Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was going to get better as a baseball player.
His minor league manager in the South Atlantic League, Joe Mikulik, swears by it.
In fact, Wilson put together the best two-week stretch of his career just before he left the Asheville (N.C.) Tourists in the middle of the 2011 season to become the quarterback at the University of Wisconsin.
Now, less than two years later, as the last member standing from a heralded rookie QB draft class prepares for an NFC divisional playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons, it’s clear Wilson made the right decision. Had he continued playing baseball, Wilson would be working out indoors, getting ready for spring training as a Colorado Rockies second-base prospect.
In one of his last games as a pro baseball player, Wilson and the Tourists visited the Augusta Greenjackets. Batting eighth, Wilson went 1-for-3 with an RBI triple, a walk and two stolen bases in a 6-5 loss. He went 0-for-5 a couple weeks later in his final game, capping the day by grounding into a double play -- but that came just 24 hours after he hit his last home run, a three-run blast, on June 24, 2011.
Wilson finished his season batting .228 with three homers, 15 RBIs and 15 steals. But his OPS was .816 in June, and he made only one error, a significant improvement over the previous two months.
What might have happened to Wilson had he gained a few more years of experience playing pro baseball? We talked to his former managers, pro scouts and an ex-teammate to find out.
Jay Matthews, scouting supervisor, Colorado Rockies: I first recognized him as a baseball talent at a Virginia event [for high school students] called the Commonwealth Games. They have teams from four regions that play a two-day round robin. He was an unknown player coming into the event, but by the time he came out of the event, everybody was like: Who’s this Russell Wilson guy? So we invited him to the East-West Professional Showcase in North Carolina. That’s when his athleticism was noticed. He became a prospect.
Elliott Avent, baseball coach North Carolina State, 1997-present: We’d have been playing for two-and-a-half months by the time we got him [each year]. And we had a second baseman that’d been playing every day and a third basemen that’d been playing every day, so it was hard for us to work him in. So, to get him on the field, we put him in the outfield.
He never really got a chance to get in the number of reps he needed. He was platooning. He wound up playing some his freshman year and did incredible. We’d played 25 games by the time he got here, and practicing all fall, and he steps on the field after football and does some incredible things as soon as he got here. We just felt like he had a high, high ceiling.
John Manuel, editor-in-chief, Baseball America: I went to see him at a late-season Sunday game at NC State against the University of Miami. They were facing a left-handed pitcher that day. And I was really surprised to see how many scouting directors were there on a Sunday to see NC State and Miami. I thought they were there to see the Miami catcher, but it turned out they were there to see Russell Wilson because they hadn’t seen much of him.
The Rockies were there and the Yankees were there. A lot of big-name teams and big-money teams were there to evaluate him. And the Rockies took him in the fourth round. He never really had that playing time in college. All the teams that liked him liked the athleticism and the makeup and hoped he’d give baseball a chance.
Matthews: The thing he exemplifies is what you see every Sunday. His leadership skills and his ability to be a quick learner. We saw that from a baseball-development standpoint. We thought if he played enough baseball and got him into our system and gave him 1,000 at-bats, it would click and he would be able to be a productive baseball player. Defensively, he was on board. His defensive skills were ahead of his offensive skills. We thought the offensive part of his game would come.
He had an average arm, he was a plus-runner. So he had two average tools before he even got in the batter’s box. So under the five-tool scale, he already had two of them. He had some tools. Defensively, he was solid. He was learning his way around second base. At NC State, he was more of an outfielder, and he was a shortstop in high school.
What drew us to him was the athleticism and plus-speed and his arm. We felt like, if we could develop the offensive side of it, we’d have a big league guy.
Manuel: He’s a pretty impressive person, and that’s been borne out. Those teams thought he would be a better baseball prospect than football prospect because he was too short to be a quarterback. They were all banking that he was 5-foot-10 and wouldn’t be an NFL quarterback. Obviously, that’s not how things worked out. If he did anything [that day against Miami] it wasn’t noteworthy enough for me to take it down.
