Willie Wilson knew he was terrible in this World Series.He struck out a record 12 times in the six games. He knew it. He said he put too heavy a burden on himself because he read in the papers and heard on TV that the Royals were losing because he was terrible. He knew he tried too hard, but the more he wanted to do well the harder he tried. And the worse it got. It hurt.
Bowie Kuhn came by the Kansas City locker room, and the president called, and NBC had its live cameras there, and someone sent a pretty candy basket to George Brett, who said the World Series was fun. Amos Qtis laid down the law: he would never play left field; it's center field or trade me, he said cheerily.
Frank White, enjoying it, said the Philly cops on horseback and alongside their dogs were only second best in a show of ball yard force: "In Venezuela, people stand around the field with machine guns."
Willie Wilson jerked a metal chair away from his locker, causing an angry clatter.
Carrying two beers and two hot dogs, Clint Hurdle made a cow's mooing sound to clear a path to his locker. A toneless voice over the din said, "Bus at 12:30." A Kansas City TV guy put a microphone next to Jim Frey's lips and said, "Whatta year, Jim." Willie Mays Aikens sat in a metal chair and looked at a telegram that said, "Win or lose you've won our hearts in KC." And then Willie said it might have turned out differently if he'd had a good hitter behind him in the lineup, someone good enough to make them throw him fast balls on 3 and 2 instead of those damnable curves.
"I'd have given anything to win it," Jim Frey said haltingly, softly into the TV mike.
His lips trembled. The TV man moved the microphone nearer. The manager lowered his eyes and walked away.
Willie Wilson hurt, and he was mean. "You guys," he said coldly to reporters, biting off the words, "ever get tired asking damned questions?"
"Losing the World Series won't put a damper on the season," said George Brett, the .390 hitter. "The World Series is a lot of fun. All the press, all the TV, the big bands on the field -- all that creates a lot of adrenaline. I wouldn't trade where I am with anybody."
A quick, bright, ain't-it-great-to-be-alive smile decorated Brett's face, and he added, "Wouldn't trade with anybody -- except maybe them in the other clubhouse."
Someone suggested to Brett that Willie Wilson might trade with anybody. Willie was four for 26, a .154 average. He scored three runs, drove in none. First time up in his first World Series, the kid who hit .326 this season struck out. Last time up, with the bases loaded in what would be a 4-1 loss, the kid who may be baseball's best offensive player struck out. Do you, George, hurt for Willie Wilson?
"Sure, because people will remember the World Series," Brett said. "They'll remember the Willie Wilson they saw here, not the Willie Wilson who got 100 hits from each side of the plate, who scored 133 runs this season, who stole 79 bases. That's the Willie Wilson I know. I don't know the Willie Wilson I saw here."
Defeat hurt few of the Royals. Frank White was two for 25, an .080 hitter who in the six games never scored and never drove in a run. The second baseman said, "Just getting in the World Series is a dream, whether you win or lose. All of us, Willie included, can find a reason to sit back and suffer. But the World Series is not to suffer. Why waste time suffering over baseball?"
Hal McRae, 34, old hand on a young team: "Why whould I hurt for Willie? He had a helluva year. At the end, it just happened he was swinging the bat bad. That happens to everybody. Hell, he's 26 years old and runs like a deer. Why feel sorry for him?"
"Bus at 12:30," the toneless voice said again. It was 12:17 then, and Willie Wilson, once mean, now was only confused. He knew he was terrible, and he accepted that, but it hurt him that people said -- people writing in newspapers, people talking into microphones -- the Royals were losing this Series because of Willie Wilson.
"Every night when I went home, I'd wonder why these guys say we're losing because I wasn't getting on base," Wilson said, the words coming quickly now. "So I put pressure on myself. I went out and tried too hard. I went out and tried to do things I can't do. I tried to hit it hard, and I can't hit it hard. I struck out 12 times in six games and I didn't strike out 12 times in six games all season. I don't know why. It's not pitching, it's not anything they're talking about. It was just me putting extra pressure on myself."
He said he would take the blame, if that's what people wanted. He didn't believe it was right, though. "We lost two games where we had a four-run lead and a two-run lead going into the eighth innings," Wilson said. "I didn't have a thing to do with it."
Wilson hurt, both for his team and for himself. He knew the Royals are less a team with him hitting .154 instead of .326. He knew his speed was the Kansas City signature on the 100 victories that moved the team into the World Series. It hurt him personally during this remarkable season that he could do so much -- besides what he did with the bat, his 79 stolen bases gave him 162 in successive seasons, a big league record -- and yet remain in the shadows of Brett's .390 sunburst. He would have a chance to make his mark in the Series, he thought.
And it all turned out wrong. "Usually when I'm playing good," Wilson said now, a little smile playing across his lean face, "the fans are yelling and screaming, 'You're badddd.'"
Not in this Series. Willie Wilson was the invisible man.
"It's like I was nothing," he said. "I didn't have anybody yelling at me."
So the last time up, with the bases loaded and two out, here came Willie Wilson into a vacuum of indifference. "I wanted to be up there," he said. "I wasn't going to say, 'Jim, put somebody else in for me.' Hell, you thrive on that situation. You want to pay people back. I just didn't have it."
It was past 12:30 now Dressing, Willie Wilson had knocked his beer over on his shoes. "My luck's still going bad," he said wistfully. People will remember him, he said, as the ineffectual swinger who missed a high fast ball to end the Series the way he started it, striking out. They won't remember the wonderful catch he made against the left field wall. They'll remember the 12 Ks. "And I might never get into one of these damned things again," he said.
"Bus," someone said.