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Soon M's catcher and wife will be parents twice over
Dan Wilson opened his briefcase on the flight here from Milwaukee. A peek inside revealed a book.
Surely, given the Seattle Mariner catcher's strong start with the bat, this is his edition of the book on pitchers. Or, given Wilson's equally superb start thwarting base stealers, perhaps this was the book on opposing runners.
It was neither. The book was "How To Raise An Adopted Child."
By the end of this week, Dan Wilson will be a dad, although his wife, Annie, is not due to give birth until September.
It's no riddle. While Dan Wilson went on the road with the ballclub, Annie traveled to Bulgaria.
"She went there to meet tile little girl we've adopted," Wilson said, "... and to bring her home... It's pretty exciting."
This from a ballplayer who graciously accepts praise for his dazzling start, in which his offense seems to have caught up with his excellent defense. Call his seven-homer, 21-RBI start "exciting" and Wilson shakes his head.
"There is a long season to go," said Wilson, always low key, always realistic. "A good start, but only a start."
Unable to start a family, Dan and Annie learned of the possibility of adopting a child through a Seattle friend, Chuck Snyder, who in turn had a friend who runs an adoption agency in Portland.
They learned of an orphan named Sofia.
"She's at a state-run orphanage," Wilson said. "Sofia's background isn't as bad as some of the kids. Some of the stories we've heard are heart-breaking."
The Wilsons went through the involved process of adoption and were approved. Then they found out Annie was pregnant at last.
"Our friends have told us that often happens when you adopt," Wilson said. "It's wonderful."
So the Wilsons suddenly will have two children. The September child is "90 percent sure" to be a girl," but there was no thought of giving up Sofia.
"Never even considered," proud pop said. "We love kids."
Dan and Annie grew up in Barrington, a north Chicago suburb, and have known each other since third grade.
They didn't start dating until their senior year in high school, though.
"Prom date and all that," Dan said.
In some ways, Sofia will be the Wilsons' second adoption. They have quickly taken to Seattle, full time and year round, living first on Capitol Hill, now owning a home in Montlake.
"For a girl from the suburbs, Annie loves the big city," Dan said. "We think Seattle is a special place, a great place to live."
They first lived in the quaint Loveless Building on Capitol Hill, at the north end of the Broadway business/Bohemian district.
"It was fabulous, wild," Dan said. "We used to go across the street to eat at The Deluxe (Tavern) all the time. But you can only take that life for so long. When we decided to buy a house, we had to change areas, but we didn't want to go too far, certainly not leave the city, so we wound up in Montlake and we love it."
Dan and Annie have thrown themselves into their new hometown. Annie, a teacher, works at First Place, the school for children of families in transition. Dan spends much of his time giving talks at inner-city schools, filming a series of TV spots about his work this past winter.
"Both of us feel we should give back to the city," Wilson said. "We don't regard this as any kind of big deal ... just something we feel is proper for us."
Soon, there will be not one, but two children of their own who need attention.
"Now that's real, and really exciting," Dan Wilson said. "This baseball stuff is nice, but only satisfying in the context of helping the team win. Children, families, that's real, that's what life is really about."
Mariners' Wilson adds offense to to his defense
Barrington's Dan Wilson is only in his third season as an every-day player, but Lou Piniella insists he already has developed into the major leagues' best defensive catcher.
"Let's see," the Seattle manager said, counting with his fingers. "You have Ron Karkovice here with the White Sox. There's Terry Steinbach at Oakland and 'Pudge' Rodriguez with the Rangers. They're very good too."
Piniella went on to explain he hasn't seen much of the National League lately, but he was fairly certain his man was the best receiver in the land.
But just how good is Wilson?
A catcher's defensive ability isn't measured easily, except by the fans sitting in the bleachers. They are the only ones who have what could be called a frontal view. From the press box, only the catcher's back can be seen.
"I'll tell you how good he is," volunteered Mariners pitcher Chris Bosio, Wednesday night's starter at Comiskey Park. "Norm Charlton and I throw a lot of balls in the dirt. Last year, in the middle season, we began keeping count. We wanted to know who would get the most pitches by him."
Bosio paused. "I've never had a better catcher," he said. "And this is my 10th year in the big leagues."
The Piniella and Bosio appraisals were repeated to Wilson. He merely nodded his head, as if to say, "Aw, shucks."
Wilson, 28, is either shy or modest. More than likely, it's a combination of both.
He was a big sports star at Barrington High School, All-State in baseball and hockey. Not many people would think baseball and hockey complement each other, but Wilson was a goalie, and he says it helped him as a catcher.
