CLEARWATER, Fla. -- This is one of those small but special moments that happen only in spring training, when a kid wearing a Red Sox uniform with No. 94 on his back gets to tell a story, and collect a keepsake.
Shannon WilkersonIt’s about the day that a kid named Shannon Wilkerson was summoned to pinch hit for David Ortiz, stepped into the batter’s box against Roy Halladay, and went home with a broken bat as a souvenir.
“That’s something out of a dream,’’ he said.
Wilkerson is 22 years old, born in Lawrenceville, Ga., right outside of Atlanta, and grew up in the town of Dacula, which lies halfway between Atlanta and Athens, home of the University of Georgia. Dacula is not pronounced like the vampire but as Duh-CUE-la. The town’s population, as of the 2009 census, was 4,805.
An outfielder, Wilkerson was drafted on the sixth round by the Red Sox in 2008, out of Augusta State College, where he was named Division II player of the year after leading the Peach Belt Conference in six offensive categories, including batting average (.441) and home runs (24). He debuted with Lowell in 2009, and advanced to the Class A Greenville (S.C.) Drive. He missed time last season with Greenville after fracturing a hamate bone in his wrist, but came up big in the playoffs, batting .389 (7 for 18).
Earlier this month, he reported to minor-league camp, and on Monday, he was on the list of campers called up to accompany the big-league club to Bright Field, where the Red Sox were playing the Phillies. Wilkerson had gotten in one game last spring, in the late innings of a game against the Tampa Bay Rays, but this was his first time this spring.
Halladay, who has won a Cy Young Award in each league, was still in the game when the Red Sox came to bat in the eighth inning. The second hitter scheduled to bat in the inning was Ortiz, who already had come to the plate three times. Instead, Wilkerson was told to grab a bat.
“I was on-deck, I realized, ‘I’m hitting for David Ortiz,’’’ he said. “And then I think it kind of sunk in, when I got to the plate, I told myself, ‘Just go back to being yourself. Relax. Breathe.' After the first pitch, I was back to myself, and saw the ball well.’’
With the right-handed hitting Wilkerson ahead in the count 2-and-1, Halladay threw a fastball, and Wilkerson squared the pitch up nicely, lining a ball down the left-field line, but foul. He also broke his bat, and went into the dugout to retrieve another. The next pitch was a slider, the kind that Halladay has made a living out of enticing hitters to chase. Wilkerson leaned toward the pitch, but somehow forced himself to hold back on his swing. Ball three.
“When I got back to the dugout,’’ Wilkerson said, “I told some of the other minor leaguers, ‘That’s the hardest, latest-breaking slider I think I’ve ever seen.’ Thank God I was able to hold off.’’
The next pitch was ball four, and Wilkerson was on base with a walk. With the game televised by ESPN, the moment was not lost on friends and family.
“I just turned my phone on, and it hasn’t quit vibrating in my back pocket,’’ he said.
When the inning ended, Wilkerson returned to the dugout with a purpose.
“The first thing I did was to look for the bat that I broke,’’ he said. “They had it in a bag with the bats that had been broken in the game. I found it. I got it here. I’m taking it home with me.’’
For someone else, a broken bat to be discarded. For Shannon Wilkerson, a piece of a dream. And that's something always worth holding onto.