I had always hoped I could be the exception, and make the club out of A ball or AA ball. I knew a few people who did like Al Cowens. But I didnt have the credentials. This time coming into spring training in 1978 I had the credentials in AAA. I had credentials in the Dominican. I was having a really good spring training. I think I stole something like 30 bases in that spring. As spring training progressed, I knew it was the longest I had ever been on the wall. It was getting down to the last two or three days of camp and Im still on the wall. I think it was me, U.L., Clint (Hurdle) and Rich Gale who were still back on the wall. They were all quiet guys, so they told me I had to go in and talk with Whitey to find out whether we were going to be going up to the big leagues. A day or two before we were breaking camp I went to Whiteys office and knocked on the door. I just said, Whitey, can I ask you a question? He was like, Yeah Will sit on down in here. I didnt want to just ask whether I was going to make the team, so I had to figure out what I was going to ask him so I would know. I say, Whitey, what am I supposed to do with my car. Back then they had drivers come down and take all the cars back to Kansas City when we broke camp. So thats how I figured out what question to ask. What was I going to do with my car? He kind of sat there for a second, and then he goes, You can have it driven to K. C.
I go, Really? I was so excited. I never even asked for the other three guys. In those days we didnt have cell phones, so Im trying to find some quarters so I can go to the pay phone and call my mother. I went and dialed and went, Mom, I made the squad! Then all the other guys started going into the office one at a time. But I thought that was a pretty good question I figured out to ask. Then, I found out I was going to start. That was really cool. Then, after the 18th game is when all hell broke loose. That year we had Amos in center field, AC in right field and I think we had Joe Zdeb, Tom Poquette and me in left field. Clint Hurdle was at first in the beginning of the season. They had gotten rid of Big John Mayberry in 77, and they were trying to convert Clint into a first baseman. This is the first time I found out about politics in the big leagues. Clint was on the cover of Sports Illustrated that year with the headline This Years Phenom. I was on the inside as one of the top prospects. Somebody came up to me and said, You are lucky you are not on the cover. I go, What are you talking about? He tells me about the cover jinx – which it turns out was kind of true. I started eight of the first nine games of the season, and were heading into Baltimore. My mom is coming down to the game. All my friends from Summit are coming down, and Whitey tells me he is going to sit me down. Im thinking, Youve got to be kidding. I didnt say anything, but Im mad now. I go out in the outfield during batting practice. I have my hands folded in front of me. Balls are going over my head, going to my left, going to my right, on the ground, line drives. Im not moving. Hal McRae comes over to me with some words of wisdom, and points up to the glassed-in
windows where the pressbox was, where reporters, owners, front-office people all sit. He goes, You see that glass up there. They are watching you. You know they can go down and get another (he said the N word) just like you to do that. You dont want to catch your ride out of here. So work hard, get your opportunity again and take advantage of it. I tried to follow Hals advice and keep working. I had gotten my batting average up to .291 or something after the first month of the season, and I was leading the league in stolen bases. Thats when the second shoe fell. Clint, after the first 18 games or so, had dropped a few balls at first base. I mean he was an outfielder trying to play a new position. He was batting about .200. I guess they thought Clint had more potential as a hitter. He hit for a higher average in AAA and had a lot of RBIs. He had gotten to the big club a year faster than I did, and all I had heard was, You cant hit. Clint can hit. When they moved him over to first it had messed him up as a hitter. too. After going to the bench I kept working, kept working, kept working. But it seemed to me that they wanted Clint to be the one who would succeed because he had been on the cover and it would have looked bad if they sat him down early in the season. The second half of that season I think I started only six or seven games. I only had 50 at bats the second half of the season. I ended up hitting only .216. I still stole 46 bases. It wasnt a very satisfying year for me.
I dont have anything against Clint Hurdle. Hes a friend. But they say Clint can hit, so hes a player. I hear Im not a player. I cant hit. Everybody knows Clint made a lot of mistakes last year in left field, but people dont mention that. Last year, I felt like I was there but not really a part of the club. I felt good when we won. I felt like they put me in there, but didnt give me a job. Willie Wilson in 1979 spring training The next year, in 1979, I come to camp and I didnt know if I was going to make the big league or not. In those days, Im not trying to say anything prejudicial or anything, but in those days I was having all these guys saying to me, If youre black, theyre not going to pay you to sit on the bench. Im thinking I will get released or traded or whatever. Whitey has been saying all this stuff, Willie hasnt been able to hit. Willie throws to the wrong base … blah blah blah. Hes just been talking about me all spring so bad that if I did get traded or whatever, he wouldnt look bad because of Clint. Then AC gets hit in the head in early May against Texas. All the outfielders are hurt except me. I got my glove tucked underneath my arm Whitey is pacing back and forth because hes been talking bad about me all spring. I was his only option. I came in for AC and was playing left field. They moved Clint to right. Sometimes Hal McRae would play in the outfield, Jamie Quirk sometimes played. It was kind of a mix and match outfield. The next two months I hit .354 or something. I was leading the league and having a great year. I ended up hitting .315 or something like that. Thats the year I set the team record with 83 stolen bases. About two months after I first got into the lineup, I remember Whitey telling me. You get a hit for me today and I will put you in the leadoff spot and never take you out while Im managing. I go 2-for-3 that day, and thats when I became the leadoff hitter for good. That was quite an interesting time.
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