Avent: The biggest thing I remember is he hit a walk-off home run at a Coastal Carolina tournament. He hit it into a palm tree to beat UC Irvine. That’s a thing I remember. It was a two-run homer in the bottom of the 11th or something like that. It was crushed into a strong wind.
Matthews: They were behind, and Coach Avent pinch-hit Russell and he hit a three-run, walk-off home run to win the game. You see a kid who can do that coming off the football field, with limited baseball experience on the college level, with pretty much ice water in his veins, who could come off the bench in a key situation and get a big hit like that to win the game.
Mikulik, Asheville manager 2000-2012: If you look at his offensive numbers [in the minors], he struggled somewhat hitting-wise. He didn’t put up the numbers he wanted to. But there was so much raw talent and dedication and desire to get better. There’s no question in my mind, he would have made himself a very good player.
Tyler Massey, outfielder, Asheville Tourists, 2011: When he came to spring training, I was like: "Wow, this guy’s a Division I quarterback?" Because he was so short.
We would get there probably 7:45 a.m. and do early work. Then we’d do a whole practice. Then you’d have lunch and then play an afternoon game, five or six innings of a nine-inning game. Russell would play the first six because he was a starter. Then you’d have extra work if you wanted to go into the cage. He’d usually bunt a bucket or two buckets, so let’s call that 100 balls, then take another 100 or 200 swings and then we’d be done for the day. That’s on top of taking BP with the team on the field and rotating through all the drills. I was really impressed with his work ethic.
Mikulik: His work ethic was by far the best we had on our squad. He would come early, he wanted to learn and get better. When it was baseball, there was nothing else. He was so dedicated to getting better at that sport. Turning a double play, he had a quick release and his footwork around the bag was getting better. He really worked hard to get himself into a good position to field the baseball. He was in the cage around noon every day when we were at home.
Matthews: It had started to come. His thing is, you have to have enough reps and learn to recognize pitches. That’s what started to come with him. He had started to make some adjustments.
Mikulik: He struggled. There were some times when it wasn’t a lot of fun for Russell. It’s not a lot of fun to make outs and have failure. He didn’t quit, he kept fighting and being a good teammate. His leadership has carried over to the Seahawks. That’s something I saw.
His baserunning instincts were good. His athleticism stealing bases was very quick and explosive. He didn’t get on base a lot, but they didn’t really throw him out. He was getting better at that.
There were not really a lot of highlights, but there were some good defensive plays, some diving plays that he made where you said, “Whoa, that’s a pretty good athlete.”
Manuel: We named him fastest baserunner in the organization after he was drafted. His best-case scenario would have been as an offensive second baseman, but I don’t even know who you compare him to -- maybe Scott Hairston, Aaron Hill? He was fast. And obviously there’s strength there, but it was make-up that made the Rockies go forth. The Rockies put a little more emphasis on that than others.
Matthews: I compared him to Jerry Hairston. That kind of player, who could play multiple positions. We hated that he gave it up, but we wished him well. It was all up to him. We gave it our best shot. We gave him the chance to play the two sports. We gave him an opportunity to play football. He had to pay back a portion of the signing bonus, but his commitment to the Rockies is all taken care of.
Mikulik: The one thing I do regret is [not seeing] how he would have been in July or August. The 130th game of the season. He was going to get better. I’d have put a paycheck on it that this kid was going to make it to the big leagues.
When he left North Carolina State [and was granted his release] he was getting phone calls from everyone for football. We didn’t have a lot of days off, but he asked permission to go on these recruiting trips. I said, "You’re going to make it back, right?" And he said: "I’ll make it back."
About a week into the second half, he made the decision to go to Wisconsin. It was a pretty cool little moment. He’s in the clubhouse talking to me and the GM, he looks us in the eye and says he’s made his decision to go play football. We hugged, and I said: “You’ve got to go tell your teammates.”
Avent: When he was at Wisconsin it was “On Wisconsin.” When he was at NC State, it was “Go Pack.” Now he’s a pro, but he’s still a college guy.
Massey: He knows how to talk to the fans and he enjoys that. He’s trying to get the city of Seattle behind him and give them a plug on every interview. He’s pretty smart, but at the same time he’s genuine about it. I think he means it.