"There's some of the same movement--blocking a puck and blocking a baseball."
Goaltending sharpened his lateral movement.
Good defensive catchers are hard to find. Many of the best backstops in baseball history have been weak hitters. Wilson once fit this description.
He went into this season with a .253 career average with only 12 home runs in 681 at-bats, certainly not a terror at the plate.
Yet, this April 11, in Detroit, he hit three home runs in one game, evidence he is capable of the long ball. With typical modesty,
Wilson said he simply felt good at the plate that day, that it was essentially a matter of being ahead on the count and getting some good pitches to hit. Wilson has since hit two more home runs and arrived at Comiskey Park with a .283 average and 16 runs batted in, only one fewer than team leader Ken Griffey Jr.
"He's bigger and stronger," Piniella said in explanation of Wilson's new-found power. "He has been lifting weights the last two winters."
Wilson stands 6 feet 3 inches, an ideal height for a catcher. He confirmed he is filling out, getting up to 205, an increase of 15 pounds since the end of last season.
The result not only has given him a stronger bat but also has strengthened his arm. His caught-stealing ratio is among the best in either league.
Ron Fairly, now a Seattle broadcaster and previously one of the best defensive first basemen of his time, has noticed the Mariners' pitchers generally hold the runners closer to the bag.
"I think it's because they know if they give him a chance, he'll catch a lot guys trying to steal," Fairly said.
Wilson's parents, Stan and Lillie, have been living in Columbia, S.C., for the last several years. Dan was born and grew up in Barrington and married his high school sweetheart, the former Annie Palmer. She is expecting their first child in September.
They also are adopting an 18-month-old girl from Bulgaria.
"When I was a kid, I was always playing ball," Wilson said.
He can recall the spirited games between Barrington and Palatine High Schools, mostly because the Palatine catcher was Todd Hundley. Hundley is also in the big leagues, with the Mets, and, like Wilson, has opened the season with a remarkable power surge--eight home runs, more than half his 1995 total.
Whereas Hundley signed out of high school, Wilson didn't turn pro until after he finished three years at the University of Minnesota, where he majored in mechanical engineering.
"He's very coachable and very bright," said Piniella. "I'd bet he could build a bridge."
Still, though, a college education doesn't hurt, Wilson didn't discover how to block the pitch in the dirt in an architectural drawing.
He learned that in his back yard.
Dan, the Everyman
Nothing legal can make Dan Wilson talk about himself.
Articulate and thoughtful, he chooses not to share his thoughts after tough losses, after throwing his body in front of baseballs in the dirt, after reading that the Seattle Mariners have called up yet another young pitcher he will have to lead through a game.
A master of understatement, Wilson has become - intentionally - one of the most boring interviews in a clubhouse filled with personality. It is as if, after each game, he takes off one mask and replaces it with another.
"He'll come home and be getting into bed and I'll see a new bruise, " says his wife, Anne, "and he won't mention it. Over the course of the season, about the only time I know he's hurting is when he gets out of bed in the morning and groans a little."
In an era when fans feel increasingly cynical about professional athletes, their demands and quirks, Wilson seems to have been created out of old-fashioned fiction.
On the field, he has blossomed from a good-arm, no-hit catcher to an All Star, a man whose work ethic at and behind the plate has made the most of his talents. Off the field, the scouting report comes from his wife - who first met Daniel Allen Wilson when he was a third grader.
"He's a good, solid guy with a sense of humor that - like most men's - isn't quite as good as he thinks it is," she said, laughing. "He's honest, he loves children. Dan is the kind of man that married women and kids love."
Sitting beside the woman he has known most of his life, Wilson smiles and shrugs. Guilty as charged.
A professional baseball player since 1990, Wilson has a home without the traditional jock's den. No trophy case, no cabinet filled with memorabilia.
"The year five of us made the All Star team, the Mariners put out a poster with all of us on it," Wilson said. "I've got that framed."
"He kept that because he says he still can't believe he's on a poster with Ken Griffey Jr. and Jay Buhner and Edgar Martinez and Alex Rodriguez," Anne said.
For a great many Mariners fans, Wilson is hardly out of place among those teammates. When Seattle sent promising infielder Bret Boone and pitcher Erik Hanson to Cincinnati in the winter of 1993, it was in exchange for pitcher Bobby Ayala and a 24-year old catcher who'd played 48 minor league games.
Few in the Northwest had even heard of Wilson, but one man - manager Lou Piniella - not only knew him but raved about him.
