wilkie and Mrowka, who took over at GW before Wilkie's junior season, remain close. In the offseason Wilkie lives near 26th and Pennsylvania Avenue and works out with the GW team, as former Nationals pitcher Mike O'Connor, another GW product, used to do. Wilkie gets a good workout without having to pay gym fees; Mrowka gets a mentor and example to set before his current players.
"He's obviously a role model, and he's in a position most of the players want to be in," Mrowka said. "Some of the guys knew him from when he was here, they follow his career, they want to be pro ballplayers, they see how hard he works, the way he approaches things. I'm hoping that's something they will want to do."'The stronger prevail'
Wilkie would blend in on the Metro. At 6 feet 2 and 190 pounds, he's not physically imposing. He's soft-spoken, shy until you hit upon a topic of interest. He has plugged away steadily in the minors, mostly in middle relief, compiling a 13-15 record with a 3.04 ERA and 23 saves. In his short stint at Syracuse, he had 25 strikeouts and just four walks in 22 1/3 innings.
Rather than becoming frustrated during four seasons in the Gulf Coast League and Hagerstown and Potomac and Harrisburg, he finds encouragement in the fact that he's still with the Nationals.
In Arizona, he has played alongside No. 1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg, who signed a $15 million deal, and No. 10 pick Drew Storen, who got a $1.6 million signing bonus. Wilkie knows that neither will ever have to scramble for work in the offseason just to pay the bills until spring training rolls around again.
"You're trying to find a job [in the offseason] unless you've got a lot of money," he said. "But not that many people have enough money to sustain themselves in the offseason. So you've got to find a job, but who's going to hire you for four months?
"It's not easy and maybe they do that on purpose -- you know, who wants it more? I guess maybe the stronger prevail."
Last fall, Wilkie parlayed a chance meeting with former Virginia congressman Tom Davis into a job with the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He approached that job with the same enthusiasm he brings to baseball and music: "I loved it!"
"At the time he joined us we were just starting a series of hearings on the financial regulatory landscape," said Lawrence Halloran, the former staff director of the committee. "He's a bright, bright kid. He did pretty in-depth research on derivatives, a really good piece. We used it to prepare members on a series of meetings on rate hearings."
Wilkie lives with his fiancee, Jesse Keith. Because of the five-plus weeks spent in Arizona, he'll forego an offseason job this year in order to help plan his February wedding at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Wilkie and Keith met and fell in love at GW, but their paths first crossed years before, in Georgia, when they were in middle school together. They are in a band photo, standing three people apart, but didn't meet until GW. For Wilkie, Keith is yet another tie to Washington.
"My fiancee and both our families have been such a great, loving support system," Wilkie said. "I could not do any of this without them. Especially Jesse."
Despite having a variety of interests -- music, politics and finance among them -- Wilkie hasn't given much thought to what he'll do after baseball. He said he'll play until someone tells him he can't.
"I want him to have this career, but I'm also not nervous if it doesn't happen," said Boyce, his mentor. "He'll be just fine. If in 20 years it's something totally different, this will be one of those great, surprising Josh Wilkie stories."'A legitimate option'
Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo won't tip his hand about Wilkie or any other 40-man roster decisions, at least not yet. Rizzo, who has just finished up the long hiring process for Manager Jim Riggleman, met with his scouting department this week to sort things out, and Wilkie "will certainly be a topic of discussion."
If 400 people attend an AFL game, about half will be major league scouts, so Wilkie will have been heavily evaluated. But the Nationals felt the risk of putting Wilkie on the bigger stage was worth the opportunity to see him against the very best of the high minor leagues.
"We felt we needed to evaluate him in an accelerated league," Rizzo said. "We wanted to see him in that type of competition."
Wilkie has done well, so well that when Strasburg pulled a neck muscle, Wilkie was added to the roster for the Rising Stars game, the AFL's all-star contest. Entering Friday's final "regular season" game, he has a 4.63 ERA with 12 strikeouts and four walks for the Phoenix Desert Dogs. Subtracting one bad outing -- Nov. 9 vs. the Peoria Javelinas, when he gave up four hits and four earned runs in two-thirds of an inning -- his ERA would be 1.64, which would easily be among the top 10 in the league. He may get another chance against the Javelinas, whom the Desert Dogs will face for the AFL championship on Saturday.
"His stuff is marginal minus his change-up, which is a plus major league pitch," said Paul Menhart, the pitching coach at Potomac and the Nationals' representative in Phoenix this fall. "It's a pitch that has really just allowed him to get easy outs throughout every level. He's a guy that is a legitimate option for the big leagues next year."
Told of Menhart's assessment, Wilkie responds with enthusiasm -- "Boy, I hope that it's true" -- and continues to talk about his change-up. This is one of those topics he loves to pursue.
"The change-up has been my best pitch," said Wilkie, who also worked on a cutter while in Arizona. "It's harder than most and it has kind of a split-finger action, it falls, pretty much dives down a little bit, and comes off the hand looking like a fastball. So it's a really deceptive pitch. Instead of the curveball, which hitters can pick up pretty much right when you're throwing it, it's more of a deception pitch. I've got a good feel with it. My hands are pretty big for my size, so I've been lucky as far as that goes."
If Wilkie makes the 40-man roster, his next challenge will be standing out at spring training in Viera, Fla. If all goes well, Wilkie's dreams may come true in 2010.
"This is where I'll be hopefully for the next five, 10 years," Wilkie said. "Jesse's got a great job: She works at Morgan Stanley on Eye Street. She walks to work. If it's too cold, she takes one Metro stop to Farragut West.
"Hopefully I'll be taking the Metro down to Nats Park."