Decatur’s Nic Wilson joins Appalachian LeagueA photo of a younger Nic Wilson in his tee ball uniform. Wilson, a former Decatur High Grad, recently joined the Princeton Rays in West Virginia.
By Bill Banks, contributor
A week from today Nic Wilson, Decatur High Class of 2010, plays his first baseball game for the Princeton Rays in West Virginia, a team in the 77-year-old Appalachian League.
If there’s any doubt where Princeton shakes out in professional baseball’s hierarchy, check out the team’s scheduled 2014 promotions: Jake the Diamond Dog Night, Sweet Frog Night, Tudor’s Biscuit World Night, Dollar Madness Monday and Middle Child Appreciation Night.
The ad says, “Do you have one older sibling and one younger sibling while you are stuck in the middle? Well, this night’s for you!”
Welcome to the bushes Mr. Wilson.
“I’m just so happy,” he said earlier this week. “I couldn’t be in a better situation. I’m glad to get a chance to extend my career.”
Last Saturday Wilson was chosen by Tampa Bay in the 24th round of the 2014 first-year player draft, the 727th player taken out of 1215 players in 40 rounds total.
Given his monster senior season at Georgia State where he made first-team All-Sun Belt Conference and second team Louisville Slugger/Collegiate Baseball All-America, the lower selection surprised some observers.
After all, the 6-6, 240-pound lefty-hitting first baseman batted .322, is fourth in the nation with 18 homeruns and stands among national leaders with 20 doubles, 52 RBI in 56 games, 35 walks (a team high), .683 slugging and a .423 on-base percentage.
Though power hitters were highly valued in the so-called “steroid era” — roughly the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s — recent drafts have shifted toward speed and pitching, particularly boutique relievers. This year a whopping 54 percent of all players taken were pitchers, and another 32 percent were, in order, outfielders, catchers (always a high priority no matter the era) and shortstops.
None of it, of course, matters one whit to Wilson who, at least for now, gets to put off going to grad school where he planned on majoring in sports administration.
“I worked out for seven teams,” he said, “and Tampa Bay wasn’t one of them. All of this was kind of mysterious. Everybody seemed to agree I’d [get drafted] somewhere but nobody had a fix on where or when. When I talked to the [Tampa Bay scout] after they drafted me, he said they expect me to go [to Princeton] and drive it out of the yard.”
Born and raised in Decatur, his grandmother Elizabeth Wilson moved to the city’s Beacon Hill district as an 18-year-old in 1949. Nearly a half century later she became Decatur’s first (and to date only) both a woman and African American. His uncle Richard Wilson (who died last summer) was a Vietnam vet and before that Decatur High’s first African American athlete on the 1965-66 basketball squad.
His father Carter Wilson, one of Georgia’s most respected prep basketball coaches, is currently Decatur High’s athletic director. His mother Valarie Wilson served the Decatur School Board from 2002 to 2013 and is now in the Democratic runoff for state school board superintendent.
Nic began playing baseball as a three-year-old in the Decatur Rec tee ball program at Oakhurst Park where most players were two and three years older. “From as long as I can remember,” he said, “my dad was throwing pine cones and acorns at me to hit. I didn’t even want to hit off the tee at that age—I wanted somebody throwing to me.”
He became a two-sport starter at Decatur High, making all-region twice in baseball and once his senior year in basketball, in 2009-10. It was also his dad’s last year as coach. He averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds.
“I’ve probably always known baseball was my primary sport,” Wilson said. “Basketball was something I did, baseball something I loved. I wake up in the morning and all I want to do is hit and field. I don’t ever remember waking up and wanting to practice my free throws.”
Nic’s college career had its share of convolutions and disappointment. As a freshman at Hofstra he had a total seven at bats (he went 0 for 7), six of those coming in the season’s first weekend, and played only one defensive inning.
As a sophomore he transferred to Eastern Arizona (Junior) College where he found his personal guru in hitting coach Eldon Dallas. He led the team in hitting (.376) RBI (32) and though he had only two homeruns, Wilson explained “our park was like 450 to center and 350 down the lines. Nothing went out there.”
Dallas taught Nic to develop opposite-field power since, in his words, “90 percent” of the college game is on the outside of the plate, something that will change in pro ball where pitchers definitely throw more inside. Dallas also taught him the value of quality at bats, of seeing eight or more pitches until, hopefully, getting that single sweet nugget to drive.
As a junior he transferred to GSU where he was literally thrown a curve ball, or specifically lots of them, most splashing in the dirt. Nic’s average plummeted to .247, though he did hit eight homers and led the team in 27 walks for a respectable .380 on base percentage. “Soon as you think you have this game figured out,” he said, “somebody makes an adjustment on you.”
