SURPRISE, Ariz. — It has occasionally been theorized that the invitation the Texas Rangers extended to Russell Wilson to visit spring training was merely a publicity stunt.
If so, what an epic fail Monday was.
Wilson didn’t belt out a few tunes and flail helplessly at swings like Garth Brooks did in one of his charity-driven tours through the San Diego, Kansas City and New York Mets camps. He didn’t strike out helplessly — but adorably — as Billy Crystal once did with the New York Yankees and Tom Selleck once with the Detroit Tigers. He didn’t once play to the crowd by throwing up and in on his pinch-hitting manager like Kevin Costner did when facing Lou Piniella and the Seattle Mariners.
The closest he came to adorable was presenting the lineup card before the game. He spent the rest of the afternoon in the Rangers’ dugout, never stepping on the field.
What a dud.
All the guy did was work.
Quite frankly, though, that’s all the Rangers had in mind when they spent $12,000 — the equivalent of what Yu Darvish earned every four pitches last year — on Wilson in the minor league portion of the December Rule 5 draft. In the world of big-bucks baseball, it’s hard to imagine so few dollars having potentially so much impact.
They brought him in as a living, breathing example of what every more expensive motivational speaker has ever preached to sports teams. Wilson’s Seattle Seahawks, for example, brought in basketball Hall of Famer Bill Russell to address the team. He had an impressive presence. He spoke eloquently. He is also 80 years old. Put it this way: He didn’t go through special teams drills with the Seahawks.
“He told us about those kinds of things that they did and I’m thinking, ‘I wonder if he knows, he’s one of those guys now,’” Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said of Wilson. “I don’t know if that’s dawned on him yet. But he is. And I hope our guys get something out of it. I hope we do, too.”
By all accounts, they did. Wilson showed up a day earlier than anybody anticipated — at his own request — and volunteered to do a 20-minute question-and-answer session Sunday on his beliefs, his routine and his struggles for the Rangers’ suite holders, sponsors, executives and players.
On Monday, he cheerfully arrived in time for the bane of every young player’s existence: early work. He spent 45 minutes working on grounders and pivots at second base, a position he will never play, with manager Ron Washington and the youngest Rangers infielders.
A lasting image: As the drill wore on, Jurickson Profar and Rougned Odor, both 20 and probably tiring of daily early workouts, did a little bit of clowning as they fielded balls. Wilson smiled but stayed focused on repeating the same mechanics time after time. Then again, this a 25-year-old who has already organized optional workouts for his skill players in the month since he won a Super Bowl.
“He came to play,” said Rangers infielder Brent Lillibridge, who played at Jackson High School and the University of Washington, is a Seahawks fan and went through some of the drill. “He does everything with real intent. It was interesting to hear about all the preparation they did all fall on talk radio, then watch that preparation and focus live. I learned a little about the mentality that he brings.”
During the game, Wilson didn’t sniff the field but instead spent time in the dugout, talking with players. It is not coincidence that the Rangers also sent over a quartet of stud prospects — Jorge Alfaro, Lewis Brinson, Joey Gallo and Nomar Mazara, all between the ages of 18 and 20 — to do nothing more than sit on the bench during the game. Wilson then spent another hour addressing the entire minor league camp.
“They just wanted me to talk to them about the preparation being the separation,” Wilson said. “How the mental focus is and how you get ready for a season that’s such a big season and everyone has high expectations and all those things. I talked about my learning experience, about being so young and starting and about what it looked and felt like to go through that process of winning a championship. Even though it’s a different sport, it still takes the same type of characteristics to be a champion.”
“I believe that to really be a champion,” he added, “you have to be around championship people. I think they got something out of it. I know I did.”
Said 24-year-old Michael Choice: “To see that kind of poise at that young age, he’s well beyond his years. Yes, I learned something. But I think a 40-year-old could learn something from him.”
Wilson will almost certainly never take an at-bat in Texas, but if one player — young or old — absorbed what he had to offer, the Rangers may get huge returns on their $12,000 investment.