Quietly, partially obscured by the omnipresent shadow of a nearly cosmic teammate, Willie Wilson is enjoying a good, if not a very good, World Series for the Kansas City Royals. Through four games and 17 at bats he has six hits and, significantly, just two strikeouts. The number of strikeouts is mentioned because of what Wilson did in his other World Series appearance, against Philadelphia in 1980.
He struck out.
Not two or four or six times.
In 26 at bats Willie Wilson struck out 12 times. He fanned so much, he got job offers from Carrier.
Perhaps you remember the closing footage of that Series, in which Tug McGraw is seen leaping exultantly off the mound after getting the last out? The last out was Wilson, swinging through a 1-and-2 fast ball.
"I went up there hoping I'd get a hit," Wilson said the other night, "but I knew I wouldn't." He shook his head regretfully. "Right after I struck out, I went into the bathroom and cried for 15 minutes. I saw that play a lot that winter. I dreamt about it a lot. I woke up from it a lot. Every time, there was Tug striking me out. I never could forget it."
Wilson closed his eyes and seemed to wince at the memory. Then he looked out, smiled thinly, and continued. "I felt so negative about myself. I hibernated. I didn't want to go out and have people see me. When I went to the store, I did it at night. I just couldn't take the embarrassment and the harassment. My mom got harassed. People called her at work and said, 'Your son struck out 12 times. He lost the Series.' I felt deeply hurt by the Series. I mean it blew my mind. I felt like I did lose it, me! It just never stopped. All I heard, all I read was about me striking out. I hit .326 with 230 hits that year, 230! And all anyone talked about was me striking out 12 times in the Series. It crushed me, man." Wilson's exhale sounded like a slow leak. "It crushed me. Next spring, I was still messed up. There were some college guys at a game. They started in center, then moved behind the plate, yelling at me about the 12 strikeouts. I got so frustrated, I started into the stands after them. Lee May had to hold me back."
Wilson paused, scratching his chin. "I must have carried it around for a couple of years." His eyes widened and seemed to be fixed on something only he could see. "It was probably the starting point of me getting on dope. I was running away from 12 strikeouts."
It is a matter of public record that in 1984 -- four years after his 12 strikeouts and two years after his batting title was denigrated because he agreed to sit out the final game of the season in an attempt to ensure it -- Willie Wilson spent three months in a federal prison in Fort Worth for the crime of attempting to possess cocaine. In what was, to that point, the preeminent drug scandal in baseball, four members of the 1983 Royals were sentenced to jail: Wilson, Willie Aikens, Jerry Martin and Vida Blue.
It is also a matter of public record that in 1985, while Wilson was agreeably doing public service commercials decrying the danger of drug abuse, his current teammate, Lonnie Smith, was, like others testifying in Pittsburgh who'd bargained for immunity from prosecution, confessing to substantial cocaine use.
Wilson, who was so intimidated by the prospect of a wrathful reception by fans and media after his reinstatement that he wanted to quit baseball and had to be talked out of it by his wife and agent, has, as you might suspect, some ambivalence about the Pittsburgh revelations. "Every time drugs are mentioned somebody wants to rehash the 1983 Royals," Wilson said uncomfortably. On the other hand he admitted he "felt a little better that someone else got in trouble besides me. I don't wish them jail, but I'd told people that it wasn't just me doing it."
Wilson has, he believes now, outrun his "user" label, and is convinced that his open-door approach, his willingness to face his past and discuss it, has helped. He is satisfied that most baseball fans, particularly those in Kansas City, have forgiven him his trespass.
His more immediate problem is outrunning K-12. Don't think he wasn't fearful it would happen again. But this time the fear wasn't paralyzing. "If I got into a World Series in 1981 or 1982 I might have tried so hard to redeem myself that I'd have done it again," Wilson conceded. "But it's five years later. I've matured. I've gone through things that changed me. I mean there aren't many guys in this room who've been in prison," he said, cocking an eyebrow.
The hits, he said, have felt good. "But I didn't worry so much about the hits. I worried about the strikeouts." After the two on Tuesday, "I could strike out a few more times, as long as I got some more hits in between," he said jauntily. The days of rage, the race for redemption, they're gone, he insisted. "All I want to do is get a ring," Wilson said, affirming his belief, his hope, his trust that "people don't talk bad about you if you win."