Smart guy. Good heart. That’s the impression Kansas City Royals star Willie Wilson left when I interviewed him when he played for the Chicago Cubs 20 years ago and again when we were in the same foursome at a charity golf scramble at Alvamar in 2012.
Those qualities didn’t keep Wilson from falling into traps that snare so many athletes after they slip out of their uniforms and into a strange new world. It didn’t take Wilson long to blow the more than $1 million he took out of his baseball career. Against the advice of his agent, he invested in a business that ate his fortune. Later, he temporarily blew his mind by getting back into cocaine, always a horrible idea.
In his new book, “Inside the Park: Running the Base Path of Life,” written with Kent Pulliam, Wilson bares his soul.
The book vividly sets scenes, including one that took place in the old Muehlebach Hotel in downtown Kansas City.
Wilson, from Summit, N.J., considered baseball his third-favorite sport behind football and basketball. He had signed to play running back for Maryland and, on the eve of the baseball draft, told scouts who called that he was playing football. The Royals never called and drafted him in the first round.
During a trip for contract negotiations, Wilson and his mom were at the Muehlebach when a tornado siren sounded. Wilson’s mother read on the hotel-room door to seek shelter in the bath tub. It was there, each holding onto the shower-curtain rod, that mother and son had a talk that led him to baseball. His mother revealed she was $30,000 in debt, so Wilson accepted the Royals’ $100,000 signing bonus.
Wilson would win a Gold Glove, a batting title and a World Series with the Royals, the memorabilia from which he would lose in bankruptcy.
“When you’re a child and your dream gets you to the sport and it gets you to be a World Series champion, nobody dreams about afterward,” Wilson said. “I didn’t have a college education to fall back on. And it came down to making an investment, thinking I could make the same amount of money I made as a player. You’re trying to live that lifestyle not only for you and your kids and your wife and your family, but also for people watching you. You’re trying to do what you basically can’t.”
Wilson said he spiritually was guided up from rock bottom. He makes a solid income doing youth baseball camps and clinics, autograph sessions and events with the Royals and Major League Baseball Alumni, plus from a baseball pension.
“I would like to get more speaking engagements and see how many people I can touch,” Wilson said.
He was an easy guy to root for when he was turning doubles into triples on the bases and stealing extra-base hits in the outfield and he still is as he shares his life story, speed bumps and all.