uSports: Mookie Wilson On The Mets & Toronto… by uSports

William Hayward “Mookie” Wilson  (February 9, 1956) is a former professional baseball player who played for the New York Mets and Toronto Blue Jays in a career that spanned from 1980-1991. Wilson didn’t have the flashiest hitting statistics, batting a career .274, with his career best season at .299, and scoring 67 home runs and 438 RBI. However, Wilson’s strength was in his speed, snatching 327 stolen bases in his career and boasting a fielding percentage of 98.2%.

Mookie is most well-known for his at-bat in the 1986 World Series, when his ground ball went through the legs of Boston Red Sox 1st baseman Bill Buckner to win Game 6 for the Mets and set up a Game 7 victory for the title. The outfielder was one of the first building blocks in place for the Mets in the 1980s and is seen as one of the first home-grown stars on the championship team. After being caught in a crowded outfield platoon, the Mets traded Wilson to the Blue Jays in 1989, where he would play until his retirement. Wilson’s life in the game of baseball would not end there, as he would become a coach within the Mets organization for two different periods of time before settling into a front office position. He was named to the Mets Hall of Fame in 1996, his biggest individual honor.

Early Life

Wilson was born in 1956 in the town of Bamberg, S.C. He would be nicknamed “Mookie” early on in his childhood, which would stick with him throughout his playing days.

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Mookie grew up with his family on a farm, where they worked five days a week as well as Saturday mornings. His family also had a tradition of loving baseball, which Wilson says contributed to his passion for the game. “If you were born into that family, baseball was mandatory,” he told uSports in an exclusive interview. “Mid-day Saturday, it was time to play. My father was an avid baseball game. He loved the game and taught me very well. Some of the things he taught me on the farm about playing baseball I used in my professional career because those philosophies still stand today. It wasn’t so much about the technique of the game… [it was] the mental side of the game, doing the best you can and everybody is different.” Although Wilson admits he could’ve done better later on in his professional career had he learned some of the more technical aspects of baseball, he thanks his father’s teachings for helping him out greatly later on in his career.

As an African-American, growing up in the South of the 1950s and 1960s was difficult for the Wilson family with racism and segregation holding a firm grip on the region. “I was probably too young to understand everything that was going on,” Mookie says, “I just knew things weren’t equal. To a young person, that’s disturbing because you feel ‘hey, I should be able to do and go whereI want to go’ in a time you couldn’t do those things. You had to go to back doors to restaurants, back doors to doctor’s offices- if the doctor would even see you… those things really affect young people.” However, Wilson says he isn’t bitter about growing up in a time of segregation. “It serves no real purpose,” he says. “I grew up to accept that it was part of the culture. It wasn’t right, but growing up in that culture actually helped me grow to be the person I am.” He also says that even with segregation, he still maintained good relationships with white people, including his youth baseball coach, whose son’s still very good friends with Wilson.  Ultimately even with the bad times, Wilson says there were “many good times” that helped him have a “very happy childhood,” with both experiences helping him become who he is now.

After pitching in high school for the Bamberg-Ehrhardt baseball team, Wilson signed a letter of intent to play for the South Carolina State Bulldogs. Just days later, however, South Carolina State shut down its baseball program. In 1974 and 1975, Wilson attended Spartanburg Methodist College to begin his collegiate career. In the 1976 draft, Wilson was picked by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Wilson did not sign, as he rather wanted to improve his draft stock at the University of South Carolina than go straight to the minors. The move paid off for Wilson, as not only did he reach a College World Series with the Gamecocks in 1977, but also was drafted by the New York Mets in the 2nd round (two rounds sooner than when he was picked by Los Angeles a year earlier).

New York Mets

Wilson spent four years in the Mets’ minor league system. He earned the International League (AAA) Rookie of the Year Award in 1979 and followed that up with a 50 stolen base, 92 run season for the Tidewater Tides in 1980. The Mets called Wilson up to the majors in September of 1980 with the annual expansion of major league rosters at the conclusion of the minor league season. Manager Joe Torre would start Wilson at Center Field in all but five of the Mets’ remaining games that season.

