When Willie Wilson, the Kansas City rookie with turbocharged legs, strolled to the plate in a spring training game, Yankee Catcher Cliff Johnson eyed him coolly and posed the interesting—if surly—question: "How are you gonna steal first?" No wonder the thought was on Johnson's mind, for in 20 games in Florida, Wilson swiped 23 bases, including 21 in a row. That figures. After all, he stole 76 in 127 games at Waterloo in 1975 and swiped 74 in 132 games at Omaha last year, when he was thrown out only nine times.
Grown men who ought to know better can't control their vocal cords when it comes to the subject of Wilson's speed. Royal Manager Whitey Herzog says, "He's as fast as anybody I've ever seen." Including Mickey Mantle and Willie Davis? "Yup." Coach Steve Boros goes the boss one better, saying, "I think he's the fastest I have ever seen in a baseball uniform. Of course, my memory may be failing." Nearly every team that talks trade with K.C. suggests that Wilson be included in the conversation. As Chicago White Sox First Baseman Lamar Johnson told Wilson, "It's a shame you're so quick."
All of which is heady stuff for a 22-year-old switch hitter who knows little about reading pitcher tip-offs, who is reluctant to dive headlong back to first base, whose leads are too short, whose jumps are too late and whose attention to detail leaves a lot to be desired. Wilson tends to delay his getaway by raring back before he goes, and he looks around too much when he runs. He also likes to steal on fastballs, which most good runners are loath to do, and on pitchouts, which a good runner would never do. But when the dust clears, Wilson is generally at second, next to an umpire who has his hands palms down and a fielder who is muttering to the ball. "Just wait until I learn how to steal," says Wilson.
Yet Johnson brought up a nettlesome truth that day in Florida. To use his speed (3.9 seconds from the left side of the plate to first, compared to a major league average of 4.3) Wilson has got to hit. "If he only hits .230," says Herzog, "he'll steal 70 bases." That may be a tall order. Although Wilson hit .281 at Omaha last year, in the first few games of the regular season fans usually had to be content with evaluating Wilson's fluid running style as he glided from first base to the dugout after making an out.
At week's end, Wilson had reached base only five times in 22 appearances at the plate. But as a clue to what he has in mind for the summer, he still managed to steal three bases. He was also caught stealing once. In K.C.'s 6-5 win over Cleveland Saturday night Wilson singled to short left in the second inning—except for Willie, with his loping yet blazing stride, it was a double. He singled again in the fourth, but in a clear demonstration of his need of schooling he promptly—and easily—was picked off first by Don Hood. "If he can just hit .230," repeated Herzog as Wilson's average hovered at that figure. "Hell, his speed ought to be worth .200."
Wilson is only the flagship in the Royals' fleet fleet. Utility Infielder U. L. Washington, another rookie, is probably the second-fastest man on the club (although Herzog says it could be Al Cowens), and U.L. also digs stealing bases. He had 39 in Omaha last year, and stole three in as many attempts in the only game he has played this season.
Then there's Shortstop Freddie Patek, who led the league last year in steals with 53, and Outfielder Amos Otis, who led the league in 1971 with 52 and stole 39 in 1975. Otis, say his teammates, is capable of swiping as many as he cares to. Says Patek, "Wilson can throw some panic in a few people. Then if word gets around that all of us will run, well, it could be a fun year."
Last season the Royals stole 170 bases, second in the league behind Oakland, and Patek predicts 300 this season. Catcher Darrell Porter laughs and says, "I'm not sure we're great but we're definitely exciting." And apparently destined to stay that way. Says Herzog, "If we don't run, we'll lose." And that brings all talk back to Willie.
Wilson is unable to explain where he got his speed, other than to say, "My mother wasn't fast." Whatever, his speed is classic. When he was nearing graduation from Summit (N.J.) High School in 1974, where he was a 6'3", 187-pound running back, 250 colleges sought his football services. Michigan was among them, and even today Bo Schembechler's eyes glaze at the mention of Wilson. "Was he fast?" Schembechler says. "My goodness. He was the best prospect in America." Maryland finally won out. But that only signaled the end of the football recruiting war. Next came the baseball people.
