Kansas City — One way the Philadelphia Phillies hope to win the 1980 World Series from Kansas City is to keep Royals' leadoff hitter Willie Wilson off the bases. Wilson, who stole successfully 83 times during the regular season, seems to operate on the theory that first base is a nice place to visit but that he wouldn't want to stay there any length of time. And once Willie reaches second base, he's so fast that he can score on even the cheapest kind of single.
If one were to take Wilson apart, piece by piece, he would find the eyes of an eagle, the arms of a pro basketball player, and the wheels of a Ferrari. One college football scout reportedly clocked Willie in 4.4 seconds for 40 yards -- an extraordinary time considering he was wearing shoulder pads.
With Wilson, of course, base stealing isn't just a physical crime, it's also a mental one. He often studies opposing pictures from the dugout during games to pick up their motion. He knows precisely when to make his move and generally uses his pop-up slide that prevents him from going past the base.
Wilson's short lead off first is unusual for someone planning to run, yet designed to conserve energy -- his own. For example, against such anti-steal devices as pick-off throws and pitchouts, most base runners punish themselves physically by having to dive back to the bag.
But with Willie never straying that far away, it's usually only a quick move back to safety without sliding or losing his standup position. When he does run , he succeeds partly because he gets such a good jump on the pitcher, but mostly because his legs seem to click into high gear instanly.
"Knowing where you are when you take a lead and knowing where the first base bag is without having to keep turning and looking for it is one of the first things you have to learn in this business," Wilson told reporters.
"Once you've got that down, then you can concentrate on what the pitcher is doing," he continued. "You try to work off his motion and go from there. But there is a time to run and a time to stay and that's one secret you don't share with anybody."
Wilson is a master at disturbing the pitcher with false starts, by rocking back and forth to get his body in motion, and by maybe moving his arms but not his feet.
"When you have a base runner with Willie's feel for a steal situation, you don't restrict him with a lot of signs and rules," explained Royals' manager Jim Frey. "Instead you give him his head. You let him run when he wants to and you don't criticize him when he gets caught.
"We do have a stop sign for him in the late innings, only this year we haven't had to use it much," Frey continued. "It's for common-sense situations, like when we're down three or four runs late in the game and we can't take the chance of losing a base runner. But basically he's on his own."
Although speed is what got Wilson his first set of headlines, he is actually one of the most complete ballplayers in either league. This is a man who can throw strikes from the outfield; who outruns a lot of balls that would normally fall in the left center field alley for doubles; and who seldom fails to hit the cutoff man.
Wilson, because he is not a power hitter, is never going to get the recognition of someone like teammate George Brett. Nevertheless, he consistently slashes out line drives with great bat control; will bunt against any third baseman who plays him casually; and often beats out routine grounders when shortstops defense him just one step toodeep.
From just 43 hits as a KC rookie in 1978, Willie went to 85 in 1979 and 230 this year -- tops in the majors. Actually, he set two major league records this season -- first player with more than 700 at-bats and most runs scored by a switch-hitter, 133.
When he first came up with the Royals, Wilson used to overswing, which meant that pitchers could throw him almost anything and get him out. But by choking up on the bat, heeding the instructions of coach Chuck Hiller (who shortened his swing), and putting into practice what he learned in winter ball, Willie became a consistent hitter and regular in the lineup.
Although many now consider the 6 ft. 3 in. left fielder to be the most exciting player in baseball, chances are both Brett and the Yankees' Reggie Jackson will finish ahead of him in balloting for the American League's most valuable player.