Jack: An Appreciation

The first time I ever heard of Jack Wilson was during the 2004 All-Star Game.  Understand that I was not living in Pittsburgh at the time.  Rather, I was getting ready to move out here and begin my graduate study in writing, and I didn’t have a good attitude about my new, would-be home.  Pittsburgh was, in my mind, a gross and sooty steel town, definitely second-rate to eastern Pennsylvania, and before I had even gotten here, I was sure I would want to leave.

Well, that was almost five years ago, and I’m here to tell you that I’m still a Pittsburgher.  In fact, as of yesterday, I have now lived in the ‘Burgh for 59 glorious months.  And in that time, I have come to know quite a bit about Jack Wilson (admittedly, not all; I do not purport to really know him), and I love what I know.

See, the night of the 2004 All-Star Game, my life was in flux.  I was mourning the fact that I had just left college, a year before most of my close friends.  I was concerned about moving to a new city, completely on my own.  And I was also disturbed to realize — as I had earlier that summer — that my lifelong love of baseball was fading rapidly.  See, I didn’t have a TV in college, so I missed out on a lot of baseball action.  My team back then was the Yankees (long story; basically, I picked them as a little kid because they, like me, had a “K” in their name), but I really hadn’t followed them with any regularity since I was in high school.  More concerning to me was the Padres-Phillies game my dad and I had attended earlier in the summer, during which I was disturbed to realize that I was extremely bored with what was transpiring on the field.  Baseball, which had always been such an important part of my life, seemed to be as up in the air as everything else.

I was watching the All-Star Game with Kev and Matt (whose names you will recognize as two of the blog’s most loyal readers), more so because it was a tradition than anything else.  For years, we had watched the Home Run Derby and bet on who we thought would win, and then watched the All-Star Game the next night.  On this night, when the starting lineups were announced, Kev and Matt pointed out Jack Wilson, because he was a Pirate and I was a soon-to-be Pittsburgher.  I sort of shrugged it off, not wanting anything to connect me to the city that I would soon, begrudgingly, be calling home.

Almost a year went by, and for the first ten months that I lived in Pittsburgh, I hated it.  This had very little to do with the city, and very much to do with my bad attitude.  What can I say — when you expect things to go poorly, that’s usually how they turn out.  But then came June 3, 2005.  Kev and Matt were out for a visit, and they talked me into going to PNC Park.  I did, fully expecting my experience in Philadelphia to be repeated, and me to be treated to a boring night at the ballpark.

It would be melodramatic to say that everything changed that night, but in some ways, it’s true.  Jack Wilson was in the starting lineup, as was a then little-known third baseman named Freddy Sanchez.  I was treated to those gorgeous skyline views to which I’ve now grown so accustomed.  And I felt, for the first time, a twinge of pride in my new city, and a twinge of interest in this scrappy little team, the Pirates.

Over the next few months, all of my friends were out of town for the summer, and my sole entertainment in the evenings came in the form of Pirate telecasts.  I started to learn more about the team, and Jack Wilson stood out to me the most.  At first, I loved the fact that his middle name was Eugene, which I have long wanted to name my son, if I ever have one.  At that time, the Eugene connection was enough to make Jack my favorite player.  As time went on and I learned more about him — both as a player and a person — my admiration grew.  Here was a man concerned with more than the bottom line.  Here was a man who loved his wife and children.  Here was a man who was dedicated to his team, and involved in the civic life of his adopted home.  Here was a man whose Christian faith was of utmost importance to him, to the point that he eventually started an organization aptly named Christ First Sports.  Here was a man who could pick it, in a big way, at short.  

Before long, I had found a new favorite player.

In the intervening years, I would use the words “love,” “adore,” “admire,” and “respect” when expressing my opinion of Jack.  When I got the chance to meet him for the first time, at Bowling with the Bucs in 2006, I was so nervous.  Because whenever you meet somebody whom you describe with the aforementioned words, there’s always that bit of fear that he’ll actually turn out to be a jerk, not worth your adulation.

Instead, much to my delight, Jack turned out to be even nicer than I would have imagined.  I would get the same impression the next few times I met him.  At Bowling with the Bucs 2007, he was just as engaging and friendly.  At PirateFest 2008, I brought along a picture of us from Bowling with the Bucs in 2007, hoping he would sign it.  He did, and then he went one step further, taking my Pirates calendar and pointing out when that year’s event would be.  As the line of autograph seekers continued to wait behind me, I still had something to say to Jack, something I’d promised myself I would say when the opportunity presented itself.

“I want you to know,” I stammered, “how much I respect you.  You just seem like such a nice guy, and it seems like you have a good sense of priorities, with your family coming first.  So in case there are nights when you wonder if there’s anybody up in the stands who really cares about what you guys are doing, and who respects you, just know that there is.”  I actually got kind of choked up as I finished my speech, and I hesitated to look at Jack.  I was sure he’d already be looking away, on to the next person, the next autograph, the next admiring word.  Instead, he was looking right back at me.  “Thank you,” he said, and it occured to me that maybe he doesn’t hear compliments like that all the time.  In fact, he seemed genuinely appreciative of my heartfelt words.