They brought with them an extra added ingredient: money. But Wilson insisted he wanted to play football. Eight baseball teams believed him. The ninth, Kansas City, took a chance and made him its first draft pick. The Royals offered Wilson a $50,000 signing bonus. Ultimately they paid him $90,000 and set aside more money for Wilson to pursue a college education, should he choose to do so.
Wilson paid off $3,000 of his mother's bills, bought his brother a bike, purchased himself a Datsun (he has now moved up to a $14,500 Lincoln), put the rest in banks and blue-chip stocks and then went speeding off to the minors. When Herzog got his first look at the right-hand-hitting Wilson, the manager thought Wilson should try batting left-handed—or at least switch-hitting. A coach broached the idea to Wilson and reported back, "Whitey, he doesn't think he's interested." So Herzog approached Wilson in the spring of 1977 and said, "If you're not interested in switch-hitting, you can't play in the big leagues." Wilson's interest perked up. He found switching difficult at first. "Mentally, I was all messed up," he says. "Then the pride in me came out."
There are members of the Royals organization who think that Wilson should hit left-handed all the time and just chop at the ball. Presumably that would result in a lot of grounders—which in return would result in a lot of bobbles, juggles, errant throws and general defensive hysteria as fielders tried to pick up the ball and throw it to first before Wilson could zoom across the bag.
No matter how Wilson reaches first, hitters who follow him in the order should benefit from the unsettling effect of his presence. Pitchouts now necessitate fastballs later. And RBI possibilities increase. Says Wilson, "When I get on first, I figure second and third will be mine in just a second or two."
It's fortunate for Wilson that he also had a splendid spring at bat, hitting .250, and in the field. As a result he's starting in left field ahead of Tom Poquette, who was the Royals' best exhibition-season hitter at .439. Still, Herzog admits that if it weren't for Wilson's speed, "he'd be at Jacksonville," where the Royals' AA club plays. Says Herzog, "If I have Willie here but don't play him, he'll never become a hitter. If he can't hit, he can't run. If he can't run, he can't help us." But, oh, that running. In spring training, John Schuerholz, the Royals' director of scouting and player development, says he had to arrange for three different foot races to make it fair—one for the white players, one for the blacks and one for Wilson.
As for U. L. Washington (the initials don't stand for anything), nobody ever worshipped before his talent. Indeed, he's different from Wilson in almost every way. Growing up in Stringtown, Okla. limited his media exposure. Nobody asked him to go to college and play games. Nobody offered him even 900 to play pro baseball. He knocked around a junior college and was working in an Oklahoma City printshop when his brother, who lived in Kansas City, read of a Royals all-comers tryout. He gave U.L. bus fare. Washington caught the scouts' eyes at the tryout by enthusiastically attempting to catch foul balls hit during batting practice. When he signed his contract in 1972 and was sent to the Royals' now-defunct baseball academy in Bradenton, Fla., he got a pair of shoes, a glove and $48 every two weeks.
Washington is far more a student of stealing and base running than Wilson, and may well have more of a future as a Royal, partly because he's the heir to Patek at short. He is also a switch hitter, but he learned the art earlier and for different reasons than Wilson: in 1975 Washington suddenly found that he couldn't hit sliders batting righthanded. His base running is methodical (6½ steps off first to draw a pitcher's throw, 5½ steps if he's going to steal against a righthander, 3½ against a lefthander), and he loves to slide. "Willie is fast," says U.L. "I have to be smart."
Running may well be the key as the Royals try to win their third straight Western Division title, and Kansas City fans will be reminded of this when the scoreboard flashes an animated roadrunner being passed by a gliding Wilson. Rookie First Baseman Clint Hurdle, not known for his speed, pats Wilson on the head and says, "You're my meal ticket. You and your legs have got to get me to the World Series and make me some money." But, first of all, how do you steal first?
Despite leads that are too short and a takeoff that's too late, Wilson stole 21 straight this spring.