ST. LOUIS -- Confidence?
Who needs it?
Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson's ninth-inning at-bat yesterday in a stunning 6-4 win against the St. Louis Cardinals made a compelling argument that confidence is overrated. Wilson wasn't thinking about being the opening-day hero when he stepped to the plate with two outs, the bases loaded and the Pirates down, 4-3. He was thinking anything but, actually.
"First of all, I wanted to make sure I was hitting," Wilson said. "No really. I took a quick peek to see if Craig Monroe was out of the dugout. I hadn't done much with my four at-bats. It wouldn't have been out of the question for [manager John Russell] to hit for me there. I wanted to hit, but I'm not going to be selfish about it. We're all here to win."
Wilson didn't see Monroe, but he soon saw plenty of heat -- up close and personal -- from Cardinals closer Jason Motte. He already had struck out twice. "I was thinking hat trick there, to be honest," Wilson said.
You know, three strikeouts.
"Just kidding," Wilson said, grinning.
I'm not so sure.
Wilson didn't feel comfortable with the new hitting approach that he developed this spring with batting coach Don Long. He is lowering his hands significantly when he cocks his bat. His swing felt OK, he said, but he thought he was upper-cutting the ball.
"So in that at-bat I decided to find a place between where I used to be and where I'm supposed to be now. I raised my hands up just a hair. Baseball is a game of adjustments. Thankfully, I was able to make one there that helped us win the game."
There was no prettier sight for the Pirates than Wilson turning on an 0-2 Motte fastball and rocketing the ball to the left-center gap. His double didn't just score the three runs that were the difference, it deflated a Busch Stadium crowd of 45,832 that takes its baseball almost as seriously as Pittsburghers take Steelers football.
Talk about an unlikely star.
"Everyone thought I was going to be gone after last season," Wilson said.
That includes the man himself.
Wilson knew he was entering the final year of his contract and knew he was going to be the Pirates' highest-paid player at $7.25 million this season. He was so convinced that he was going to be traded at baseball's winter meetings in December that he made the trip to Las Vegas to be on scene when a deal was struck.
"Ah, I just went because my agent asked me because he wants me to be his partner after I'm done playing," Wilson said. "And the meetings were in Vegas. Any chance I get to go to Vegas, I'm there."
All of that might be true, but it sure seemed as if Wilson was begging for a trade. Who could blame him for that? This is his ninth season with the Pirates and he has never played on a winner. He spoke to former teammate Jason Bay in the offseason. Do you think Bay might have said something to him about how different and wonderful it is playing in a city such as Boston?
"Honestly, I wasn't disappointed when I wasn't traded," Wilson said. "Everyone knows I'm a guy who believes there's a plan laid out for me. I can't be a negative person because I know how blessed I've been with my family and my job. I belong in Pittsburgh. I'm happy to be a Pirate."
Especially on this day.
Hey, the Pirates are 1-0.
It's a long way from a winning season, but it's a start, right?
"We know we're the fourth team in town, the one that hasn't been able to get it done," Wilson said. "But it's not because of a lack of effort. We're trying to reach ourselves up to Pitt, the Steelers and the Penguins ...
"We're a team that's never going to give up. It's been that way since I've been here. If we lose, it's going to be a battle."
And, occasionally, deliver a late, magical three-run double.
"That makes for as good of a 1-for-5 day as you can have," Wilson said, fairly beaming.
It's still hard to imagine Wilson being with the Pirates for the long term. There is that salary, after all. But that's OK. As long as he's with the team, I'm going to enjoy watching him.
What a joy that is.
The man can still pick it at shortstop, for one thing. "My primary job is to be captain of the defense. I feel like I'm doing that better now than I ever have," Wilson said.
But Wilson's appeal goes beyond that. He's 31, but he still plays the game with a kid-like passion. He couldn't wait to get to the park yesterday because opening day makes him feel, well, 13.
"I told myself this was going to be the year that I didn't stay up all night, bouncing off the walls," he said. "But, sure enough, I went to bed at 2 and was up by 7:30.
"Baseball is such a beautiful game. I just love playing it."
Say this about Wilson:
His performance might not always match that big salary, but his attitude surely does.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.