Former Royal Willie Wilson lingers on the sidewalk near Gate B at Kauffman Stadium.
It’s April 28, just minutes to game time on a chilly afternoon, and thousands of fans stream through the turnstiles to watch the Royals take on the Minnesota Twins. Wilson stands an easy throw from the bronze statue of his former teammate George Brett. He watches fathers lead their sons to the foot of that Royals icon. They move on without recognizing the ex-player.
Of course, Wilson isn’t in uniform. He’s in dress pants, pointed shoes and a powder-blue polo shirt. And the 51-year-old Wilson hasn’t been inside the stadium in seven years, since his induction into the team’s Hall of Fame in 2000.
Wilson squints upward at the oversized banners that ring the ballpark. Each is adorned with the image of a member of the Royals team Hall of Fame. Above the front-office entrance, near Arrowhead, are the faces of Brett, John Mayberry and Frank White. The blown-up version of Willie Wilson hangs away from them on the other side of the stadium, near the main parking lot and a tree that buffers highway noise.
He has always been an outcast. But for the first time since his playing days, the Royals have asked Wilson to come back. During a week of spring training, he agreed to coach recruits and hang around the clubhouse. Today he’s here for the culmination of Royals Fantasy Camp, a fundraiser in which he and other ’80s legends coached a weeklong recreational camp for middle-aged dreamers willing to shell out $3,500. Before the game begins, the fantasy-camp players will be introduced at home plate alongside their Royals heroes.
Wilson meets the fantasy-camp players near the Brett statue. He slaps them on the back and signs their wives’ ticket stubs. He slices the air with a practice golf swing, making it clear that his mind is not on baseball. “Hey, do we get a free meal out of this?” he asks, only half-joking. He sticks his stomach out. Other than a small gut and the gray whiskers that dot his shaved head and his face, he looks timeless. “I’m three months’ pregnant!” he says, cackling.
The crew descends a spiraling concourse ramp into the bowels of the stadium. Near the Royals clubhouse, Wilson passes shortstop Tony Peña Jr. They don’t recognize each other. Wilson spots his favorite player, Mike Sweeney.
“It’s time to get it going,” Sweeney shouts, after they hug.
“I see you working it,” Wilson counters.
He watches Sweeney trot onto the field to stretch. A Royals public-relations woman finally leads Wilson through the visiting team’s dugout. She arranges the camp players in front, former superstars behind them. The flack shouts an order for everyone to keep off the lush grass. Wilson can’t help himself. He shuffles along the fringe.
The loudspeaker booms a short introduction: “Ladies and gentlemen, today we’d like to welcome the Royals Fantasy Camp to the K!” A cameraman pans the group, broadcasting their images to the JumboTron looming above center field. Wilson raises his arms to wave. But his name is never announced. The camera passes by quickly, as though avoiding him.
Perhaps that’s because Willie Wilson embodies the best and worst of Royals history, a legacy the team has been promoting all year on billboards that sell “True. Blue. Tradition.” Wilson’s speed made him one of the most dangerous hitters, fielders and base stealers in baseball, talents that helped the Royals clinch the World Series in 1985. But, as the team’s leadoff man, he often criticized the batting order. And no matter how fast he was, he couldn’t outrun the first and perhaps biggest recreational-drug scandal to rock major league baseball. In his personal life, the strikeouts have included a divorce, a bankruptcy that caused him to flee the city in embarrassment, and bitter court battles over child support for an illegitimate child.
His appearances at Royals events have become part of rebuilding the brand Wilson likes to call “the Good Willie.” Though he still lives in Toronto, the Royals’ most notorious player has returned to work in Kansas City, complete with a media handler and a new nonprofit called the Willie Wilson Baseball Foundation.
For today, though, Wilson seems comfortable with his low profile. “It’s all right. Not too many people recognized me, so that’s good,” he says.
It’s just the beginning of his comeback, and so far, he’s not sure whether the fans who do recognize him will cheer or boo.
In June 1974, rookie Willie Wilson seethed as he exited the showers in the Royals clubhouse. None of his teammates were taking him seriously.
Wilson had arrived at the stadium earlier that day with an entourage that consisted of his mother, his high school baseball coach and a lawyer. After signing his contract, he’d been invited to take batting practice with the team. Wearing a pristine white jersey and new uniform pants with blue piping, Wilson jumped into the batter’s box as John Mayberry and Amos Otis watched nearby.