"I wanted to get this kid a year ago," Piniella said at the time of the trade. "he's going to be one of the best catchers in this league in a few years."
Wilson's first full year in the big leagues, 1994, didn't do much to fulfill Piniella's prediction. "I was on a new team, in a new league, working with a new staff and trying to show them I could help," Wilson said. "I was the player representative that year, and by the All Star break it looked like we were going to have a strike. In July, the ceiling tiles fell in the Kingdome, and all of a sudden we were faced with an endless road trip. I had to deal with the union, with keeping the guys informed what was happening. At the All Star break, I was hitting .236. When the strike came in August, I was hitting .216..."
The final days of that shortened season were so tough on Wilson that his wife worked the telephones, urging friends and family to send him cards at team hotels in an effort to cheer him.
"I'm not sure why Lou stuck with me," Wilson said. "I knew I could catch, and I thought if I ever got a starting job, I could build on my defense, improve at the plate."
At one point late in the summer of '94, the batting instructor Lee Elia approached him in the clubhouse.
"He was doing the job behind the plate," Elia said, "but he wasn't hitting. Lou wanted us to try some things."
For the next three years, Elia and Wilson developed a relationship that was like family - Elia taught, Wilson absorbed. And after batting .216 in '94, Wilson's average the next three years was .278, then .280, then .270.
"In the minors, in Cincinnati, I'd never had a lot of personalized instructions, the benefit of coaching," Wilson said. "I trusted Lee. I listened. It wasn't like I didn't think I needed the help."
Now a scout for Philadelphia, working out of his home in Tampa, Fla., Elia is delighted to talk about Wilson the student.
"A lot of players, no matter how they're doing, don't want to change whatever they think got them to the big leagues," Elia said. "Willie broke down his swing, changed it and worked every day on improving his approach at the plate. He wasn't afraid to try anything. "
And all this, Elia said, while catching Johnson's 100-miles-per- hour heat one night, Fassero's forkball in the dirt the next, and working with one of any a dozens rookie pitchers the Mariners paraded across the dome over the past three seasons.
None of that seems all that special to Wilson, who loves his job but doesn't think it makes him much different than any other worker.
"I guess I take being a ballplayer for granted sometimes," he said. "We bought a house in a nice neighborhood where no one made a big deal of it, where there were lots of kids. And because I'm not recognized that much, I can do almost anything without people being sure I'm someone they should know.
"The one thing celebrity brings you is the opportunity to reach out."
The Wilson's have. Back in Illinois, where they grew up, Anne taught in an inner city school - and loved it.
Today, she's on the board of directors of First Place, a Seattle school for homeless children, and a substitute teacher there. Wilson talked Nike into donating shoes once a year for the kids, and last season Weyerhaeuser agreed to send a cash donation to the school for every base runner that Wilson threw out.
"That's a lot of pressure," he said, laughing. "I've got to make the budget, now."
This week, Wilson begins another spring training, his fifth camp as a Mariner. In years past, Anne had come to Arizona to visit but rarely stayed long. That's no longer the case - because the Wilson's are now a burgeoning family, not merely a couple.
Two years ago, they adopted a Bulgarian orphan, naming her Sofia. A few months later, Anne gave birth to Josephine, and now there's a boy on the way, due July 10.
"We all go down, even 'Doc'," Wilson said, including the family dog. "Spring eases me into the season, mentally and physically."
"...and it eases the girls into the season gradually, too," Anne said. "In the off-season, they're used to having daddy open all the time. Spring gives them a transition. He goes to work, he comes home, they get their time with him."
The Wilson's' life together is, in truth, all they'd ever hoped and a bit more.
"We were friends from third grade on, best friends in high school, " Anne says. "I didn't think of Dan as a boyfriend until he dated my best friend - then I knew."
Did Wilson date her friend to make her jealous? He blushes, shakes his head.
"I wasn't sophisticated enough to pull off something like that," he admits.
On Christmas Eve, 1990, Wilson was visiting Anne and her family in Chicago, after his first full season in professional baseball. He pulled her into a horse-drawn carriage, and somewhere along a holiday- festive street asked her to marry him.
Anne beams at the story, fairly glowing. Wilson seems momentarily troubled.
"Are you going to write that?" he asked.
"Probably," he's told.
"They're going to kill me with that in the clubhouse," he says.
It may define Wilson that in an age where players have been caught with underage girls and crack cocaine, the heaviest artillery teammates can dig up on him involves a marriage proposal.
"You're really going to print that?" he asks again.