A junior at the University of Minnesota, Eli Wilson is an emerging talent behind the plate, likely to be drafted after the season. He will be playing in the Seattle Baseball Showcase at T-Mobile Park this weekend.

Share story

Sometimes when University of Minnesota baseball coach John Anderson watches the Gophers’ catcher, Eli Wilson, his mind plays tricks on him.

Eli’s mannerisms, his body language, even the way he throws the ball back to the pitcher — for Anderson, it’s like seeing an old video of Minnesota’s All-American catcher from the late 1980s. Except this video is playing in his head.

“Sometimes I look out and I want to say ‘Dan’ instead of ‘Eli,’ ” said Anderson, who has been the Gophers’ coach since 1981. “It’s scary how similar they are.”

Yes, Eli Wilson is the son of the venerated Dan Wilson, a Mariners Hall of Famer who emerged from Minnesota in 1990 as an All-American and first-round draft pick.

A junior, Eli is an emerging talent in his own right, one who is likely to be drafted after the season and possibly begin his own path to the major leagues. Wilson’s insertion as Minnesota’s starting catcher early last season helped spark the Gophers to their first Super Regional berth, in which they lost to eventual national champion Oregon State.

This weekend, Eli Wilson and the Gophers will be playing on the same T-Mobile Park field where his dad was part of the last two Mariners playoff teams (in 2000 and 2001). Dan Wilson’s final game at what was then called Safeco Field took place in 2005 — with 7-year-old Eli watching from the dugout as his hugely popular dad was feted upon his pending retirement.

“I’d say it’s pretty meaningful to come back,” said Eli in a phone interview. “Obviously, I’ve been to Safeco a bunch and watched games there my whole life. It’s a special place for our family. Just as a regular Mariners fan, it will be a thrill to be on the field.”

The Gophers are part of the inaugural Seattle Baseball Showcase, a six-team tournament at T-Mobile Park put together by the University of Washington, the Mariners and the Seattle Sports Commission to showcase college baseball.

The Showcase’s field is glittering, and regionally diverse. Two of the past three College World Series winners — Oregon State and Coastal Carolina — will take part, along with Minnesota, Indiana and San Diego.

Rounding out the field, of course, are the Huskies, who made the CWS for the first time in school history last year and are riding a seven-game win streak in 2019.

Husky coach Lindsay Meggs hopes to make this event an annual affair. He sees it as a way to entice quality opponents to a first-class venue with a guarantee of games despite inclement weather (thank you, retractable roof). It’s a way to simulate a postseason atmosphere. It’s also a chance for the Huskies (and the other participants) to pump up their RPI and help build a case for hosting a regional tournament, a program goal.

“We can’t stop smiling, because we think it’s such a win-win for everyone around here,” Meggs said.

Wilson is just one of many pro prospects who will draw a bevy of major-league scouts to the games, which run Friday through Sunday. He was primarily an infielder, not a catcher, at Garfield High School, surprisingly. But Eli said that choice wasn’t to avoid comparisons to his father, an All-Star with the Mariners in 1996.

“I didn’t shy away from it for that reason,” he said. “I just really loved playing shortstop. Honestly, my dad had nothing to do with it.”

Wilson was recruited out of Garfield by the same two Minnesota coaches — Anderson and his longtime assistant, the since-retired Rob Fornasiere — who had recruited Dan out of Barrington, Ill., more than three decades earlier.

It was a perfect match. Eli said he knew from his father’s experience that the Minnesota program prioritized academics and life lessons as much as athletic success. And Anderson said they put their faith in Eli’s gene pool.

“This will embarrass Dan, but he’s one of the finest young men I’ve ever coached in my career,’’ he said. “We decided, why wouldn’t we want another Wilson in the program?”

The offer came with a proviso — the Minnesota staff told Eli they planned to make him a catcher, which they felt best fit his skill set. Whatever initial skepticism might have existed on Wilson’s part has disappeared completely.

“As I’ve transitioned to catcher, I find I have more of a love for catcher than I ever did at shortstop,” he said. “I’ve grown to love the position.”

At a listed 6 feet 2 and 190 pounds, Eli’s size is virtually identical to his father’s. The Gophers went 33-9 with him as their starter last year, when he hit .289 with 37 RBI and was named the team’s Most Improved Player. This year, Wilson is hitting .278 through 10 games for the typically slow-starting Gophers (2-8), who often pay an early price for the snow-bound winter months.

Typically, Dan Wilson has let his son pursue his career without undue intrusion. But he has helped Eli with the mechanics and fundamentals of the position, and now they find themselves often engaged in long conversations about pitch framing.

Eli is intrigued that his dad worked with former Mariners catcher Mike Zunino, one of MLB’s pitch-framing masters. It’s an art that has become far more vital in the modern game than when Dan Wilson played.

“I’ve seen a couple of videos, and I think he was a good framer,” Eli said. “Pitching was not as explosive as it is now. He caught Randy Johnson, but that kind of velocity and movement is the norm now. Back then, it was not quite as difficult to keep pitches in the strike zone as now.”

Eli’s memory of his father’s career is somewhat hazy because of his youth. Dan Wilson, Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner are the only ones to play on all four of the Mariners’ postseason teams. But what stands out more to Eli are the interactions he had with the families of Buhner, Martinez, Ken Griffey Jr., Jamie Moyer, John Olerud and others.

“A lot of relationships I have with those people come to mind when I think of my dad’s playing days more than the games on the field,” he said.

And Friday, Eli Wilson will step on the T-Mobile field for the first time since he scrimmaged there as a teenager. His parents and many friends will be in the crowd. For Anderson, who says Eli has the same high-character attributes of Dan, it’s an ongoing vindication of his instincts.

“We guessed right on the gene pool,” he said.


Seattle Baseball Showcase

When, where: Friday-Sunday, T-Mobile Park

Schools: Washington, Oregon State, Minnesota, Indiana, San Diego, Coastal Carolina

Tickets, info: (206) 461-5844 or click here. Parking is available at the Mariners Garage for $15 per vehicle.