Wilson’s high school field had no fences. There, he would just hit the ball as far as he could and then run the bases. He hadn’t yet learned that, in the big leagues, where you hit the ball is more important than how far it goes. For his first Royals batting practice, Wilson knocked shots hard into far right field.
Soon, he recalls, Mayberry and Otis heckled him, saying he was a “right-field-punching Judy.”
The gibes continued in the locker room, with Hal McRae joining in. Wilson dressed among the wood-framed and mesh-wired lockers. His name wasn’t yet on the white-and-blue nameplates of the regular starters. Still, he began what would stretch into nearly two decades’ worth of trash talking.
“I’m coming to take your job,” he told Otis.
Otis first considered it a joke. But soon, Wilson got bolder. “He once told me he was making enough money, he could buy me and bury me,” Otis tells the Pitch.
Wilson had an ego, but he had the game to back it up.
In high school in Summit, New Jersey, he had been a baseball and football hero. He turned down a full scholarship to play football at the University of Maryland after he was drafted by the Royals in the first round in 1974. The Royals gave him a $90,000 signing bonus and brought him up to the majors two years later.
To Otis, Wilson represented a new era of so-called “bonus babies,” guys who got paid for their potential, not their work on the field. “When you come up highly touted, something in your mind is not in the right place,” Otis says.
Still, Wilson revolutionized the Royals’ defense, recalls pitcher Marty “Duck” Pattin, who played with him during Wilson’s first four years as a pro. Rather than focus on getting strikeouts, Pattin says he could give up fly balls because he knew his outfielders, especially Wilson, were fast enough to chase them. Pattin remembers manager Whitey Herzog coming to the mound just to rest his outfielders. “He’d say, ‘Duck, I just came out here because you’ve been running my outfielders to death.'”
In 1979, Wilson broke the American League stolen-base record with 83, one of four times he’d steal more than 50 bases in a season. Wilson scored 13 of his 41 career home runs inside the park. He still holds a Royals team record for steals, with 668. In 1980, he hit for a .326 average, belted a team-record 230 hits and won the Golden Glove Award. Buck O’Neil reportedly said one of his greatest joys was watching Wilson run.
Wilson was known for wearing his cap low across his brow. The style, he says now, served two purposes. Like a horse’s blinders, it allowed him to zero in on the action in front of him. It also blocked out the only part of the game that flustered him: the crowd. Fans flocked to Wilson because of his sheer talent, but he had no interest in courting them.
“The only thing I mind, really, is signing the autographs,” he told the Town Squire, a now-defunct Johnson County magazine, in April 1980. “It comes along with the job, but sometimes you sign so many, you just get tired.”
The press often criticized Wilson’s attitude. “Wilson is prone to get mouthy from the bench,” The Kansas City Times complained in July 1983. “And, he is moody. Often full of laughter and affable, Wilson becomes volatile at the slightest provocation.”
Today, he acknowledges that his attitude eroded team spirit. “My first three years, I didn’t say nothing to nobody,” Wilson says. “I was just mad, and if you made a mistake, I’d yell at you because I wasn’t making it.”
But Wilson’s behavior became increasingly outrageous. Wilson remembers parties at which he and other players would throw beer bottles at hotel exit signs. He says today that he had a habit of rushing rookies on the team and shouting, “Shit, man, this ain’t college. You got to show us things before you open your mouth!”
In June 1983, Wilson and three other Royals called Mark Liebl, a former liquor salesman, looking for cocaine. Liebl was under wiretap surveillance by the FBI. After his arrest, Wilson pleaded guilty to attempting to possess at least a gram of coke. He served 81 days at a minimum-security prison. He was also suspended 32 games but was the only player not traded after the incident. Wilson returned to the plate in May 1984 at Chicago’s Comiskey Park and drew a walk. He stole second base, then third and scored on a ground out to help lift the Royals to a 7-6 win against the White Sox. Still, he had a chip on his shoulder. He’d later lament that he had been “sent to the lions,” to give the league more leverage in establishing a formal drug policy that was more lenient for players.
