2002-05-25 / Sports

Wilson Has Paid His Dues To Make It

Baseball Columnist
By Bryan Hoch
Wilson Has Paid His Dues To Make It By Bryan Hoch Baseball Columnist

Baseball Columnist

Vance Wilson of the New York Mets has emerged as one of the hardest workers and toughest backup catchers in the major leagues today. It's sometimes easy to forget that not too long ago, it appeared that he might never receive a chance at all.

It was the spring of 1998, and Wilson was on the fast track to the major leagues. After hitting 16 home runs with Norfolk (AAA) of the International League the year prior, Wilson was the first in line on the Mets' catching depth chart for a call-up from the minors.

The Mets were in their pre-Mike Piazza days then, showcasing a light-hitting catching tandem of veterans Tim Spehr and Alberto Castillo. When both failed to provide enough consistency to support an offense that

sorely lacked the presence of injured All-Star catcher Todd Hundley, the Mets began casting a longing eye in Wilson's direction to provide help for the languishing lineup.

That all would change on May 1st, when Wilson was hit hard in a home plate collision, missing nearly three months of the season as he fractured his left ulna.

When Spehr went down with a similar injury just days later at Shea Stadium, it was not Wilson but journeyman backstop Todd Pratt that got the call to the Mets.

Pratt turned his luck into a career, settling nicely into the role of backup when they acquired Piazza from the Florida Marlins on May 22nd. While Piazza stole the spotlight, Pratt found a way to earn eternal recognition in the hearts of fans with his series-winning home run against Arizona's Matt Mantei in Game Four of the 1999 NL Division Series.

"I use Pratt as a lot of inspiration," Wilson said. "In 1998, we were in Triple-A together and he was my backup. I broke my arm, Spehr broke his arm, and Pratt got called up and ran with it. He took advantage of a great situation. That kind of keeps your focus and says, 'that could be you someday'."

Indeed, it would be someday for Wilson, a 44th round draft pick of the Mets in 1993. He received brief tastes of the majors in 1999 and 2000 before the team finally cleared the way for him to inherit the backup catcher's job last July, dealing Pratt to the Philadelphia Phillies. It's a job that the Mesa, Arizona native intends to keep.

"I prepare myself as a starter every day," he said. "You don't play a lot with Mike here, so I try to take some soft toss, come out and throw early, take BP and read scouting reports.

"During the game, I'll go down to the tunnel in the fourth inning and take some swings in the cage, play catch in bullpen, run sprints. I just get loose, just in case I come in for defense or if Mike gets nicked up."

In addition to his playing duties, Wilson believes it is the responsibility of a major leaguer to accommodate the fans whenever possible. He is often the first and only player out of the dugout hours before game time, greeting the early-bird arrivals at Shea Stadium by posing for pictures and signing autographs.

"New York fans really appreciate it," he said. "It's part of our jobs. There's a reason they come to the games. It's good to get to know the fans, to know who's behind you and cheering you. It makes it more enjoyable for them even if you're not playing, and they get to know you personally."

After more than six years in the minors that saw him call towns like Pittsfield, Columbia and Binghamton home, Wilson has finally arrived in the Big Apple. He wouldn't have it any other way.

"It's the excitement, the atmosphere," Wilson reflects. "Not to take away from fans in other cities, but the fans here are knowledgeable not only about the Mets, but the minor leagues too.

"When you get here, it's not 'Who's this guy?' They know about you, and what you can do. With the history that goes along with New York and it being the most exciting city in the world, I love it."

                       *****

A trashy gossip column in the New York Post this week has stirred likely the biggest Mets-related controversy since Bobby Valentine offered disparaging comments about the team in a student address at the Wharton School of Business in April 2000.

Writing in the Post's Page Six, columnist Neal Travis offered an opinion on Valentine's comments in the upcoming June issue of Details magazine, in which the manager is quoted as saying that the majors are "probably ready for an openly gay player."

Travis one-upped the issue, wildly speculating that Valentine may be trying to prepare fans and teammates for the 'coming out' of one of his players, going on to rehash a tired rumor that has floated about Mike Piazza.

Travis never mentioned Piazza by name in the article, which Mets general manager Steve Phillips called "reckless journalism" Tuesday at Veterans Stadium and directed reporters to confront Piazza on the issue before putting rumors in print.

"I'm not gay. I'm heterosexual," Piazza said, handling the issue with relative ease. "I can't control what people think. I date women."

                         *****

After completing a three-game series with the Philadelphia Phillies at Veterans Stadium, the Mets are home this weekend for a three-game series with the Florida Marlins and two more with the Phillies before again leaving town.

New York is in the middle of a stretch in which they are scheduled to play 23 of 29 games on the road, the most in franchise history. After the May 29 game with the Phillies, the Mets hit the road for a 13-game swing that includes stops to play Florida, Atlanta, Cleveland and the White Sox.

The Mets return to Shea on June 14, just in time to open a three-game weekend series against the Yankees. Righthander Roger Clemens, whom the Mets have not had a chance to retaliate against since his bat-throwing incident in Game Two of the 2000 World Series, is scheduled to pitch in the Saturday afternoon contest.

                         *****

Former outfielder Jose Canseco, who retired last week after a failed comeback attempt with the Chicago White Sox, is interviewing with prospective publishers for a tell-all book in which he will disclose that 85 percent of all major leaguers are using steroids.

Canseco and co-writer Bill Chastain, a former sportswriter for the Tampa Tribune, promise that names will be named among those who Canseco has juiced with, a tactic which is sure to help the book skyrocket to the top of the best-seller lists.

The outfielder will also address his perception that he was run out of baseball. "I've had a lot of athletes in different sports and I know a lot of people in the acting field that all told me I've been exiled, basically blackballed," he said in a wire report.

Sorry, Jose; forget blackballing. You don't have a major league job right now because there are plenty of guys who have shown the ability to hit at a higher clip than .172 in Triple-A and aren't considered defensive liabilities in the outfield.

****

Bryan Hoch regularly covers the New York Mets for MetsOnline.net and can be reached via e-mail at bryanhoch@metsonline.net.


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