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Altitude ADJUSTMENT
Daniel G. Habib
April 28, 2003
Climbing back after two down years in Florida and a family tragedy, new Rockie Preston Wilson is off to a smashing start in Colorado
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April 28, 2003

Altitude Adjustment

Climbing back after two down years in Florida and a family tragedy, new Rockie Preston Wilson is off to a smashing start in Colorado

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At the bottom of Preston Wilson's locker, wedged alongside a portable DVD/CD player that bumps the new Snoop Dogg through surround-sound speakers, sits a Hi8 video playback machine linked to a nearby clubhouse television-Last Saturday morning the machine was loaded with a tape of San Diego Padres righthander Clay Condrey, who would be working against Wilson's Colorado Rockies that afternoon. It is one of around 100 tapes that Colorado's new centerfielder possesses showcasing National League pitchers. Speaking to a visitor, the 28-year-old Wilson broke his train of thought and pointed to the TV, where the tape had been running on a loop for an hour or so. "Hold on, we gotta watch this. Now this right here is bad," he said, shaking his head as his video image flailed at a changeup, which he bounced to third. "That's what happens when you try to pull the off-speed pitches."

That afternoon Wilson would have even less luck against Condrey: In Colorado's 10-9 win he struck out in each of his three at bats against the Padre. Nevertheless, by week's end Wilson was more chipper than he had been in some time. Cast off last off-season by the Florida Marlins, Wilson was batting .338 with four home runs and 14 RBIs, and his 13 extra-base hits led the league.

Over the last two emotionally and physically trying years, Wilson lost his first child, Preston V; was separated from his wife, Trista (they are in the process of divorcing); and suffered back, thumb and toe injuries that hampered his performance with the Marlins. He sees his trade to the Rockies not as an insult but as an opportunity. "I'm definitely happier," he says. "I think anywhere [other than Florida] I could have been this year, I would have been happier. Growing through the stuff that I went through changes your perspective."

Considered a franchise cornerstone for Florida after producing a 31-home-run, 36-stolen-base season in 2000 and signing a five-year, $32 million contract the following March, Wilson—along with the three years and $28 million remaining on his deal—was shipped to the Rockies in November along with catcher Charles Johnson, infielder Pablo Ozuna and lefthander Vic Darensbourg. Florida got lefthander Mike Hampton (later sent to the Atlanta Braves), centerfielder Juan Pierre and cash. Like Gauguin, who moved to Tahiti, an artist must often relocate to rediscover his muse. In the thin air and mile-high altitude of Coors Field, where baseballs famously fly, Colorado believes it has the environment to reinspire Wilson, who last season (his fourth in the majors) had career lows in batting (.243), home runs (23) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.758) while striking out 140 times, once in every four plate appearances. (That was still 47 fewer times than he fanned in 2000, when he came within two whiffs of tying the single-season record set by Bobby Bonds in 1970.) "We told him what a benefit we thought playing in this ballpark, on this club, could be for his future and his career," says Rockies manager Clint Hurdle. "We didn't look at the strikeouts first; we looked at what happens when he puts the ball in play. He drives in runs and scores, and that's the bottom line."

During spring training Hurdle and hitting coach Duane Espy reviewed video of Wilson's at bats in 2000 and helped him re-create the open stance he employed then. In that stance the righthanded Wilson sets his front foot wide and opens his body to the mound, then straightens his front leg, squares as the pitcher turns his back, and plants his front foot as the pitcher drives. "There's very little head movement, body movement," Espy says. "The setup is simple, which creates a consistent swing path and a nice short swing." The approach (which he had gradually abandoned for a more closed stance) gives Wilson wide plate coverage and allows him to use the opposite field; in Florida's Pro Player Stadium, one of baseball's least accommodating parks for righthanded power hitters, Wilson often tried to pull everything, which contributed to his hefty strikeout totals.

"If you hit a ball 390 feet [to right center] there, it was an out; 400 feet to center, it was an out," Wilson says. "Plus the ball didn't carry because it was so humid. Here, you feel you'll be rewarded for a good swing. If you know a guy is going to throw you away, you don't feel like your only chance to drive the ball is to pull it." In addition to retooling his swing, Wilson has rededicated himself to daily study of his Hi8's, a habit that lapsed in Florida. Wilson watches tape of his own at bats against the next day's starter immediately after a game, then continues the next morning.

Wilson is a hand-in-glove fit for the Rockies. For three straight seasons Colorado's centerfielders have been last in the NL in home runs; last year (when speedy singles hitter Pierre manned the position most of the time) they ranked at the bottom not only in homers (1) but also in RBIs (42) and slugging percentage (.339). When not batting fifth, Wilson gives the team a cleanup option between first baseman Todd Helton and rightfielder Larry Walker against left-handed starters. During spring training Walker, the usual number 4 hitter, suggested to Hurdle that Wilson be used to break up the two lefthanders; he has done so this season and at week's end was batting .389 at cleanup, a job he had lost in Florida. "We've never had anybody good enough that you could even think about breaking those two guys up before," Hurdle says.

As upbeat as Wilson is about his fresh start on the field, he is even sunnier about an off-field event: the birth of his daughter, Taya, six months ago. In his locker are five photographs of the chubby-cheeked girl. Four of the snapshots, taped to a cabinet door, are candids—two of Taya in her stroller, one of her gaping goggle-eyed at the camera, another in her father's arms. The fifth is a portrait, Taya in a pink bonnet, set in a plain wooden frame and perched on a shelf. "Just got that one back," Wilson says with a smile. "I got that taken during spring training. We went to J.C. Penney when she came out to visit and got some little portraits done. I cut that one out this morning. Couldn't leave home without putting it in a frame and bringing it here."

Taya lives primarily with Trista in Miami where Preston also has his permanen home. ( Preston and Trista have no contact outside of Taya.) "She's the best thing going," Wilson says. "The hardest thing right now is being so far away from her, but next month I get lucky because I see her when we go to Florida for a few days, and then she comes to me at the end of the month:

Wilson cherishes a father's small delights During the off-season, he reports, Taya "held her own bottle for a few seconds, so that was my big kick. It was just me and her, sit ting on the couch. I was holding her, and she held her own bottle." Wilson doesn't have a crib; his daughter sleeps snuggled text to him in his bed. "She's so innocent so uncorrupted," he says. Even now, how ever, Wilson's mind occasionally lingers 01 his son, who was born three months pre mature in July 2001 and died 10 days after birth. Wilson continues to point skyward after touching the plate on home runs, hi five fingers extended to acknowledge Preston V. "The only time I really think about him is, it's weird, but whenever Taya leaves me, I go through a thing where I get de pressed for a few days," he says.

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