In 1984, Wilson was trying to buy a home in an exclusive Blue Springs subdivision where Royals catcher John Wathan lived. Wilson says Wathan’s wife signed a petition circulated by neighbors to keep Wilson out of the community because of his erratic behavior. The housing spat led to a fistfight between Wilson and Wathan during a private team flight.
He says he had a lingering feeling that, as a black player, his job was secure only as long as he delivered perfect performances. “If you were black, you were not going to be utility. You either started or you were in the minor leagues.”
Wilson’s speed slowed, and the team unloaded him. He played two years for the Oakland A’s and two more for the Chicago Cubs before retiring in 1994.
By then, his personal life was in a slump. According to court documents, Wilson fathered an illegitimate daughter who was born February 5, 1985. Later that year, he and his wife separated. When they divorced on February 26, 1987, he was ordered to pay $3,000 a month in child support for their two kids. Two years later, Wilson lost a paternity suit in Jackson County court and was ordered to pay $1,000 a month in child support for his out-of-wedlock daughter. He had remarried in 1988.
Wilson opened a burger joint in New Jersey, but it folded in the early ’90s. He invested thousands to become chairman of a wireless-telephone start-up called Nutech Communications, but that company went belly-up in 1998, according to court documents. In 2000, he filed for bankruptcy. He escaped to his wife’s hometown of Toronto in 2002, after his baseball mementos were auctioned by the bankruptcy court. Bats signed by White and Bo Jackson earned a few hundred dollars. His World Series ring went for $16,250.
In January 2004, Helen Mohr, who owns a public-relations company called Type A Event, suggested that Wilson attend the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum‘s Legacy Awards for former African-American ballplayers. She had a plan for him. Mohr pointed at the crowd, standing in the 2-foot-deep snow in front of the Gem Theater, waiting for autographs. “This is a gold mine for you,” she told him.
Wilson had started the Willie Wilson Baseball Foundation to run a charity camp and clinics for kids in New Jersey. The goal was to donate proceeds from each camp to the local sports associations that hosted each event. Mohr convinced Wilson to focus on Kansas City.
Shanice Wilson, his daughter from his first marriage, says her dad embraced the chance to shed his old labels: grump player, ex-con, failed businessman. Shanice, who lives in Kansas City, says her father hoped for a new role as a coach. “For a long time, he felt underappreciated and disrespected,” she says. “He’s sensitive, he’s matured, and I think he has peace of mind now that he’s comfortable with what he’s doing.”
Wilson summarizes his partnership with Mohr: “If someone is using you to make money and you are using them to make money and both of you know you are getting used, it should be a pretty good marriage,” he says.
His biggest issue remains sticking to his talking points.
Wilson has an unconventional view of sportsmanship. In mid-April, at a Willie Wilson Baseball Foundation clinic supporting the Raytown Sports Association, he basically tells kids to forget the golden rule and look for the gold. You can earn things, he says, by keeping a positive attitude.
At the beginning of his career, he mistreated umpires. “I never said two words to umpires,” Wilson tells a huddle of kids. “I just went off on them. If there was a close play at the plate, it didn’t matter. I was usually called out.” Then an umpire told him that if he simply said hello to the other umpires, word would get around that Wilson was OK. He pauses, looking around at the group of 7- to 14-year-olds. “I said hello to everybody, and the next year, I won a batting championship.”
Wilson admits that he’s not the perfect role model. “When I played, if I was happy, you knew it. If I was sad, you knew it. If I was angry, you knew it,” he says. “People probably saw all of me, and it reminded them of themselves.”
For the Raytown clinic, Wilson has called in some favors and recruited an all-star roster of former friends and teammates: Dennis Leonard, Greg Pryor, Ed Hearn, Bobby Dernier, Otis, Mayberry and White. Otis has flown in from Las Vegas. A hundred kids have paid $50 each for two days of instruction. Mohr says the weekend will net $4,000 for the Raytown Sports Association to put toward new ball fields. Mohr won’t disclose what Wilson or the former players were paid, but she says additional sponsorships from H&R Block and YRC Worldwide helped fund their salaries.
His teammates wear their old uniforms, which stretch and bow across their middle-aged frames. When Mayberry tells Wilson that his clothes look too new, Wilson admits that they are, courtesy of the Royals. At the end of his week evaluating Royals prospects at spring training, Wilson jokes, he left the locker room dressed in multiple layers of clothing to sneak out as much logo apparel as he could.
