Jack Wilson: Goofy face of a franchise
In case you belong to that tiny group of sports fans who doesn't rigorously follow the Pittsburgh Pirates, Jack Wilson - Pirates shortstop, $6-million-a-year eater, and symbolic face of a weird-looking franchise - publicly called out teammate Jose Castillo, an underachieving young second baseman, calling for better production out of his co-infielder in the coming 2007 season. To my bafflement, the residents of Piratestowne (a small suburb inside Steeler Country) were almost unanimously supportive of Wilson's actions.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Columnist Ron Cook writes, in his article titled "Wilson's first great play is calling out Castillo":
Wilson's show of leadership might not be as impressive as Freddy Sanchez's batting title last season. But, one day, it could prove to be more critical to any success the Pirates have.
Cook goes on to talk about the Pirates' culture of losing, history of lacking leadership, etc, all in the effort to make an incredibly short-sighted point about Jack Wilson's so-called value to the Pirates. His statement is problematic for several reasons:
Reason one, since when is publicly a teammate calling out a teammate "leadership?" If Steve Smith had called out Jake Delhomme this past NFL season, how do you think the media would have reacted? The headline on Around the Horn would have been "OK with Smith's actions?" with Jay Mariotti and Woody Page railing against how the Panthers have more important problems than just Delhomme, how adding friction to the mix isn't necessary, and so on. Pirates beat writer Dejan Kovacevic (with whom I rarely disagree) agrees with Cook, saying:
When Derek Jeter or Jason Giambi calls out A-Rod, he is hailed in New York as a hero. It shows that he cares, that he is thinking about the team first. When it happens in Pittsburgh, we check the back of the guy's bubble-gum card to see if he reached base often enough to open his mouth.
Well, Jeter is hailed as a hero for calling out A-Rod because Yankees fans are violently pack-minded morons, not because it's the right thing to do. And if you want to throw on-base-percentage into the mix, Jeter's career OBP is .388, Jack Wilson's is .306. Does this mean Wilson is automatically denied Jeter's right to assume a leadership role with his team? Of course not. It just means that Jack Wilson is not a very good baseball player, so if a franchise wants to build itself around his "leadership," they're going to get some pretty subpar offensive numbers to go along with it.
Reason two is more complicated. I freely admit that I propose this point knowing nothing firsthand about these individuals or their motives beyond what I read, but what if, just maybe, Jack Wilson is aware that he's not a great baseball player, and in order make himself essential to the franchise in some way, knows he has to gain a public reputation as a leader to justify being the highest paid Pirate and to bolster future contracts? Sort of like how Darrin Erstad and Brad Ausmus are seen as valuable leaders despite being nearly worthless at actually playing baseball, whereas fans freely admit they wouldn't want their teams to trade for A-Rod or Manny Ramirez?
Furthermore, any improvement in Castillo's game next season will generate further praise for Wilson, much as a faith healer works on a patient when their condition is at its worst, and if the condition improves, they appear to have done something. Cook is already lining up to credit Wilson should Castillo happen to improve, rather than praising Castillo himself; it's hard to say that the position Wilson has put Castillo in was intentionally self-serving, but regardless of the motives, Wilson has already deflected free praise to himself if Castillo has a decent season.
I just have trouble seeing Wilson's actions as anything more than a very calculated, very public attempt to pad his perceived value to a franchise that barely needs him anymore, and it appears to be working. Listen to this email from the PG's Pirates Mailbag from fan Doug "Yinz all wants some Primanti's?" Chrisner:
There are certain guys on our professional sports franchises that are just plain Pittsburgh guys. Hines Ward and Alan Faneca come to mind when thinking of the Steelers, and Jack Wilson clearly stands out when thinking of the Pirates. His leadership is crucial to the Pirates turning the corner, and his work ethic and tenure with the team give him every right to speak his mind and take control of the clubhouse.
The guy forgets to mention Raul Mondesi as another example, but we'll let that slide.
Seriously though, is this dude really comparing Jack Wilson to Hines Ward and Alan Faneca? Ward is the Steelers franchise's all-time leading receiver, and Faneca has been to like 50 Pro Bowls and might be bound for the Hall of Fame. Wilson had one decent year two years ago which he has followed up with OPS figures of .662 and .686 in 2005 and 2006, respectively. Basically, he's Geoff Blum at the plate, though the offensive numbers do not take into account the leadership that Wilson's 18 errors (same number as Castillo) provided.
Bottom line, the Pirates would more or less have the same offensive production without Wilson, perhaps even more, with Jose Bautista starting at third, Castillo at short, and Freddy Sanchez at second. But, rather than drift into fan-negativity-World though lackluster production at his relatively high cost, Wilson has taken the initiative and publicly called out pretty much the only player on the team who had a worse season than he did. If this helps Wilson earn another contract in the $6 million range, then more power to 'em. But if the Pirates are unable to re-sign this shining bastion of leadership with a tremendously goofy face, then I wish them good luck finding someone who can clog up the two-hole half as well as Jack Wilson.