Even as a minor-league baseball player for two seasons, Wilson knew he was meant to be a football player.
It shouldn’t be any surprise that Russell Wilson is remembered by Colorado Rockies personnel for his work ethic, leadership and character during his two-year foray into professional baseball.
Those qualities, it seems, are universally ascribed to the Seahawks’ rookie quarterback. The difference, however, is that they never translated into the same level of success on the diamond as they did on the gridiron.
“He was a football player trying to play baseball,” said Marc Gustafson, the Rockies’ senior director of player development during Wilson’s two seasons in the minor leagues. “He was very talented, but he needed a lot of work.”
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Wilson, a second baseman, had a dream of following the likes of Deion Sanders, Bo Jackson and Brian Jordan as two-sport stars. But last year, after struggling to a .229 average, with 118 strikeouts in 315 at-bats in the lowest rungs of the minor leagues, Wilson decided to walk away from baseball.
Wilson said Thursday his decision to leave the Class A Asheville (N.C.) Tourists in June of 2011 to go play his senior football season at Wisconsin was excruciating.
“Oh, man, it was extremely tough,” he said. “It was one of those things where I was competing with myself, trying to figure out, man, what’s best for my life.”
Wilson said he prayed for guidance, knowing he would be successful whichever direction he took.
“I think more than anything, I took a huge, huge risk leaving baseball,” he said. “I had an unbelievable opportunity, but at the same time, I had an unbelievable risk. It ended up great. It’s continuing to fall in the right spots.”
The Rockies drafted Wilson in the fourth round in 2010 when he was still at North Carolina State — 140th overall, eight picks after the Mariners took left-handed pitcher James Paxton, one of their vaunted “Big Three” hurlers.
John Manuel, editor-in-chief at Baseball America, remembers being “completely floored” that Wilson was taken so high, because he had played only sporadically in college. Wilson was mainly a platoon player for the Wolfpack, starting almost exclusively against left-handers, mostly in the outfield, and even dabbling on the mound in 10 appearances his junior year (starting one game and earning a save in another).
“Our people looked at Russell as a prospect, but we weren’t going to know until 1,500 at-bats,” said Bill Schmidt, Colorado’s vice president of scouting. “It would probably be three years. I told Russell that. There were no guarantees, but he had a tremendous work ethic. He always told me his objective was to play in the NFL and major leagues.”
After the 2010 draft, Wilson was assigned to the Tri-City Dust Devils, a Northwest League team based in Pasco. In his first pro game, Wilson drove in two runs, scored two and stole a base, but he was hitting just .230 with two homers and 11 runs batted in over 32 games when he left the team to return to N.C. State for his junior football season.
In 2011, playing for Asheville in the South Atlantic League, Wilson hit .228 in 61 games, with three homers and 15 RBI. The Tourists’ manager, Joe Mikulik, believes Wilson had a chance to succeed as a baseball player.
“No doubt in my mind, he eventually would have figured it out,” Mikulik said. “He was getting better at squaring up pitches. At first he was real raw, and his swing needed some adjustment. There had to be a little overhaul. But he had an aptitude to pick up things a lot of guys didn’t have.”
Manuel said the upside for Wilson was as an offensive-oriented second baseman, or a “David Bell kind of third baseman.”
Manuel added, “The best-case scenario for Russell Wilson was that he wind up as a Scott Hairston type — a right-handed hitter athletic enough to play a lot of positions, but not polished enough to play one.”
Mikulik still remembers when Wilson told him he was leaving the Tourists to play football for Wisconsin (after N.C. State released him from his football scholarship).
“He sat in my office, looked me and (senior vice president) Bill Geivett right in the eye, and said, ‘I can throw with any college quarterback and play with them,’ ” Mikulik said. “I saw the confidence in his eyes. I said, ‘If that’s what you want, go do it.’ “
Technically, the Rockies retain Wilson’s baseball rights for another five years, but they don’t expect him to return. He’s already repaid a portion of his $250,000 signing bonus.
Assessing his baseball career, Wilson said, “I was good, but I still had a long way to go. Obviously, when you play professional baseball, you have to go through the minor-league levels to get there. It takes time. At the same time, I knew I had this other thing waiting here for me: football.
“I knew I played at a high level in college, and I knew I had one more year left. I had to figure out: Should I do this or not? Just go figure it out. If I didn’t do that, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life, just because I would have never known what I could have done in the NFL.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @StoneLarry