Willie Wilson made a triumphant return to New York last week. And because the fleet leftfielder is the epitome of the Hometown Boy Made Good, 500 residents of his old stamping ground, nearby Summit, N.J., were on hand to salute him in Yankee Stadium. "We're proud of you, Willie," chorused grandmothers and schoolgirls. Because Friday, Aug. 31 was Willie Wilson Day in Summit, Mayor Frank Lehr read a proclamation before that night's game containing seven whereases, one therefore and one whereof. Then it was Willie's turn to speak. He thanked everyone for coming, affirmed his pride in Summit and promised to do his best in the future.
As memorable as the occasion may have been, Willie Wilson Day was just one highlight of what could have been Willie Wilson Week. On Monday he was named American League Player of the Week for batting .541 and stealing nine bases during the previous seven days. On Tuesday his wife Kathy went into labor, and at 5 p.m. Wednesday she delivered their first child, an eight-pound, four-ounce girl, Shenice Nicole. Willie arrived at Royals Stadium at 8 p.m. that night and was welcomed by a standing ovation when he entered the game against Milwaukee in the third inning. He singled, drove in a run and walked as the Royals won 18-8. The victory was one of eight in an 11-game stretch that put K.C. only a game and a half behind Western Division leader California.
By the time Kansas City arrived in New York early Thursday morning, the little-known Wilson was being hailed as the most exciting player in baseball. And he just might be. A switch-hitting lead-off man, Wilson was batting .311, had scored 96 runs and was tied with Detroit's Ron LeFlore for the league stolen-base lead with 66 in 77 attempts. Because of his speed and strong, accurate arm, his work in leftfield is often spectacular. And as the whole world has discovered, he is almost certainly the game's fastest runner.
The Royals have been moving quickly themselves of late. On July 19 they were in fourth place in the American League West with a 44-48 record and trailed California by 10½ games. In the opinion of the Angels' Rod Carew, they were "dead and buried." But 44 games and 28 victories later K.C. was very much alive. If the Royals roar through September as they have the past two seasons, they will join the A's as the only team to win four or more consecutive divisional titles.
"It isn't that we're on a tear, it's that others are slumping," says Third Baseman George Brett. True enough. Since the All-Star break, California was 19-25 and Minnesota, now in third place, was 22-24. The Kansas City surge was hardly the result of outstanding pitching. The Royal staff had allowed a club-record 145 homers, and the team ERA was 4.61, 11th in the league. But the hitters have been sensational. Since Aug. 1, DH Hal McRae, Centerfielder Amos Otis, Catcher Darrell Porter, Rightfielder Al Cowens and Brett have all hit better than .300.
Even so, Wilson has been the most regal Royal. "He excites us," says Second Baseman Frank White. "He's like Mickey Rivers was to the 1977 Yankees or Al Bumbry and Rich Coggins were to the 1973 Orioles. He'll get up in the first inning and single, steal second and score on McRae's hit. Just like that, we're on the board."
Despite his extraordinary speed—wearing shoulder pads he once ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds—Wilson's bat has become his primary weapon. As a rookie last year he stole 46 bases but batted a pokey .217. By Labor Day his confidence was gone, and he finished the season as a pinch runner and late-inning defensive replacement. Wilson's state of mind was further eroded by the taunts of teammate John Wathan, who called him "Herbie," a sarcastic reference to Herb Washington, the A's no-hit, no-field "designated runner" of 1974 and '75. On several occasions Wilson was ready to fight Wathan, but the fault was mainly his, because he overswung at the plate.
Two months in winter ball restored Wilson's self-esteem. Then in spring training he followed the advice of Coach Chuck Hiller, who told him to take a short, downward swing, and listened intently as First Baseman Pete LaCock told him he could "run .300" by beating out grounders. After a three-hit game against Chicago on May 12, Wilson became a regular, and his hitting has never slackened. Choking up six inches on the bat handle, he slashes line drives, bunts well and beats out routine grounders—crossing first base with his arms raised sprinter-style.
However, Wilson's specialty is the most exciting play in baseball, the inside-the-park home run. Four of his five homers this season never left the premises; two occurred in Kansas City, where balls pick up speed on the artificial turf and whiz past outfielders, but the others came on slower natural fields in Chicago and Milwaukee.
Last week Wilson was third in the league in triples, with 13, which was only one less than his number of two-base hits. This statistical oddity occurs because on all but stand-up doubles he stops at first, because he figures he can steal second just about any time he wants.
Ah, those steals. At 6'3", 190 pounds, Wilson isn't supposed to steal. Conventional wisdom decrees that because of his long legs a tall player gets a slow jump and has difficulty lowering his body to slide. But Wilson is built along the lines of Dave Parker and Dave Winfield—prototypal, big, modern players who excel in all phases of the game.
Wilson takes a short lead. "Why waste my energy diving back to first on pick-offs," he says, peeling off a FLEET FEET T shirt, "when I can get to second faster than anyone else from where I am?" Employing a technique learned from Maury Wills, Wilson rocks back and forth to pick up momentum, thrusts his right shoulder toward second and uses the muscles in his upper thighs and buttocks to accelerate. In only his second full major league season Wilson has become so proficient a base stealer that he succeeds despite such anti-theft devices as pick-offs and pitchouts.
Exhausted by his maternity-ward vigil and admittedly tense before the home-folk, Wilson was not at his best against New York. As might be expected of an inexperienced 24-year-old, he showed some rough edges, misplaying a fly ball into a triple, lunging at pitches and being caught stealing for the first time in 26 tries dating back to July 23. Even so, he was both entertaining and effective. As Kansas City won 8-3 on Thursday, Wilson ran down George Scott's 420-foot fly and took the life out of New York's only rally by throwing out speedy Willie Randolph at the plate. The next night Tommy John beat the Royals 7-3, but Wilson made his day special by scoring from first on a double that Lou Piniella cut off in medium left-center. Wilson had two hits on Saturday as the Royals came from five runs behind to win 9-8. On Sunday he extended his hitting streak to 14 games as Kansas City lost 6-5. Wilson put on a show in the first inning when he singled to right, stole second, advanced to third on a fly ball to left and scored on a drive to center.
Nonetheless, Wilson was happy to leave New York. By nature, he is a shy and sensitive man who answers the applause of Kansas City fans by tipping his hat and looking down at his shoes. The added attention in New York made him even more uncomfortable. "I like the Summit people, but I'm more afraid of speaking to them than playing baseball," he said.
Like any base stealer, Wilson subjects his body to considerable wear and tear. His right knee and thigh are cut and bruised, and he suffers from aching feet, though he wears special insoles in his shoes. Lately, he has been so tired and sore that while standing in leftfield he doesn't move his feet between pitches and he forgoes practice swings in the on-deck circle. But when he comes to the plate, Willie takes wing.
Wilson has plenty to show for his 66 stolen bases: sore feet, a bruised thigh and mouthfuls of dust.
Wilson has the long stride and gliding speed of a champion sprinter, though he has never run track.