Farewell to an Unsung Hero

First of all, if any of you have heard of Jack Wilson, I am impressed.

If you have and his name carries a positive connotation for you, I am even more impressed.

While most people who know Wilson know him as the Braves’ very forgettable backup shortstop who batted .169 in 77 plate appearances this season, I remember him as my first “favorite player,” the incredibly slick fielder who was one of the few worth watching on a struggling team.

Photo courtesy of latimes.com

I am referring, of course, to the Pittsburgh Pirates, where Wilson made his Major League debut and spent the majority of his career, from 2001 to 2009.  (As a side note, if you sense a bias in favor Pittsburgh teams in my future posts, you are most definitely not imagining it.)  Braves fans may be surprised to know that during his stint with the Pirates, Wilson was actually decent.  He batted .269 in his nine-plus seasons with the team and won the Silver Slugger Award in 2004, the same year he was a National League All-Star.

Wilson’s bat, however, was by no means his most valuable asset.  He was best known for the impressive defensive plays that earned him the nickname “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and made him the textbook definition of a diamond in the rough (I should mention that the Pirates’ overall record from 2001-2009 was 612-843).

The day in 2009 when Wilson was traded to the Mariners was not only one of the saddest days of my young life, but also perhaps the turning point of his career; and sadly, I don’t mean the good kind of turning point.  In the remainder of his career he didn’t play anything that even resembled a full season, as age, injury, and an overall drop in performance level forced him to the bench and out of the spotlight (not that he was any prima donna to begin with).

Being traded to the Braves in 2011 was the beginning of the end for Wilson.  He was 33 years old, batting in the low .200s, and getting few plate appearances and even fewer starts.  After a dislocated finger placed him on the Disabled List on July 14, the Braves finally released him on Aug. 31, 2012.  After deliberating with his wife and family, Wilson decided to call it a career and announced his retirement from baseball on Sept. 25, 2012.

Wilson finishes his 12-season career with a .265/.306/.366 batting line (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage).  It’s a shame, however, that his true talent isn’t reflected in his statistics.  It’s also a shame that he put in 12 seasons of unflagging effort and doesn’t have a single playoff appearance to show for it.  But rather than reflect on his mediocre batting or his unfortunate circumstances, it is important to remember him for who he is: an outstanding fielder and an all-around good guy.  Aside from being one of the finest fielding shortstops the game has ever seen (Baseball-Reference’s WAR fielding runs lists him as the 12th best in Major League history), his genuine humility and decency made him a role model for fans, teammates, and other players.

Wilson was one of those players who had “it” but never seemed to be in the right place at the right time or get the credit he deserved.  But what made him an even better player was the fact that he never complained about it.  It is my hope that he will, at the very least, be recognized as a tremendous asset and will be fully appreciated once he’s gone. I hope I speak for all Pirates fans who remember him in his “prime” when I say that Wilson’s contribution to baseball has not been forgotten and that he will be sorely missed.

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