And I thought, at that moment, that I could not respect him more.

The next time I met Jack, it was Bowling with the Bucs 2008, and he showed a flash of recognition when I approached him.  The same was true at the end of the 2008 season, when the Pirates held an event in which the players greeted fans at the gates.  “Hey!”  Jack said when I went up to him.  “It’s good to see you again!”  His name was being bandied about in trade rumors then, of course, as it always was, and so I patted him on the shoulder as I left and told him, “if they’re stupid enough to get rid of you this offseason, I wish you nothing but the best.”  Again, he was as gracious as could be.

And I thought, at that moment, that I could not respect him more.

I ran into Jack twice this season.  At “Bowling with the Bucs,” he again recognized me, and expressed excitement at seeing me again.  And then, a mere two weeks later, the Pirates had another “greet at the gates” event.  Naturally, I waited to talk to Jack, and when I approached to shake his hand and say hello, he greeted me with a “long time, no see!”  His smile was genuine and infectious.

And I thought, at that moment, that I could not respect him more.

Because that’s what this comes down to.  I can’t say that I love Jack, because what I know of him barely scratches the surface.  (And indeed, it is best to say “know of,” rather than “know,” because I don’t really know him.)  I can, however, say that I respect him.  Every time I’ve had occasion to speak with him, he’s always been a gracious, stand-up guy.  He’s known to put his faith and his family first, before everything else.  He’s a loyal team player who doesn’t know how to give less than his all.  He has given the Pirates’ fanbase so much.

And so now here we are.  It’s been a little more than five years since I first heard of Jack Wilson, and a little less than five years since I first made Pittsburgh my home.  In reflecting on his trade, I’ve been forced to mull over a difficult truth — am I more of a Pirate fan or a Jack fan?  Already, driving home from work today, I could tell that my relationship with the team had changed a bit.  No longer did I feel the need to stay in the car until the inning break before going into the house.  No longer do I feel the need to turn down other social invitations because I have a Bucco game to watch on TV.  In some ways, I am sad to realize that maybe I’m not as big a Pirate fan as I would have thought.  In other ways, I am wondering if I now have a healthier relationship to the team than ever before — I will still watch them, and cheer for them, and go to their games, but I will no longer center my life around them.

As I see it, this can only be a good thing.  Because honestly, my life seems to be in a flux similar to that of 2004.  As most of my friends are getting married and/or having children, I remain single, with only my two cats keeping me warm at night and giving me a chance to practice my caregiving skills.  For years now, I’ve wanted to get back into my writing, which has completely stagnated since I finished my Master’s in 2006.  I’ve been dealing with a lot of fear and uncertainty about the future, and have struggled to see where my faith fits into all of that.  (Because if I truly had faith, I wouldn’t be that concerned about the future, right?  And if I truly had faith, then the Pirates wouldn’t be my number one priority all the time, in any situation, right?) 

But ironically, on today of all days — a day in which my head is spinning with all of the Pirates’ personnel moves, and my heart is hurting at the thought of going to PNC Park on Friday without Jack or Freddy being there — I feel that I’m thinking a little clearer than I have been recently.  You don’t need to look far on the blog to see that Jack’s trade has led to a deluge of writings, with even more ideas in the pipeline.  And I feel that I now have a healthier perspective on the team as a whole.  I’ve come to realize that there are bigger things than the Buccos, and that faith in that bigger picture can be both liberating and life-giving.  

And I think, at this moment, that I cannot respect Jack more.  Because for everything he gave me while he was here — whether it was the thrill of hearing “Jumping Jack Flash” as he strode to the plate, the sense of pride at seeing his most recent gem on a top plays countdown, or the sense of genuine appreciation whenever we had occasion to interact — interestingly, it has been, in his leaving, that Jack has given me the greatest gift of all — a renewed interest in my writing, a renewed committment to my faith, and a renewed approach to my team.  In some ways, Jack has given me, well, me back. 

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2 comments

  1. dbucco82@gmail.com

    Jack surely was a special player. And I’m sure he misses Pittsburgh because of fans like you. It’ll be hard to watch a game with hearing “Jumpin Jack Flash”. I hope you don’t give up on the Pirates…or finding someone to keep you company besides the cats. They will both turn out someday soon.

  2. mattpeas

    this honestly brought a tear to my eye. you hit the nail right on the head though. its not the same, and i honestly dont think we will ever to be able to fall in love with a Pirates player again-at least for the near future. but hey maybe thats what we need as an organization. for us to truly be a better team we need players that can play the game and play it damn good. we may have that blossom in a few years and i believe it will be worth it

    http://pittpeas.mlblogs.com

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