Willie Wilson sat by his locker in the Kansas City Royals' clubhouse, his pre-game warm-up completed. The veteran outfielder grimaced, which he does a lot. Those who write about the Royals regularly say that at times his tormented expressions are just a front - that Wilson, now in his 11th big-league season, can be as friendly, talkative, and accessible as the next guy. This afternoon, while rehearsing in centerfield, the switch-hitting, 32-year-old father of two danced - and smiled - to the public-address system's beat of rock music. He tapped his toes and grooved. His hips swayed to Bruce Springsteen and the Motown sound as gracefully as he chased fly balls while playing catch with fellow outfielders Danny Tartabull, Thad Bosley, and Bo Jackson - each several years and hundreds of games his junior.
Some baseball people take exception to Wilson's blatant moodiness, his stormy outlook, claiming he purposefully insulates himself from any criticism. At times, Willie has been less than congenial, accused of manipulating those he plays with and managers he works for, as well as, say, the press.
Some suggest that his 32-game suspension in 1984 for involvement with drugs caused a radical change in Wilson's attitude - that a giant chip on his shoulder sprouted and remains in full bloom some four years later.
Perhaps on this particular day Wilson's standoffish aura is legitimate, and plausible. After all, the team returned from a road trip in the early morning hours; there was little time to sleep before preparation for tonight's game opening a home stand. This is part of baseball, of course, but one that Wilson and other players dislike. Who can blame them?
Over the years, though, Wilson has only hurt himself in terms of fame and recognition by keeping writers and others at arm's length. Thus despite an imposing list of credentials, few among the general public place him in the superstar or even clutch category. The people in the Royals' organization know better, though, and basically have nothing but good to say about his peformance over the years.
A look at the record shows that his employers and teammates know whereof they speak.
Example: Since 1980, Wilson has delivered more hits - 1,387 - than anybody else in the major leagues - an eight-year stretch that weighs in at 173.4 hits per campaign. Furthermore, his 112 triples lead all active players. (``When he hits a triple,'' reports Jackson, ``the guys like to see him run the bases. It's a motivator.'')
Even more exciting than a triple, of course, is an inside-the-park home run - and here, too, Willie is at the head of the list among active players, with 13.
Overall, Wilson has batted .300 or better five times, topped by a league-leading .332 in 1982. And although his average has dipped a bit in recent seasons, he still has a solid .295 lifetime mark.
Willie's speed has translated into some impressive stolen-base totals over the years as well - but again they haven't always been too well publicized. How many baseball fans, for example, realize that he has stolen 30 or more bases in 10 consecutive seasons - a feat accomplished by only four other players (Lou Brock, 14 years; Ty Cobb, 12; Honus Wagner, 11; and Bert Campanaris, 10) in the history of the game. Furthermore, his stolen base success rate of .841 (529 thefts in 629 attempts through last year) is the highest in American League history.
``I'm aware of them,'' says a closemouthed Wilson, playing down the accomplishments. ``I'm not surprised. Everyone else is surprised.''
The 6 ft., 3 in., 195-pound speedster admits that at this stage of his career he has lost a step or two, but his 59 stolen bases last season demonstrate that he is still dangerous out there.
The Royals picked Wilson first in the June 1974 draft. At the time, he had signed a letter of intent to play football - his main sport until then - for the University of Maryland, having graduated from Summit (N.J.) High School, where he starred not only in football and baseball, but in basketball as well. After weighing the options, however, he decided to pursue baseball.
``Longevity,'' he says today. ``I thought it was taking a chance [giving up football], but life's a gamble.''
Three years later, having moved steadily through the Royals' farm system, he saw his gamble begin to pay off. He was called up to the parent club in September of 1977, played the entire 1978 season with the Royals on a part-time basis, then in 1979 attained the regular status he has held ever since. And ultimately, he was handsomely rewarded, receiving, along with fellow stalwarts George Brett, Frank White, and Dan Quisenberry, a long-term, multimillion-dollar contract that in his case runs through 1994.
Willie's efforts have been a major factor in the team's success over the years, too - as reflected by his appearance in four league championships (1978, '80, '84, '85), two World Series ('80, '85), and a couple of All-Star games ('82, '83).
If there is a legitimate weakness in Wilson's game, it's that his throwing arm is, to be polite, not the greatest. In fact, it is poor, something Wilson recognizes, something he works on daily, something, he says, ``I'd like to improve.'' His current manager, John Wathan, not only remains unconcerned about such a shortcoming, but also discounts it totally.
``Willie's a great centerfielder,'' says Wathan defensively. ``There's always been talk that he doesn't have a particularly good arm. But what he lacks in arm strength, he makes up with speed. He gets a tremendous jump on the ball. He knows where to play the hitters so very, very well. The other players can key off him wherever he decides to play a hitter.''
Jackson, who flanks Wilson in left field, echoes the sentiment. ``Willie kind of runs the outfield. I feel more confident with him in center field. He helps me with new hitters. I ask him where to play. It's like `follow the leader' out there: He moves 10 yards, we move 10 yards; he plays shallow, we play shallow. With his speed and my speed, there's hardly a ball that goes between us.''
Wathan also dismisses those who say Wilson is misplaced in the lineup as a leadoff hitter - that he is too impatient at the plate and as a result doesn't draw enough walks. Critics say Wilson's on-base percentage - at-bats divided by the combined number of bases on balls, hit-by-pitches, and hits - should be higher than last season's .320. (As a comparison, St. Louis Cardinal leadoff man Vince Coleman's was .363; Montreal's Tim Raines's was .429; and, the Yankees' Rickey Henderson's was .423.)
Anyone who averages as many hits as Wilson does per season has to be competent, Wathan notes. And the skipper smiles broadly when reciting that Wilson is one of two switch-hitters in the game's history (Garry Templeton was the other) to hit safely at least 100 times from each side of the plate in a season, a feat he achieved in 1980.
But Wilson's value goes well beyond on-field performance; indeed, Wathan says Willie's most important contribution to the team may be his experience.
``We felt that he could be a tremendous influence on some of the younger players,'' says Wathan. ``He's been through a lot of the battles, a lot of the wars, as well as a lot of the good times here in Kansas City. With Willie, George, and Frank, it's like having extra coaches on the ballclub. I hate to think about where we'd be without him.''
Concluding, he said, ``It'll be a sad day when Willie Wilson can't play center field for the Kansas City Royals anymore.''