When Willie Wilson, the Kansas City rookie with turbocharged legs, strolled to the plate in a spring training game, Yankee Catcher Cliff Johnson eyed him coolly and posed the interesting—if surly—question: "How are you gonna steal first?" No wonder the thought was on Johnson's mind, for in 20 games in Florida, Wilson swiped 23 bases, including 21 in a row. That figures. After all, he stole 76 in 127 games at Waterloo in 1975 and swiped 74 in 132 games at Omaha last year, when he was thrown out only nine times.
Grown men who ought to know better can't control their vocal cords when it comes to the subject of Wilson's speed. Royal Manager Whitey Herzog says, "He's as fast as anybody I've ever seen." Including Mickey Mantle and Willie Davis? "Yup." Coach Steve Boros goes the boss one better, saying, "I think he's the fastest I have ever seen in a baseball uniform. Of course, my memory may be failing." Nearly every team that talks trade with K.C. suggests that Wilson be included in the conversation. As Chicago White Sox First Baseman Lamar Johnson told Wilson, "It's a shame you're so quick."
All of which is heady stuff for a 22-year-old switch hitter who knows little about reading pitcher tip-offs, who is reluctant to dive headlong back to first base, whose leads are too short, whose jumps are too late and whose attention to detail leaves a lot to be desired. Wilson tends to delay his getaway by raring back before he goes, and he looks around too much when he runs. He also likes to steal on fastballs, which most good runners are loath to do, and on pitchouts, which a good runner would never do. But when the dust clears, Wilson is generally at second, next to an umpire who has his hands palms down and a fielder who is muttering to the ball. "Just wait until I learn how to steal," says Wilson.
Yet Johnson brought up a nettlesome truth that day in Florida. To use his speed (3.9 seconds from the left side of the plate to first, compared to a major league average of 4.3) Wilson has got to hit. "If he only hits .230," says Herzog, "he'll steal 70 bases." That may be a tall order. Although Wilson hit .281 at Omaha last year, in the first few games of the regular season fans usually had to be content with evaluating Wilson's fluid running style as he glided from first base to the dugout after making an out.
At week's end, Wilson had reached base only five times in 22 appearances at the plate. But as a clue to what he has in mind for the summer, he still managed to steal three bases. He was also caught stealing once. In K.C.'s 6-5 win over Cleveland Saturday night Wilson singled to short left in the second inning—except for Willie, with his loping yet blazing stride, it was a double. He singled again in the fourth, but in a clear demonstration of his need of schooling he promptly—and easily—was picked off first by Don Hood. "If he can just hit .230," repeated Herzog as Wilson's average hovered at that figure. "Hell, his speed ought to be worth .200."
Wilson is only the flagship in the Royals' fleet fleet. Utility Infielder U. L. Washington, another rookie, is probably the second-fastest man on the club (although Herzog says it could be Al Cowens), and U.L. also digs stealing bases. He had 39 in Omaha last year, and stole three in as many attempts in the only game he has played this season.
Then there's Shortstop Freddie Patek, who led the league last year in steals with 53, and Outfielder Amos Otis, who led the league in 1971 with 52 and stole 39 in 1975. Otis, say his teammates, is capable of swiping as many as he cares to. Says Patek, " Wilson can throw some panic in a few people. Then if word gets around that all of us will run, well, it could be a fun year."
Last season the Royals stole 170 bases, second in the league behind Oakland, and Patek predicts 300 this season. Catcher Darrell Porter laughs and says, "I'm not sure we're great but we're definitely exciting." And apparently destined to stay that way. Says Herzog, "If we don't run, we'll lose." And that brings all talk back to Willie.
Wilson is unable to explain where he got his speed, other than to say, "My mother wasn't fast." Whatever, his speed is classic. When he was nearing graduation from Summit ( N.J.) High School in 1974, where he was a 6'3", 187-pound running back, 250 colleges sought his football services. Michigan was among them, and even today Bo Schembechler's eyes glaze at the mention of Wilson. "Was he fast?" Schembechler says. "My goodness. He was the best prospect in America." Maryland finally won out. But that only signaled the end of the football recruiting war. Next came the baseball people.
They brought with them an extra added ingredient: money. But Wilson insisted he wanted to play football. Eight baseball teams believed him. The ninth, Kansas City, took a chance and made him its first draft pick. The Royals offered Wilson a $50,000 signing bonus. Ultimately they paid him $90,000 and set aside more money for Wilson to pursue a college education, should he choose to do so.