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After a long wait, Wilson gets a shot

A string of injuries has stalled Paul Wilson. The former No. 1 pick is ready to pitch for Devil Rays.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000


BALTIMORE -- Maybe the expectations never were realistic. Maybe the shadows were too big. Or maybe Paul Wilson is only now beginning to accelerate the long and winding climb to his potential.

Time was, Wilson was going to own New York, inheriting the legacy of Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden. The Mets wanted Wilson enough to make the FSU star the No. 1 pick in the 1994 draft.

Wilson had a taste of New York in 1996, then started spending what seemed like more time in surgery than in uniform -- shoulder operations in 1996, '97 and '98, a rebuilt elbow last year -- and rehabilitating in the minors.

"I didn't mind riding the buses again, the 4:30 a.m. wakeup calls," Wilson said. "After surgeries, bus rides and dinner at McDonald's ain't nothing.

"I never thought, in all that time, with all those operations, with all the rehabbing, that my career was over, just that it had gotten detoured, that it was getting started a little late."

Today Wilson is 27, and in the Devil Rays bullpen. Saturday at Camden Yards he will make his first major-league start since Sept. 26, 1996, when he was a phenom-in-waiting for the Mets.

'You don't wait around'

The Mets decided officially July 28 that Wilson no longer was worth the wait. He was pitching at Triple-A Norfolk -- in his last 21 innings there his ERA was 0.43 -- when they traded him and outfielder Jason Tyner to Tampa Bay for reliever Rick White and outfielder Bubba Trammell.

Rays manager Larry Rothschild said he couldn't fault the Mets for making the deal. Their starting rotation was set; they needed middle relief.

"They got a pretty good pitcher in Rick White. And they're in a pennant race," Rothschild said. "You can't predict that every year you're going to be in the race. You don't wait around until next year. You do what you have to do now."

When Wilson joined the Devil Rays he was on a regular-season major-league roster for the first time since the end of the '96 season. When he pitched 32/3 innings of shutout ball Aug. 4 against the Orioles at Tropicana Field, it was his first relief appearance anywhere in pro ball.

Mets general manager Steve Phillips said Wilson would "probably not reach the ceiling he could have before the injuries."

Wilson said the Mets "might have given up on me too soon." But he acknowledged that he'd been with them for six years, was listed as having three years of major-league service but really had pitched for them only one year and had been hurt since then.

The Rays say they still see in Wilson the potential for which the Mets couldn't wait. They see him as a potential anchor in their starting rotation -- in 2001.

Generation K

At one time Wilson's potential seemed unlimited. He was one of three phenoms -- Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen the others -- conveniently lumped together by New York newspaper headline writers as "Generation K."

It was an easy label. Problem was, it stuck. Fans were counting the days until they arrived as one. They counted the imaginary Ks they would hang from the railings of Shea Stadium, emblematic of their strikeouts.

Gooden, a decade earlier, had been Dr. K, master of the strikeout. Seaver had been the same a generation earlier on the way to the Hall of Fame. Now it was Wilson's turn to grow into a reputation not yet established, to join with Pulsipher and Isringhausen to form the nucleus of a pitching staff not seen at Shea since the heady seasons of Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack. Anything less would be failure in Mets fans' eyes.

The fans stopped their imaginary counting long ago.

"I was never intimidated by it all. I looked forward to being in New York and being mentioned with those other guys," Wilson said of the comparisons with Doc and Tom Terrific.

A more recent, more cruel comparison: Wilson and Brien Taylor, the No. 1 pick in the 1991 draft by the Yankees. Taylor never made it past Double A. His career pretty much dead-ended after a bar fight that resulted in shoulder surgery.

Pitching scared

Wilson was on the fast track to New York. Maybe too fast, although he disagrees. "People might have argued I wasn't ready," he said, "but when you dominate Double A and Triple A there's nothing else for you to do there."

He struggled to a 5-12 record with the Mets in 1996.

"I didn't think, "Well, it's my first year; 5-12 is no big deal.' I was crushed," he said. "I wanted to be 12-5. I thought I was capable of doing that. But I pitched scared. I didn't have confidence in what I had usually done. It wasn't the competition. It was just me. Most of that 5-12 was me beating myself."

Then came the arm troubles. Last year's was the most disheartening. Wilson pitched well in spring training and was sent down to Norfolk to get more innings. In his first game he blew out his elbow.

Why me, he thought -- but not for long.

"I wasn't getting big-league money but I had a paycheck coming every two weeks," he said. "I was in rehab, I was at home (in Palm City, near St. Lucie)."

Shannon, his wife, took care of him. She still does. That's all she does; she has no other job.

"I tell her she's on full scholarship," he said, laughing.

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