1981 would become a breakout year for Wilson, as after a change to center field he began to find a groove. With a batting average of .271 and an on-base percentage of .317, Wilson became the leadoff hitter for the Mets. He only hit three home runs in the season, but two of them would be game winning, walk off dingers. His contributions helped the Mets elevate themselves from the bottom of the standings to a competitive team, finishing only 5.5 games back of the NL East champion Montreal Expos. The momentum continued into 1982, where he would break the Mets single-season stolen base record with 58 swiped bags. The next season was much of the same, with 54 stolen bases and a career high 91 runs. By the end of the 1984 season, Wilson was already the Mets’ stolen base king- and arguably the face of the franchise. Wilson’s 1985 season was struck short by injury, playing in just 93 games. He would miss two months due to shoulder surgery and would come back to a much more limited role when he returned in September.

Wilson and the Mets would put it all together in 1986 on a team that was filled with characters on and off the field. As much as the Mets were known for their great play that season, they were equally remembered for their party-boy lifestyles off of it. Wilson was seen by critics as the “good guy” of the team, given his good behavior compared to his teammates’ issues. Wilson told uSports that he feels his teammates’ reputation was a bit unfair, though. “It’s very overstated. They weren’t bad guys. They were unusual athletes… they enjoyed their free time. We may not agree with that, but we have to honor the fact that in their free time they did what they wanted to do. But, the one thing you have to respect is when they came to the ballpark to play, there was nobody better than those guys.” Wilson says it’s an honor to be called a part of that team. He also gave praise to Darryl Strawberry, who he called “the perfect athlete” at the time, and Keith Hernandez, who in Wilson’s eyes is “one of the most intelligent ballplayers” he’s ever played with and to this day “a good friend.”

Although Wilson’s regular season was good, hitting a then-career high .289 and improving his runs and stolen base numbers from his injury-hampered previous season, his heroics in the postseason would be his greatest accomplishment. Although he struggled in the NLCS against the Houston Astros with a .115 batting average, he played an important role in the ninth inning of Game 6. He would drive in a run and score another one to help force extra innings in a 16-inning epic that would give the Mets the National League pennant. His World Series against the Red Sox went much better, hitting .329 with 3 stolen bases. His Game 6 at-bat in the bottom of the 10th, however, would leave himself in a place of baseball lore forever.

“It is probably one of the most exciting moments I’ve had in my career,” Wilson told us of the ground ball he hit to win Game 6. “To be a part of one of the greatest moments in baseball is just phenomenal. There are some athletes who just dream of just being in that position and I just happened to be there and I’ve been very grateful for it.” He goes on to say it was a situation where the Mets “shouldn’t have won that ballgame,” but New York got three straight hits in a do-or-die situation to bring Mookie up to the plate. Wilson remembers that going through his head walking into the batter box is “the last thing you want to do is let the team down… do not be the last out.” The pressure, which Wilson says was easily there, was dwindled a bit after Boston “let him off the hook” with a wild pitch that tied the game. “Now,” Wilson recalls, “is a matter of putting the ball in play.” Wilson did just that, hitting the ball towards Billy Buckner. In “something that probably shouldn’t have happened, but it did” in Mookie’s words, the ball went right through his legs and the Mets won Game 6. The next night the Mets would come back to Shea Stadium to win Game 7 and clinch their 2nd World Series title in franchise history.

We asked Wilson if he felt bad for Buckner’s error. “The answer is no… it’s one of those things that happened and in fact he doesn’t want you to feel bad for him. He understands the game is full of surprises and he made a mistake, which is something that happens in the game all the time. If it had not been for the World Series, nobody would even give him second thoughts.” Wilson says the two of them have become very good friends over the years and talk about the play “very candidly.” The two have also often signed autographs of the picture of the play together at various events through the years.