Last summer, With only one year of college eligibility left, Wilson did a lot of soul searching, but he also did a lot of playing. He appeared in 55 games in the 2013 New England Collegiate Baseball League, finishing up strong after a woeful 0 for 30 start. Before school started last January he flew to Arizona to spend quality time working with his old mentor.
The results, of course, were spectacular. During this past season he was twice named National Player of the Week, and he tied GSU and Sun Belt single-game records with three homeruns against South Alabama. His career total of 26 homers is tied for eighth in school history though he only played two years.
But after reaching the pinnacle as a collegian, he’s now preparing to start all over. He signed his contract this week and reports to Port Charlotte, Florida, today for a physical and several days of workouts before heading to Princeton.
The Appalachian League, along with the Pioneer League (both are classified as “rookie leagues”) form the second-lowest rung on the minor league ladder. There are five more levels to climb for Wilson to become only the third Decatur High player to reach the majors.
Even a veritable optimist would conclude Wilson’s odds are long, yet there are several factors working in his favor.
Tampa Bay is an organization meticulous in its teaching and player development. The major-league Rays have advanced to postseason four of the last six years despite having one of the game’s lowest big-league payrolls – this year they are 28 out of 30 teams, with a $77,062,891 budget (compared to the Dodgers’ $235,295,219). Because they don’t sign elite and expensive free agents, it’s imperative the Rays develop as much home-grown talent as possible, which should give Wilson a fair shot.
Baseball history is also littered with low-round selections defying the odds. Despite front offices littered with MIT graduates mixed with old-school, tobacco-chewing scouts, there’s still plenty of medieval voodoo in projecting the major-league potential of high school and college athletes.
Take Mark Buehrle, who’s been in the big leagues 15 years and won his 196th career game the other night for Toronto. Buehrle was a 38th round pick (1,139 overall) in 1998. Mike Piazza, who absolutely belongs in the Hall of Fame, was famously drafted in the 62nd round – 1,390th overall pick – only because Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda was longtime buddies with Piazza’s father. Albert Pujols, the planet’s best hitter for a decade, was drafted only after 401 players preceded him. Atlanta great John Smoltz, a shoo-in for Cooperstown next summer, was a 22nd round pick in 1985.
Then there’s Peter Edward Rose who began at Class D in 1960 (a classification so low it no longer exists) where a scout remarked that he couldn’t hit left-handed, was worse right-handed and couldn’t field either. Rose eventually shattered Ty Cobb’s hit record with 4,256 lifetime hits while also winning two outfield gold gloves early in his career.
Wilson begins his professional career in the buses-and-burgers leagues, playing 13 consecutive games before an off day. On the final day of that stretch, July 1, Wilson turns 22. Princeton plays a total 68 games this summer and, for those of you keeping a scorecard at home, Middle Child Appreciation Night is August 10.
Wilson, as his mother reminds him, still has five more classes to complete his political science degree, which he plans on getting in the off season. Whenever the time comes to lay down his bat for good, he figures to more or less follow in his dad’s coaching footsteps.
“Baseball,” he said, “is a game of knowledge, a game of learning and then passing on what you’ve learned. There’s no question my long-term goal is to pass on that knowledge and make someone a much better player than I’ve ever been.”
BULLDOGS BASEBALL LORE
Eddie Fowlkes, Decatur High’s resident historian and former Decatur baseball coach, figures that Nic is only the fourth Decatur High player selected since the free agent draft was initiated in 1965. His own brother David Fowlkes was drafted in the fifth round by the Cleveland Indians in 1976 and eventually reached the Double-A level. The year before outfielder Dwight Bryant was drafted by the Cubs in the 17th round and played several years in the minors. Nic’s high-school teammate in both baseball and basketball, Trumon Jefferson, was drafted in 2011 by Texas in the 39th round. Trumon, now a rising senior at West Florida University (and currently umpiring this summer for Decatur Active Living) figures to get re-drafted next summer.
Fowlkes is fairly certain only two Bulldogs have made it to the major leagues, 1933 graduate Alf Anderson and 1948 grad Jim Umbricht. Anderson played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1941, 1942 and 1946, hitting .238 in 126 games and died in Albany, Ga., in 1985.
Umbricht’s story is both intriguing and tragic. He played parts of five seasons (1959-63) for two teams, the last two with Houston, now the Astros but then the Colt .45’s. One of the early-day specialist relievers—194 career innings, 3.06 ERA—Umbricht was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in his right leg in March, 1963. His return to baseball following surgery made national headlines and encouraged research on the disease. Sometimes working in excruciating pain, he pitched 76 innings in 1963 going 4-3 with a sparkling 2.61 ERA, a season that nowadays would’ve earned him millions.
But after the season his health declined and he died in April, 1964, at age 33. His ashes were scattered over the construction site of the Astrodome (where the team would play for 35 seasons) and Umbricht’s became the first jersey number retired in franchise history. Today he’s one of nine Astros whose name and number hang at Minute Main Park.