Wilson braces for end of Pirates tenure

Says, 'I don't know the direction of shortstop for this team'

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ST. LOUIS -- Jack Wilson, the Pirates' most tenured player and one of the finest shortstops in franchise history, is worried that he will not be playing in Pittsburgh next spring.

Know how to tell?

Ask him a series of questions aimed at uncovering the truth behind his recent surge at the plate ...

Start with this: How to explain batting .294 so far in August, including the current 11-for-29 run that has him up to .279 overall, when others are wearing down?

"Well, it's like this," he began the other day in Busch Stadium's visiting clubhouse. "When it's the beginning of the season or even the middle, you always feel like there's always another day. But, when you get to August, you realize there isn't going to be that day. You might be tired. You might not feel great. But you find a way to do everything you can before it ends."

  • Statistics
  • Standings
  • Today
    • Game: Pirates vs. Milwaukee Brewers, 8:05 p.m., Miller Park.
    • TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
    • Pitching: LHP Zach Duke (4-11, 5.26) vs. RHP Dave Bush (7-9, 4.26).
    • Key matchup:Few National League hitters handle Bush as well as Freddy Sanchez, 8 for 19 with two doubles and five RBIs.
    • Of note: Jason Kendall has started 115 games behind the plate for Milwaukee, most in Major League Baseball and six shy of the franchise-record 121 set by Darrell Porter in 1975.

Um ... OK.

Next, ask if it really has more to do with Major League Baseball's trading deadline having passed July 31.

Remember last year, when the Detroit Tigers came hard at Wilson, only to get turned down on the final day by the Pirates' previous management?

Remember how Wilson was a wreck on and off the field, including a .219 average in July, then batted.401 the rest of the season -- best in the majors over those two months -- once his mind was clear?

Is that the case again?

"No. I think last year it was definitely a big relief. That was the first time I had faced a situation like that, possibly picking up and moving and wearing a different uniform. Second time around, maybe it was a little easier to take."

This time, word had leaked in early July out of Los Angeles that the Dodgers were pursuing Wilson. The Pirates and Dodgers talked for about a week, but the sides never agreed on a package of prospects as the return. Other teams called, but no substantive talks materialized.

Seems like that would not have been so stressful.

But something else related to the deadline apparently was.

"The part that was hard, actually, was losing those other two guys," Wilson said, referring to the trading of Jason Bay and Xavier Nady. "That was tough to take for the whole team."

Wilson, like others in the Pirates' clubhouse, wondered what it meant for his future, too. Suddenly, a rebuilding was afoot.

And it is here that the pulse beneath his recent surge, in all likelihood, is best explained.

"Honestly, I don't know what's going to happen with me this offseason. I really don't. So, yeah, you go out on the field with that feeling that, hey, this might be my last month and a half in a Pittsburgh uniform. And I want to end it as well as I can."

Believe that.

As last season came to a close, Wilson spoke anxiously behind the scenes about how important it was to have one final chance to have a say goodbye to the Pirates' fans, "just in case I don't come back."

Sound too syrupy to be true?

Just wait ...

On the Saturday eve of the season finale at PNC Park, Wilson and second baseman Matt Kata had a gruesome head-to-head collision while pursuing a grounder up the middle, and Wilson was taken off the field by stretcher. He spent the night at Allegheny General Hospital and, because of headaches and dizziness, slept little.

Some goodbye.

He checked out the next morning, and the Pirates arranged for a ride to catch his late-afternoon flight to his California home. But he asked instead to go to the stadium while the team was playing the finale, dressed in full uniform during the seventh inning and participated exuberatnly in the traditional end-of-season thanking of the fans. Even as the majority of the coaching staff and some other players hastily exited.

"Those people have been through a lot, and I feel like I've been through it with them," Wilson would say that day of the 25,664 in attendance. "I just felt like I needed to be there."

Wilson has been through more of the losing than just about anyone: Only Jason Kendall (1,252) and Kevin Young (1,140) have played more games for the Pirates than Wilson's 1,069 during these 16 years of team failure.

He became the Pirates' shortstop April 1 in Cincinnati and, but for one brief backward step to the minors, has held that title ever since. His games played at the position rank fifth on the franchise list, and his .978 fielding percentage ranks No. 1. The current .983 figure is the best of his career.

Away from the dirt, Wilson has become deeply attached to the city, from relishing its appreciation for his flashy style to the extensive community work he and wife Julie have performed in the area. And there can be no question the affection is mutual based not only on the cheers at games but also from the absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder reaction when he missed the first two months of this season to a calf injury and the defense disintegrated without him.

As teammate and best friend Freddy Sanchez said at the time, "Jack Wilson is such a huge part of the Pirates."

Maybe not for long.

Wilson will turn 31 in December and is scheduled to make $7.25 million next season in the final guaranteed year of his contract. The Pirates hold a club option for 2010 worth $8.4 million. Each figure is within market rate for a shortstop of Wilson's caliber, but management's rebuilding signal that began with the Bay and Nady trades surely mean that Wilson will be shopped in the coming offseason. Already this summer, the Pirates sought elite shortstop prospects in various trade discussions.

Whatever the case, this much is certain: Wilson does not want to wait to learn of the team's plans.

"Right now, I don't know what's going on," he said. "I don't know the direction of shortstop for this team. I can see they've made their direction as far as the team goes, building with young guys. So, I hope to find that out as soon as I can."

That could mean an audience with general manager Neal Huntington.

Huntington expressed an appreciation for all Wilson has meant to the Pirates, but he yesterday reiterated an oft-stated stance that no player is untouchable.

"Jack's been in a Pirates uniform a long time and, between him and Freddy, those probably are our most recognizable players," Huntington said. "The reality is that we can't make emotional decisions on any player. Jack certainly has proven his worth again defensively, and we can see that the whole club solidified with him out there. But we always need to leave ourselves the ability to make the team better. Jack, hopefully, will be a big part of this turnaround going forward. But, as it was with Jason and Xavier and Damaso Marte, if the right baseball trade is out there, we'll have to entertain it."

In the interim, Wilson will take the field tonight for game No. 1,070.

What about the opener next spring?

"Well, I laid down odds on that last year, and I was wrong," Wilson replied with a laugh. "But, no matter what, I'll keep going out there every day with the same attitude I've always had."

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com. First Published August 22, 2008 4:00 AM


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