The next season, however, marked the beginning of the end of Wilson’s time as a Met. Although Wilson batted for his career high of .299 that season, he was now a part of a very crowded outfield for the Mets. He and fellow Mets star Lenny Dykstra were publicly unhappy with the situation, with Wilson going as far as requesting a trade. Even so, Wilson produced some of his best numbers as a Met as part of the new outfield platoon. Wilson’s playing time continued to get cut in 1988, but Mookie contributed to the Mets’ cause with a red-hot end to the season, batting .385 with 5 homers, 22 RBI, and 31 runs scored in this period, as well as adding to his 15 stolen bases on the season.  The Mets would end up winning 100 games in 1988, winning the NL East handily. In the NLCS, where Wilson had a limited role with the outfield platoon, the Mets would lose to the Dodgers, a team they had dominated in the regular season, in seven games and were unable to recapture the magic of two years earlier.

Wilson was set to become a free agent in 1989, but the Mets picked up his option. After a slow start to his season and more acquisitions to the outfield made, the writing was on the wall that Wilson would no longer be a Met. On July 31st, the trade deadline, Wilson was traded north of the border to Toronto and became a Blue Jay, marking the end of his tenure in Flushing as a player.

Toronto Blue Jays

After a slow start to his time as a Blue Jay, Wilson ended the 1989 season on a high note, hitting .298 and swiping 12 bags for Toronto. In the division clinching game against the Baltimore Orioles, Wilson hit for an RBI and came around to score the winning run to give the Blue Jays the AL East crown. Toronto would fall to the stacked Oakland A’s team in the ALCS, but Wilson proved himself as a valuable player for the Blue Jays. He was rewarded with a two year contract with Toronto, which led to a 1990 season that saw Wilson go back to being a day-to-day performer. At the age of 34, Mookie was still as dangerous as ever on the base paths, as he racked up 23 stolen bases. He also appeared in 147 games, the most he saw since 1984, and logged 629 plate appearances, something he hadn’t done since 1983.

Wilson was once again a part of an outfield platoon in 1991, as the Blue Jays put him in a rotation at Left Field. It would end up being a successful strategy, as the Jays were able to win the AL East easily. 1991 saw a drop off in numbers for Wilson, however, diving into career lows for games played (86), batting average (.241), and stolen bases (11). Although he appeared in 3 of the 5 games of the 1991 ALCS, in which Toronto lost to the eventual World Series champion Minnesota Twins, Wilson’s option would not be picked up for the 1992 season by Toronto (which would end up being the first of two straight World Series titles for the Blue Jays). After not receiving any offers from other teams that offseason, Wilson retired from playing baseball at the age of 36.

coaching career

Wilson couldn’t leave the sport of baseball for too long, as he soon would begin a career as a coach. He reunited with the Mets in 1996 to become their first base coach, a role he held until 2002. The Mets would also honor Wilson by enshrining him to the Mets Hall of Fame in 1996, making him forever be a part of the Mets franchise. He then became a manager within the Mets’ farm system, first for the Rookie League Kingsport Mets and the single-A Brooklyn Cyclones. After those stints, he became the Mets’ base running coordinator, helping players such as Jose Reyes, who eventually broke Mookie’s Mets stolen base records, dominate the base paths. Wilson spent one more season as a first base coach for the Mets in 2011 before moving into a front office position for the organization. He was also the manager of Team USA at the 2013 Futures Game, part of the All-Star Weekend festivities at Citi Field that season.

 Personal life

Wilson was one of 12 children, including former minor league players Phil and John Wilson. He is married to Rosa Gilbert and is the stepfather to former major leaguer Preston Wilson, as well as the father of three daughters. Together with Rosa they have founded an educational center for girls in New Jersey and have even recorded a gospel CD sung by the family. He is also the author of the book Mookie: Life, Baseball, and the ’86 Mets, which dives into his personal life and his stories of playing for the New York Mets.

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