Wilson starting what he once finished
Eclectic left-hander making smooth transition from bullpen to Rangers' rotation
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Inside the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on a beautiful May Saturday afternoon, a lone figure jogs the lower-level aisles, tagging the infield wall at each downturn before heading back up the stairs. Dressed in a black T-shirt and blue shorts (his favorite color), he runs with a slow gait up and down the stairs, his shaggy brown hair loose under his headphones.
The stadium opened early for a local Boy Scouts event and a few fans are scattered throughout the seats four hours before the Rangers' 7 p.m. game. Still, no one seems to recognize the previous night's winning pitcher, who threw his second complete game of the season in a 4-1 victory over Zack Greinke and the Royals, and who led the American League in ERA through mid-May.
C.J. Wilson followed that start by allowing only a run and four hits in seven innings in a May 13 win over the Athletics, his seventh consecutive quality start this year, the most ever by a Rangers pitcher in the season-opening rotation.
This is cardio day, also known as Day 1 After Pitching, for the starter-turned-reliever-turned-closer-turned-reliever-turned starter. The 29-year-old says he favors this routine of "living life five days at a time" between starts as opposed to a bullpen or closing role. The structure seems to favor him: He is 3-2 with a 3.07 ERA, with a batting average against of only .226.
Earning a rotation spot despite an already talented young pitching corps was Wilson's primary offseason focus. Last year was his strongest season since he broke into the majors in 2006. As a reliever in '09 he notched 14 saves, registered career bests in wins (5), innings pitched (73.2), appearances (74), ERA (2.81), strikeouts (84) and home runs allowed (3), and set a team record for lowest ERA at home in a season (0.67).
"His whole focus [this past offseason] was not being just that setup man; his mindset was that he'd be a starter," says Santa Ana Junior College head baseball coach Don Sneddon, whom Wilson played for in 2000. "And because that was his goal, I didn't doubt for one minute that that would happen."
Wilson says he'd always preferred starting and would prove himself if given a chance by the Texas brass, even after the Rangers acquired right-handed ace Rich Harden in the offseason to join their already deep set of arms.
"[Wilson] was our bullpen [ace] and also one of our best pitchers [last year]," says Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux. "But there comes a time where this guy has done everything we've asked of him. Why not start him and really showcase what he can do? He's taken the bull by the horns, run off with it and earned his keep."
Teammates gradually supported the choice, even if they were initially skeptical. "It surprised me that they considered it at first," says second baseman Ian Kinsler. "We've got a lot of starters and he's one of the best left-handed relievers in the league. But when he came out to spring training, he was very focused and he won the spot."
Focused, diligent work habits are indicative of Wilson, particularly when it comes to the career he decided on at age 8, when he took a piece of paper and wrote down his life goal: to play in the major leagues.
The only problem was that he wasn't very good at baseball. An intellectual and curious adolescent, Wilson had read various sports psychology books and sifted through several baseball how-tos by his 12th birthday. But he was a better hitter than pitcher (Wilson still loves to hit -- he's looking forward to interleague play when he can showcase his bat skills), and his throws from the mound were so erratic that coaches often had to switch his position out of fear he'd hurt the opposing team's players.
"When I was 11 or 12, Don Larsen spoke [to] our Little League and told us that only one out of like 29,000 kids will make it to pro ball," Wilson remembers. "So I looked around at the hundred or so kids who were there and thought, 'I've got to work really hard.' It's funny to think what motivates you as a kid."
It's also humorous because Wilson says he wasn't driven only by a love of the game. "I literally was motivated by my desire to have cool cars," Wilson laughs.
He owns several sports cars, including a blue 2011 GT 3RS Porsche. This past offseason "Chris Wilson" (his name in the racing world) competed in 19 races, including a 25-hour race and several Formula events. He also earned his first-ever pole position while competing against drivers who've raced professionally for years.
"When he commits to something, he studies it, formulates a game plan and attacks it with confidence," says Padres pitcher Chris Young, who was teammates with Wilson in 2004-05 and has remained a good friend. "I think that's his outlook on life, too. He does things his own way, neither better nor worse than anyone else, but different."
Wilson says he put in a "ridiculous" number of hours this offseason to ready himself for a starter's job. He cut back on weight training so he'd be more flexible and could withstand throwing 120 pitches an outing while also accepting that he'd have to pace himself.
He also wanted to improve his variation, and throw with accuracy and focus. "I threw my fastball so often last year; it was probably 91 percent of my pitches," Wilson says. "I was giving hitters too much of a chance and needed to mix it up more. Now I have five pitches, so I can throw them all."
"You don't get anything fast to hit, he keeps the ball out of the fat part of the plate, he throws his breaking pitches for strikes, and he can sink it on lefties and cut it away," says Kansas City outfielder Scott Podsednik. "His sinker has good bore down and in to us lefties. He threw me a cutter away that I wasn't able to put the fat part of the bat on."
When batters do manage a hit, the ball usually stays on the ground. "The hits he's giving up are situation hits where contact was just enough that we could make the routine play," Maddux says.
