06/27/2003 12:56 AM ET
Wilson vies for All-Star recognition
Colorado Rockies center fielder Preston Wilson dove but managed to land and skid gracefully, the glove that cradled the ball and his other hand held above grass.
By Thomas Harding / MLB.com
The catch on a line drive by San Diego's Ryan Klesko on Wednesday night was one of many sparkling plays that could make him a household name, eventually.
The athletic ability didn't just show up this year, as Wilson has put up career numbers before fans had a chance to truly notice. Wilson is batting .310, leads the Rockies with 17 home runs, is tied with St. Louis' Albert Pujols for the National League lead in RBIs with 68 and has 25 doubles.
Wilson was not even in the top 15 among outfielders in the most recently announced NL voting tally for the July 15 All-Star Game at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago. While Pujols is deservedly being championed -- he is putting up numbers worthy of NL Most Valuable Player consideration but still hasn't solidified a starting berth -- Wilson has truly gone undiscovered.
But Rockies manager Clint Hurdle knew Wilson when it was a lot easier to overlook him. Hurdle was a teammate Wilson's stepfather, Mookie Wilson, with the New York Mets in the mid 1980s, when Preston was a turf rat who met Hurdle in the clubhouse.
Hurdle was with the Mets organization when it drafted Wilson in the first round in 1992.
"When Preston showed up, you saw athletic ability, you saw a kid with a body you can project," Hurdle said. "You saw all the tangible things you want to see when you draft a kid in the first round.
"And you did see a 150-watt smile. He's always been full of life, very personable. From that standpoint, you're looking for good things to happen. You're just hoping for good things to happen to him. He's that kind of kid."
Only now is a wider audience finding out what type of player Wilson is. Wilson realizes it takes time to win fans.
"Anytime you start to get noticed a little bit for the things you do, it's good," Wilson said. "But at the same time, people are going to vote for the people that they want to see start the game. (Cal) Ripken was voted in for years and years, and you can't blame them for doing it. That's what it's all about -- it's their stars, the players fans want to see."
The Mets sent Wilson to Florida as part of the 1998 deal for catcher Mike Piazza. With the Marlins, Wilson showed signs of stardom -- 31 home runs and 121 RBIs in 2000, at least 20 homers and 20 stolen bases each season from 1999 to 2001.
But a struggling team and an unfriendly park that made him a pull hitter -- not the best stroke for him -- conspired to reduce his average to .243 last season.
This year, however, Wilson is producing as well as any center fielder in the game. The closest to him is St. Louis' more-established Jim Edmonds, who has more home runs (21) but a lower batting average (.302) and fewer RBIs (51). The Rockies also guessed correctly that Wilson would produce enough to offset what they figured would be a high strikeout total (68).
The turnaround began in November, when Wilson joined the Rockies as part of a three-team deal that also brought the Rockies catcher Charles Johnson and minor league pitcher Vic Darensbourg. Center fielder Juan Pierre was sent to the Marlins and pitcher Mike Hampton was sent to Atlanta.
But rather than writing off Wilson as a Coors Field creation, those closest to him see it the other way around. The adjustments he made to compensate for the way balls died in right and right-center at Pro Player Stadium limit him as a hitter. Coors is hitter-friendly, but all parks are friendlier to a hitter who uses the entire field.
Wilson has managed a decent split of .329 at home and .288 on the road. He was batting .307 away from Coors before going 1-for-2, but driving in two runs and helping the Rockies win 2-of-3, Monday through Wednesday at San Diego.
First baseman Todd Helton, who moved into the lead among first basemen in All-Star voting as of the latest update, said Wilson's adjustments after the trade speak loudly.
"Obviously, as strong as he is and as powerful as he is, it's as good as it gets, to be in Colorado," Helton said. "But he's using that whole field. He's not the same kind of hitter he was in Florida. It's pretty evident, not only in his numbers but where his hits have gone."
Wilson has made Hurdle a genius for placing him fourth as a right-handed bat between lefty hitters Helton and Larry Walker.
He was a .272 hitter from the cleanup spot before joining the Rockies and Hurdle thought that could be enhanced batting between a pair of former batting champs. Wilson struggled during the spring, as he worked on the hitting stroke he used earlier in his career, but took off immediately upon being placed in the cleanup spot during the season.
With the exception of an eight-game stretch in May that saw him go 4-for-34, Wilson has been steady and helped keep the Rockies away from the long losing streaks that often hit with the summer weather.
"He's been a very consistent cleanup hitter, which is something you don't always see -- cleanup hitters are usually high-risk, high-reward type guys," Hurdle said. "He has just provided us with a wonderful offensive and defensive spark that we haven't had from a center fielder.
"That presence he has to split the two left-handers -- which was a concern that we had in Spring Training, that he has answered convincingly -- to help set up our lineup. He helps set up our defense. He's a no-nonsense guy."
Wilson's seriousness shows in his total lack of concern about statistics.
Wilson has just six steals this season, with nearly all of his attempts coming when a run was at a premium. Also, no matter how good a game Wilson has, he is the same after games. He studies the next day's pitcher on a DVD player in his locker.
Hurdle said he always sensed Wilson's professionalism, something possibly forgotten in the turmoil of manager and ownership changes, as well as losing, in Florida.
"I had some history with him back in New York and he comes from good stock, so it wasn't really gamble," Hurdle said. "Personally, I thought he was a good guy to give an opportunity to, as much for him to have a change of scenery to put him in the right environment, a healthy environment, to help him and he can help us.
"I think he has helped Helton and helped Walker, some of the guys on this club, and I think he's been able to draw some strength from some of those guys."
Whether that's enough to get him in the All-Star Game is unclear. Although fans can make up to 25 votes online at MLB.com until 9:59 p.m. MT on July 2, it would be hard to fathom him making up thousands of votes. NL manager Dusty Baker of the Chicago Cubs could name him to the team as a reserve, after receiving input from voting by managers, players and coaches around the league. There is also voting on MLB.com for the 32nd and final roster spot.
If Helton makes the starting lineup and current 11-game-winning pitcher Shawn Chacon goes, can there be a third All-Star from Colorado -- which has a winning record at 41-39 but is fourth in the West?
Wilson said receiving the respect from within the game would be special for him, but he wants to make this season about more than individual honor.
"When we get it turned around and down the stretch we're in the hunt, I think it'll be a whole lot more gratifying than it is now," Wilson said. "I think we've got a real good chance of that happening."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.