Barrington alum Wilson never took a called third strike

Barrington alum Wilson never took a called third strike
March 1, 2013, 9:30 am
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When Dan Wilson was invited to be the keynote speaker at Barrington High School's annual Baseball Boosters Banquet, he wondered what he ought to talk about. After playing the game from the sandlot to Little League to high school to college to the major leagues, he has a lot of stories to tell.

Wilson is the best baseball player that Kirby Smith ever coached. And the best catcher. And the best pitcher. Smith never sent Wilson to the plate without a bat in his hand, as he did to two other players, because he never took a called third strike with a runner in scoring position.

"In addition to his natural ability, he had unique maturity," said Smith, who coached at Barrington for 22 years. "He was especially valuable because of his ability to communicate. Even as a freshman, he could command the attention of seniors. He moved to the varsity after 12 games as a freshman. In one week, he threw out more runners than we had all summer."

On the All-Smith team, Wilson is the starting catcher and No. 1 pitcher and cleanup hitter. He was an All-State selection at two positions and a 27th-round pick as a pitcher by the New York Mets in the major league draft coming out of high school. His four-year batting average was .414 and his pitching record was 31-3 with a 1.75 earned run average.

"When I went to Minnesota, I did both as a freshman," Wilson recalled. "But after my freshman year, my coach called and said: 'We have to make a decision.' I was drafted out of high school as a pitcher but I wasn't ready to give up catching. I liked the idea of playing every day and swinging a bat instead of pitching. I don't regret it at all. I found a home there."

The training he received at Barrington and Minnesota paved the way for a 14-year major league career. He was regarded as one of the best defensive catchers in major league history. He set an American League record with a .995 career fielding percentage. He was an All-Star in 1996.

"As I look back on Kirby and what I took away from him, a lot was reinforced at Minnesota. To have a fundamental base at a young age was a huge key to having success down the road," Wilson said.

His advice to young players?

"The most important thing is to develop a good work ethic," Wilson said. "What Kirby Smith and (Barrington pitching coach) Dave Engle were good at was teaching us what it takes to play every night and two on Saturday and Sunday. We wondered: 'Do we have to play all these games?' But it taught us hard work and perseverance and commitment. You won't go anywhere in sports without a good work ethic."

He chose to attend Minnesota, a cold-weather state, as opposed to warm-weather Texas or Arizona or Florida or California because Minnesota has a proud baseball tradition (Hall of Famer Dave Winfield played there), a strong engineering school (he studied to be a civil engineer) and a state-of-the-art indoor facility.

"My theory is if you are a good player, you are a good player and you can play at a certain level. It doesn't matter where you are playing," he said. "The cold weather forced me to focus on fundamentals, a lot of drill work, constantly over and over. For me, it was an advantage. I felt I had a strong feeling of fundamentals behind the plate. By focusing on fundamentals, I was able to be the best defensive catcher of all time."

His advice to parents?

Teach your son to be a catcher (or a left-handed pitcher) if he dreams of playing in the major leagues. But encourage him to participate in more than one sport as he grows up, not specialize in one.

"As a parent, it is hard for me to see kids specialize in one sports at a very young age," he said. "I don't like it. I think it is important to play more than one sport, to experience different things. At Barrington, I
played football, hockey and baseball. I realized early that baseball was my future. The doors were opening up early. But playing more than one sport made me a better athlete."

There aren't enough quality catchers in professional baseball, Wilson said, because it is such a physically and mentally demanding position, more so than any other position, that kids would rather pitch or play shortstop or the outfield.

"People said it when I was coming up, that there weren't enough good catchers in the big leagues," Wilson said. "My defense always came first, ahead of my bat. My priorities were pitcher and catcher. But I liked the idea of playing every day and being in charge behind the plate. I never regretted my decision to be a catcher."

He has many fond memories of his baseball experience. Best of all was Seattle's one-game playoff victory over the Angels in 1955.

"When you take 162 games and boil it down to one game, it's a lot of pressure. To be able to come out on top is a pretty good feeling. That was a highlight for me," he said.

"And being named to the American League All-Star team was a thrill. To walk into the locker room and see the nameplates...Ripken, Fisk, Alomar. I was glad to be a part of it.

"In high school, I was amazed when I looked at our team and the number of guys who went on, 15 to 20 who went on to play at Division I schools, an incredible group of players. You don't see it that often, maybe only one or two in a program today. But we had so many. It says so much about Kirby and Dave."

But it was hard to walk away. "It was a harder adjustment than I thought. Baseball was a part of my life for so many years, the rhythm of spring training and the season and the postseason. But to be able to be home with my kids and share their growing up years is a great blessing," he said.

Today, Wilson and his wife Annie look after their four children -- the oldest, Sofia, 18, attends Whittier College in California -- and chair the United Way campaign in Seattle, the largest in the country. Last year, he was a broadcaster on the Seattle Mariners' baseball network.

At 43, he isn't sure what the future holds in store. In 2010, he obtained his degree at Minnesota. This month, he plans to visit the Mariners' spring training camp for a few days. But he has no specific plans in mind.

"I'm open to anything," Wilson said. "When you play baseball for a long time, it is hard to get it out of your system. I would be open to managing or coaching. But that's down the line a little bit. For now, it is nice to be at home and seeing my kids grow up."