Throughout the clinic, Wilson coaches youngsters with a tough-love philosophy. When a girl lobs a light toss to him, he throws the ball back to her. “What do you think?” he asks. “Are you scared to throw it?”
When a kid with thick glasses swings his bat poorly, Wilson asks sharply, “Who taught you how to swing like that? No offense, but who taught you how to swing like that? Did you teach yourself?”
Each time a kid does well, he shouts short praises, “Hello!” or “Lordy! Lordy!”
As kids rotate through batting, pitching and throwing stations, Wilson calls for repeated breaks, mostly for his older teammates. When no one is looking, he sneaks out to his Jeep to smoke a Salem. By the end of the two-day camp, the girl with the weak toss is throwing bullets, and the boy with the sloppy swing is knocking shots into outfield gaps.
The only thing Wilson appears to need help with — again — is listening to the people around him.
At the rundown Raytown Parks and Recreation baseball fields off Frost Road, Mohr asks Wilson to take a quick break from batting practice to do an interview for KSHB Channel 41. He rebuffs her repeatedly. Finally, she asks White for help. “We’re trying to get Willie, but he’s in his own world,” Mohr tells White.
“Hey, Will, they need you over here for a minute,” White shouts across the field.
Parents look up to see Wilson’s reaction. He kneels at home plate with a bag of baseballs. He doesn’t look up.
“I know, Frank. That’s not my purpose here,” he growls back angrily as he lobs another ball to a young hitter.
“He did the same thing to me,” Mohr tells White.
“He’s always been that way,” White says.
Still, Wilson seems to have conquered his least-favorite exercise. At the end of the clinic, he sits with all of the other players at a long table near home plate to sign autographs. The line extends toward first base. Kids trickle past Wilson and the other players as though in a buffet line. One boy stops in front of Wilson and offers him a ball to sign. The kid thinks Wilson is Frank White. When he sees Frank a few seats down and realizes his mistake, the boy yanks his ball back.
“I got to get this signed by Frank for my grandma,” the boy says shortly.
“Willie Wilson can sign it, too,” his mom says, rolling her eyes apologetically.
Wilson laughs and smiles broadly. “No, that’s cool,” he says. The line now stretches into the outfield. It will be more than an hour before he can leave. “If he wants Frank to sign, that’s cool. I’m ready for another.”
On the Saturday night after the clinic, Wilson and a few players head to a party at a mansion just off a golf green in the Overland Park subdivision of the Links at LionsGate. The pad is three stories, filled with at least 15 flat-screen TVs wired to more than $150,000 worth of sound equipment. The home belongs to a sports fanatic and local real-estate-development mogul named William McCroy Jr., who has dubbed the place “the Man House.” McCroy says he offers up his home to athletes as a private place to carouse.
Hearn and Pattin arrive in uniform. Pryor shows up in jeans. They gather in the basement, which is filled with sports posters, arcade games, a shuffleboard table, and a movie theater with plush cinema chairs. On the theater screen is a Royals game that no one watches.
Wilson arrives fashionably late with Mayberry and Mohr. He wears slacks, a bright-orange dress shirt and a slathering of musky cologne. At the bar, he grimaces when he realizes that there’s only caffeine-free Diet Coke. He mixes it with whiskey anyway. “When you have a lot of things and they take it all away, beggars can’t be choosy,” he says.
Sore from the long day, Wilson hobbles gingerly around the basement. He shoots some pool by himself.
McCroy shows up as Wilson fills his glass again behind the bar. When McCroy gushes that Wilson can outrun any ball hit, Wilson stops him. He looks at his teammates, lazily scratching his stomach. “You can’t knock yourself in every time,” he says. “You need other people to make you great.”
Hearn swigs a Bud Light past the plug of chewing tobacco already in his mouth. He watches Wilson intently. Wilson seems to relish the attention.
“You don’t have the stress of ballplaying, so you can just be you,” Wilson says. On July 9, he turns 52. “I feel better than 26.”
Much of that comes from his resolution to stop trying to justify his past actions. Wilson says he rocketed to superstardom in the era just before pro athletes were coached on how to handle the press and groupies. He never realized the extent to which his daily moves would be scrutinized.
