Rangers’ C.J. Wilson is always looking for the changeup
C.J. Wilson is sitting half-naked on a folding chair in a room full of similarly undressed men sitting on similar folding chairs.
It’s an unusual setting for a complex conversation. But then just about any conversation with the Texas Rangers pitcher — who will be on the mound when his team opens the American League division series against Tampa Bay on Friday in Arlington — is sure to be unusual in one way or another.
This particular discussion darts about with the unpredictability of Wilson’s four-seam fastball, from auto racing and South Africa to screenwriting and his late grandfather, whose name is tattooed on Wilson’s pitching arm.
That, of course, would be Wilson’s left arm. In baseball, left-handedness is often synonymous with eccentricity or just plain goofiness.
Former pitcher Bill Lee, who answered to the nickname “Spaceman,” was left-handed. So is the Brewers’ Nyjer Morgan — and, presumably, Morgan’s imaginary alter ego, T-Plush.
Wilson, 30, isn’t so much odd as he is complicated.
“My mind,” he says, “is not easily satisfied.”
The search for satisfaction prompted him to learn about Eastern philosophy and how to play the guitar. He has become a polished photographer and a competitive race-car driver who owns a team. He memorizes classic movie lines, dates a South African supermodel and is relentless — and occasionally controversial — on Twitter.
“Does he say some things that I probably wouldn’t? Yeah,” says Rangers General Manager Jon Daniels. “And maybe he gets more attention for that. But the reality is he backs it up. He goes out there and he’s ready to perform.”
Perform he has, winning a career-high 16 games with a 2.94 earned-run average and 206 strikeouts in 223 1/3 innings.
“This guy is really dedicated to what he does,” Daniels says. “He’s got a lot of interests. But at the end of the day he gets the job done.”
Wilson was a key member of the Texas bullpen until two years ago, when he joined the rotation. Without that move, the Rangers might have missed the playoffs the last two falls. Instead, they’re playing for a second consecutive trip to the World Series.
“I liked closing, but the writing was on the wall,” says Wilson, who has won 31 games since becoming a starter and was an All-Star this season. “I’m a lefty and I’m versatile. I can throw more than one inning. As a player, you want to have a sharply defined role. Like the No. 3 batter, or starting pitcher. There’s more predictability.
“Especially for someone like me, because I have so many things going on.”
Moving around isn’t new. After graduating from Fountain Valley High, Wilson went to Santa Ana College, where he was the state community college player of the year. Then, in his only season at Loyola Marymount, he started and relieved, played right field and first base, and drove in a team-high 27 runs.
Most players would have been content with just one of those things.
“There’s 24 hours in the day,” Wilson says. “I’m always trying to reinvent that to make more time for other stuff because I feel like life’s really short.”
Many of his interests have nothing to do with baseball. He is a devoted Taoist, for example, and he has his own charity, which has raised more than $100,000 for children’s hospitals, summer camps and community programs.
“When I do that stuff, when I come back to baseball, baseball’s like so much easier,” he says. “You play guitar and it’s like metal and wood and there’s all this weird coordination and stuff that you’re not used to using. And then all of a sudden you pick up a baseball and the baseball’s the simplest thing in the world.”
Wilson might be most passionate about auto racing, especially the American Le Mans Series. Last year, driving for his Mazda-backed racing team, Wilson drove 596 laps of an endurance race in Sacramento, helping his team win its class while finishing sixth overall.
“When you’re racing side by side in a formula car at 130 mph going up a hill, the runner on third base becomes less scary,” Wilson says. “You’re able to think your way out of it a little bit. So even if a guy’s on second base or third base and they’re threatening to score, you’re like, ‘It’s OK. I hold the ball. I have to stay relaxed and stay fluid and do my thing. I can’t force the situation.’
“Overdriving is like overthrowing. You may be able to make that turn one time going a little bit too fast. But then you actually burn the tires off. The next time you do it you’re in the weeds. Just like pitching. If you try to throw it too hard you might get away with it, get the guy out. But then he makes an adjustment and you do it again and it’s over the fence.”
Expect auto racing to play a big role in determining where Wilson pitches next season. His $7-million contract ends with the Rangers’ season and he figures to be a major free-agent target, with the bidding possibility approaching $100 million.
Any team making that kind of commitment won’t want to see Wilson banging fenders in a race car all winter.
“That remains to be seen,” the pitcher counters. “I’m sure there’ll be some kind of conversation about that. But the reality is I play baseball to play baseball and drive to drive. I don’t do one to do the other.
“The place I’m at right now with baseball is obviously a very good place, being a free agent having [bargaining] power or whatever.”
Plus, Wilson has one more ace up his sleeve — the sleeve to his left arm, naturally.
Boston Red Sox owner John Henry also runs a racing team, Roush Fenway Racing. Should Henry have interest in bringing him to Boston, perhaps Wilson could work out a two-sport deal — one that would allow him to pitch a little in between races.
“I try not to worry about that too much,” Wilson says as he dresses. “I enjoy it here. The guys on the team are like family. And that’s the coolest part of this.”
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