Winning the Super Bowl hasn't made the talk of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson playing baseball go away. As he took his post-Super Bowl victory tour around New York on Monday, speculation over whether Wilson will return to the diamond actually ramped up. Fox Sports' Jon Paul Morosi ignited the discussion by tweeting that Wilson indeed plans on going to Surprise, Ariz. to join the Rangers for spring training.
Wilson, 25, was acquired by Texas from the Rockies last December via the Rule 5 draft. That raised some eyebrows, as it appeared that Wilson's baseball career was all but over. He left the Colorado organization in 2011 to play college football at Wisconsin, giving back what remained of the signing bonus he received from the Rockies. After being drafted by the Seahawks and winning the starting quarterback job, football was the present and future for Wilson.
And that was before he won the Super Bowl, becoming only the fourth quarterback to do so during his second year in the NFL.
Why did the Rangers pick up Wilson in the first place? Was it a publicity stunt, intended to grab a headline or two from an event that's meaningful to only the most hardcore of baseball diehards (and the beat writers who have to cover this stuff for a living)?
Perhaps. It certainly wouldn't be the first time a baseball team has invited a celebrity to spring training. Tom Selleck played with the Tigers in 1991, presumably while preparing for his role in Mr. Baseball. Garth Brooks trained with the Padres in 1998. Most recently, Billy Crystal appeared in a Grapefruit League game with the Yankees, getting one at-bat in 2008.
But Rangers general manager Jon Daniels insisted there were some actual baseball reasons for drafting Wilson. More specifically, there were some leadership reasons. Daniels envisioned Wilson speaking to the team's minor leaguers about the work ethic that it takes to succeed in baseball and football. So it seems more like the Rangers drafted Wilson to be a motivational speaker, maybe something of a coach on the field and in the clubhouse.
For Wilson, maybe this is about scratching the baseball itch that he can't quite seem to shake. His desire to play baseball pulled him away from college football in the first place, as then-North Carolina State head football coach Tom O'Brien told Wilson he had to choose between the two sports. Having been drafted by the Rockies in 2010, baseball seemed like it might be a surer thing.
Here is where perception gets a little bit cloudy, obscured by three years having passed and Wilson's success both during his senior year at Wisconsin and two seasons with the Seahawks. Just how highly regarded was Wilson as a prospect in the Rockies organization? Had he stuck with baseball, might he be close to the major leagues by now?
Wilson's two seasons in the Rockies' minor league system indicate he had considerable work to do. Yet he also played only 93 games (32 of them at the low-Class A, short-season level), which doesn't provide much of a sample to judge.
I live in Asheville, N.C., home of the Rockies' Single-A team and got to see Wilson play quite a few times. He wasn't much of a hitter, as his .228 batting average indicate. Off-speed stuff made him look silly. However, from all accounts, Wilson worked as hard as he could to get better. He really was the first guy at the ballpark to work on his swing and usually the last guy to leave after the game. Some apparently thought Wilson actually worked too hard, perhaps wearing himself out before ballgames.
But Wilson did take advantage of his athletic tools, using his speed to beat out groundballs, showing good range and a strong arm at second base. (He was a center fielder as an amateur ballplayer.) He also showed a good eye at the plate, resulting in a .366 on-base percentage. (Many would surely point to that discipline as a reason for his success in football.)
As you might imagine, he was also popular with the fans in Asheville, having played in college approximately four hours away. But there were always rumblings that schools were contacting Wilson about returning to football. His struggles at the plate did nothing to quiet those rumors down. But Wilson did show improvement at the plate (batting .286 in his final 42 at-bats), which encourages the idea that he eventually would've succeeded at baseball had he kept with it.
That also encourages the fantasy that Wilson might be willing to give baseball another go, beginning this spring with the Rangers. But let's stop thinking of this as anything more than an offseason diversion for Wilson, playing a sport he still clearly enjoys while fulfilling an opportunity to mentor some up-and-coming athletes hoping to overcome the same situation he was once in.
While we don't know if Wilson has played much, if any, baseball over the past three years, it's safe to presume that he was almost entirely devoted to football. Without intense focus and attention, he would not have thrived playing quarterback at Wisconsin. And he certainly wouldn't have made himself into a football prospect that was a third-round NFL draft pick and emerged as a starter quarterback, beating out high-priced free agent Matt Flynn in Seattle.
Maybe Wilson wants to see if he's still got it, in terms of his baseball skills. What better way to find that out than with a bunch of major and minor leaguers during spring training? There are certainly worse ways to spend the offseason than out in the sunshine, running around on meticulously kept grass fields in Arizona. Surely, this will feed Wilson's competitive spirit during the winter months as well. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll probably loves that.
In terms of scheduling, this seems to work out well for Wilson too. He can satisfy his baseball jones in February and March, staying in shape up until the Seahawks' likely first mini-camp (OTA or whatever it might be called) in April. But after that, Wilson likely has to get back to the business of being a starting NFL quarterback, working with new receivers, learning plays and protections and everything else that comes with preparing for training camp.
Some will make comparisons with other two-sport stars like Deion Sanders, Bo Jackson and Brian Jordan. But those three didn't play quarterback in the NFL. They could helicopter in and their athleticism would enable them to play at a high level right away. While the learning curve might be less for Wilson now, there's too much study and repetition involved with being a quarterback. It's just not the same as being a defensive back or running back.
Wilson will surely have fun training with the Rangers, getting his baseball fix. The Rangers will have fun with Wilson in camp, hoping he can provide some tutelage for their young players. Fans will have fun watching an NFL quarterback and Super Bowl champion stretching, throwing and taking ground balls. They'll probably get to see him bat a few times in Cactus League play too. Maybe Wilson will even play a game for former manager Joe Mikulik with the Rangers' Single-A team in Myrtle Beach.
That's all this is: fun. Especially in February, when neither the Seahawks or Rangers are playing meaningful games. But eventually, things will get serious. The Rangers have to assemble a major league roster and assign their minor leaguers. The Seahawks will begin defense of their Super Bowl championship. At that point, the fun things — and the fantasies that come with them — will have to be put away.