When talk turns to past transgressions, he’ll no longer discuss specifics. Ask him about the cocaine scandal, and he will tell you, “All I did was call for somebody else. How would you like to go to jail for just talking about something?” Ask him about his illegitimate daughter, and he admits that he is estranged from her, but not by choice. “It was all about money. I had a daughter out of wedlock. There are about 50 million other kids that happened out of wedlock, but you don’t see nobody talking about them.”
If he’s going to tell all, he says, he’ll do it in a book that comes with a payday. “I’m not going to just give it to the public. My life is not free anymore.”
As the sun sets, Wilson steps outside to smoke a cigarette. He looks toward the tree line, in the direction of his old home, which is just a few miles east. It was repossessed after he filed for bankruptcy. He puffs on a Salem and scrutinizes the golf course rolling out in front of him, planning where he might place his strokes.
He exhales, knowing he’ll never move back to Kansas City.
“If I’m still here, I can’t relax,” he says later. “It’s like, quit bugging me, man. You don’t want to be that way. I want to give people a good impression. I want to give people the good Willie, the one that is enjoying his job and makes everything better.”
On May 17, 2007, Wilson and Mohr arrive at Community America Ballpark in Kansas City, Kansas, for a season-opening event with the new team that he seems to have adopted since retirement: T-Bones.
Wilson began shilling for the team a year ago when his foundation organized the first Willie Wilson T-Bones Classic celebrity game, featuring Brett and Otis. Today, he wears a red T-Bones-logo polo shirt. He will throw out the first pitch. He’ll also plug his second-annual T-Bones charity game, July 14.
Mohr has invited a cast of potential sponsors of future events to see her client in action. For the pitch, she has arranged a built-in crowd pleaser: Wilson will form a tag team with 9-year-old Weston Funk, a cancer survivor from Children’s Miracle Network, which will get a share of ticket revenue from the all-star game.
He seems happy to be here, in part because independent league baseball is known for drawing fans who love the game, not scrutinizing stars. “I’m not dogging the Royals,” he says. “This gives me an opportunity that the Royals haven’t.”
On the field, Wilson’s shoulders relax, and he smiles broadly. He says he’s always been at ease on the field. It was the other part of life that seemed so complicated. Now the two are blurring. Fans reach through the netting of the backstop behind home plate, shoving ticket stubs and programs through for him to sign. He scrawls his autograph in blue ink across the back right shoulder of Weston’s T-shirt.
“Look, he’s my buddy,” Wilson says. He tousles the kid’s bushy hair.
Weston throws a baseball up and down, oblivious. He looks too small to be able to get it across home plate from the pitcher’s mound. One of the T-Bones’ promoters suggests that Wilson throw the pitch instead.
Wilson settles this quickly. “I don’t want to throw it. He’s throwing it,” he says. As Weston’s parents and the T-Bones’ event staff listen in, Wilson offers the kid advice: “Don’t you worry, son. You just have fun. Even grown-ups throw them bad, too.”
Wilson shows Weston how to grip the seams of the ball so that it won’t slip out of his hands. He tells the boy to throw hard — all out. He hopes the ball will get there, but regardless, he adds an encore maneuver sure to court the fans.
“After you throw it, I want you to give me some skin,” Wilson says.
For the first time in months, Wilson gets a proper introduction. The announcer mentions Wilson’s upcoming game and the Children’s Miracle Network and then booms, “And now, here to throw out the first pitch …Weston Funk and Willie Wilson!”
Weston grips the ball with his fingers across the seams, winds up and hurls. The ball moves fast, skipping once across the dirt and landing with a loud smack in the catcher’s glove.
The crowd erupts. Walking off the field, Weston remembers the second part of his act. He hops up to slap Wilson high-five. The crowd again signals its loud approval.
Wilson heads to the top of the stands to address reporters. Next week, Mohr will tell him that the Children’s Miracle Network has given its blessing to send the ex-player to another benefit, a Wal-Mart shopping spree for a different cancer survivor. Every such event helps Wilson rebuild his image and promote the upcoming game.
An inning later, when he thinks no one is still looking, Wilson finds Weston’s family in the lower deck and asks the boy if he can sign the ball.
He inscribes his usual “#6 Willie Wilson.” Beneath that, he adds something new. One word, underlined twice: “Thanks.”