Willie WilsonOctober 26, 2006
In this 1980 card, Willie Wilson demonstrates that it’s possible to look fast even when standing still. Wilson epitomized the great Royals teams of the late ’70s to mid-’80s, even though he only became a regular in 1979, after the Royals had already taken three divisional titles. He did help them win the last of those three titles as a 23-year-old bench player unleashed in close games to unnerve the opposition with his alarming speed. The first time I became aware of him was while listening to a game at my aunt and uncle’s that year.
The Red Sox had been mutilating everyone in their path, but as usual they seemed to be having trouble on the fast artificial turf in Kansas City. While the Sox always tried and failed to muscle home runs out of the sparkling, spacious facility, the Royals bunted for hits, executed double steals with swat-team precision, and slapped clutch triples into the gaps. Even before Wilson’s arrival, the Red Sox’ attempts to subdue the Royals often resembled a weary gorilla throwing uppercuts at a battalion of malarial gnats. And in that game in 1978, maybe because I was listening to it and not watching it, radio allowing for the wider horizons of folklore, Wilson seemed not so much a promising prospect as a perfect essence of Royalness, the sum of the happiest baseball dreams of Freddy Patek and Amos Otis and Hal McRae.
He entered the game as pinch-runner when the outcome was still in doubt. The announcers, Ned Martin and Jim Woods, instantly began speaking of him in almost hushed tones, and Wilson obliged their fearful and laudatory testimonials by stealing second, sprinting to third on a groundout, and flying home on a popup to shallow center by The Next Mickey Mantle, Clint Hurdle. Not incidentally, in retracing the details of this 7/21/78 Red Sox-Royals game at retrosheet.com, I was surprised to discover that Clint Hurdle had what may well have been his first, last, and only great day in the major leagues, knocking in six runs against an eventual 99-game-winning team. I have absolutely no memory of Clint Hurdle in this game, perhaps because he fades into his customary inconsequentiality next to Wilson, who seemed that day almost like a superhero, especially with his alliterative first and last names that recalled other superhero alter egos such as Peter Parker, Clark Kent, Bruce Banner, and Reed Richards. Willie Wilson. A lightning bolt in white and blue.