Even if Wilson is reluctant to accept occasional contact. "That's been the hardest thing for me, to give up a hit every once in a while," Wilson says. "As a reliever or closer, you're trying to strike every guy out. Now I'm like, 'Sure, I'll take a fly out to center.' That's the forgiveness you have to give yourself."
In high school, Wilson began setting his VCR every day to record the form of the league's best hurlers. He's continued the habit today, even during the season, and cites pitchers like Roy Halladay, Mariano Rivera and Josh Beckett as examples he's tried to emulate.
"I called [Wilson] last winter and asked what he was doing," says Rangers former pitching coach Mark Connor. "He said, 'I have a hard drive file of how every left-handed reliever faces every left-handed hitter in the majors. I'm watching them all.' I don't think everyone does that. He's always looking for that something that will separate him from the rest of the league."
Wilson's biggest career crossroads before this season came in 2004, when he missed the entire year after Tommy John surgery. "That's when I learned to enjoy myself outside of baseball," Wilson says. "I thought, 'Life is short. What if I never play again?' So I started being more adventurous and realizing that once you've driven 180 mph in a car in Germany or jumped off a cliff into the ocean with no idea how deep it is, pitching with a dude on third base isn't so scary anymore. It's about finding a way to correlate what's off the field to what's on the field and making them match up so you can be the best you can be."
That relentless ambition carries over to his other interests. Take the cult hit TV show "Lost," which just finished its sixth and final season. Wilson isn't just a fan: He blogs about the episodes, and after exchanging e-mails with two of the show's main producers, he met them during the offseason to talk about the show's evolution. As part of his pregame ritual, Wilson reads scripts from various episodes.
A screenwriting major while at Loyola Marymount University, Wilson often writes in a journal. He is also a surfer, D.J., martial arts expert, avid reader, guitar player and social media expert.
"I need to have outside interests from baseball that will make me better," Wilson says, citing a quote from the samurai Miyamoto Musashi, written in his "The Book of Five Rings." "'To master the sword you must also know the brush.'"
I've done poorly in big-game situations, so I know what failure feels like and how to come back from that. You have to respect the talent on the other side of the field but also really believe in yourself.” -- Rangers left-hander C.J. Wilson
Wilson began a MySpace page in 2003 and has since added a blog, a Twitter handle (he has just over 16,000 followers) and a Facebook account, all of which he personally maintains. He reads every comment from his readers and followers.
Beyond connecting with fans, his primary motivation for maintaining the social media is to broadcast his C.J. Wilson's Children's Charities, which he co-founded in 2006 with Robert Champagne. Wilson began working with Champagne after meeting Robert's son, Micah, while the latter was a patient at a local hospital.
The charity's intent is not to solicit funds; it works with children in order to pique their interest toward giving back to their community. "I don't do a $300-a-plate black-tie dinner because that's not my style," Wilson says. "My goal is to let them know that helping kids spoke to me, but they should give back in a way that speaks to them."
Wilson is not afraid of hearing from critics, including those who question his chosen "straight edge" lifestyle (no drinking, no drugs, no promiscuous sex). "There's not too many people like him in pro sports that say, 'Hey, I'm straight edge,'" says friend and high school teammate Brandon Cox. "But C.J.'s always been a straight-shooter who'll tell you what he thinks. And he won't be bothered if you don't like it."
Cox remembers their junior year of high school, when he, Wilson and another teammate found themselves mired in a hitting slump. Wilson's solution was for the trio to burn their batting gloves as a "sacrifice to the baseball gods" and sprinkle the ashes around the field. "It was a bit strange but that worked because we all turned it around," Cox says.
The night before a start, Wilson stays at the stadium until around 1 a.m., watching film of the batters he'll face. His game day begins with a vegetable omelet, oatmeal and fruit at the same restaurant, Breadwinner's, when he's in Dallas. He admits to the traditional sporting superstitions, like how he lays out his uniform (gloves on top of shoes, jersey on top of chair), before reading through "Lost" scripts and listening to music. He'll throw a bullpen session of 10-12 pitches before sitting in on the 6 p.m. pitchers, catchers and coaches meeting, drawing on a lineup card the exact pitches he intends to throw each batter.
"I've dealt with a lot of adversity, pitching-wise, in the last few years," Wilson says. "I've done poorly in big-game situations, so I know what failure feels like and how to come back from that. You have to respect the talent on the other side of the field but also really believe in yourself."
After throwing the final pitch on May 5 to wrap up his second complete game of 2010, Wilson stood in a crouched position, hands clenched in fists, arms bent, and yelled. Numerous photographers captured that moment and, after a fan e-mailed him a copy, the photo became Wilson's Facebook profile picture.
Because for him, that image already existed. "I can visualize pitching well," Wilson says. "This past offseason, I saw myself in the red jersey, two-hand fist-clench coming off the mound to end the game. I visualized that. If you practice seeing it, it makes you more comfortable when it happens. You're ready."
Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.
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