Wilson was seven years old when he started saving up his allowance for a Ferrari Testarossa. He had decided to become a race car driver because his father, Jeff, who had been a fighter pilot, talked him out of joining the Air Force. Recalls C.J., "Dad said, 'I've gone to war, and it's not the coolest thing. You can die.'"
Young C.J. did the math and concluded that without a job, it would be hard to come up with a hundred grand. He thought about what careers could make him the necessary swag. Being a squirty kid with a slight frame, the NBA didn't seem like a realistic option. Nor did becoming a surgeon. "I don't like blood," he says. But baseball....
In the autumn of 1989 he signed up for a youth league in Huntington Beach. His coach stuck him at third base. "I was a lefty playing the hot corner," he reports. "I sucked."
So he read a book by a celebrated cornerman, Wade Boggs's The Techniques of Modern Hitting. When it became clear in his early teens that he'd never hit for power he turned to the mound, and at 15 he found a mentor in former major league pitcher Bud Black, now the manager of the Padres. One of Wilson's aunts brought him to Black's house in Rancho Santa Fe for an assessment. After the two pitchers played hard toss across the swimming pool, Black announced, "This kid's got it."
Wilson's adolescence was marked by athletic triumph and family tragedy. During his junior year at Fountain Valley High his mother, Lisa, got into a car accident on her way to one of his ball games. She slipped into a coma, was put on life support and spent six months in the hospital. (She recovered fully.) Meanwhile, Wilson says, an uncle struggled with substance abuse, prompting the teen to adopt the straight edge ethos: no booze, no drugs, no promiscuity. A tattoo of the words STRAIGHT EDGE now runs up Wilson's torso, where there's little but skin and bone. "I wanted the inscription in the spot it would hurt the worst," he says, "because it means the most."
Wilson is fueled by what Pirozzolo calls "negative conversion"—a need to prove his critics wrong. "Through college I was told I wasn't good enough to make it to the majors," Wilson says. "That just motivated me to train harder."
He often finds inspiration in solitude. Before his sophomore year at Santa Ana Junior College, he wrote CALIFORNIA STATE MVP on an index card and propped it up by his bed. Every morning he'd eye the card while doing push-ups.
It worked. Wilson was the state's juco co--player of the year, with a 3.34 ERA, 68 strikeouts in 62 innings and a .405 batting average. He went undrafted, so the following fall he enrolled in the film program at Loyola Marymount. After he wrote a heist screenplay and finished 3--9 with a 6.95 ERA, Texas signed him as a fifth-round pick in 2001. Wilson had learned to fail upward—an art he hasn't practiced much since.
Players who knew Wilson in the minors describe him in terms usually reserved for serial killers: aloof, solitary, standoffish. He tended to sit at his locker, plugged into headphones. As a corrective, he took an off-season job at a Nordstrom department store selling men's clothes. "I forced myself to be more sociable," he says. "My logic was: If I don't talk to customers, I won't sell anything."
Wilson has always incorporated that sort of gamesmanship into his pitching, mostly out of necessity. "He sets up hitters pitch-by-pitch the way a great tennis player maps out a volley," says Texas righthander Colby Lewis. "C.J. looks three or four or five pitches ahead at all times."