ATLANTA - SEPTEMBER 16: Jack Wilson #1 of the Atlanta Braves fields a ball against the New York Mets at Turner Field on September 16, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Jack Wilson was headed to the playoffs. For the first time in his life, Jack Wilson was headed to the playoffs. And then he was not.
Let me begin by saying that this might not speak to you the way that it speaks to me. In any given year, several hundreds of people play major league baseball. Some of them are very easy to root for. Some of them are very easy to root against. The majority are somewhere in between. For a lot of people, I suspect that Jack Wilson is one of the players in between. For me, he's been someone to root for. And so for me, as delighted as I am by the astonishing turn of events in the American League, today is a Thursday most bittersweet.
Know this: Jack Wilson came into the season third among active players on this list. That is a bad list. It is not a list of bad players, but it is a list of bad things. The title says it all - Most Games Played With No Postseason Appearance. Ernie Banks, obviously, is at the top. He's followed by Luke Appling and Mickey Vernon and countless others. Among active players, though, it goes 1. Adam Dunn, 2. Vernon Wells, and 3. Jack Wilson. There are many other active players who have never played in the playoffs, but we're focusing on Jack.
It's not a surprise that Wilson has never played in the playoffs. He spent the bulk of his career with the Pirates, who haven't finished north of .500 since Wilson was 14 years old. For much of his time in Pittsburgh, Wilson was a fine player, but he wasn't sufficiently great to put the Pirates over the top. His years always ended in September.
Wilson then shifted to Seattle, but in case you haven't been paying attention, the Mariners haven't made the playoffs for a good long time themselves. With Wilson, they went nowhere in 2009, and with Wilson they went nowhere in 2010.
Which brought us to 2011. At 33, Wilson had never seen the playoffs. Neither Dunn nor Wells had ever seen the playoffs, either, and they'd played even more, but what made Wilson stand out to me was the feeling that this could be his last go. Even with their recent struggles, Dunn and Wells have more time in the game. Wilson might not. His legs have betrayed him with age and, mentally, you have to wonder. He's talked about retirement. During a triple-A rehab assignment in 2010, he asked not to play. In 2011's first week, he removed himself from a game.
So even though he hasn't said much on the matter, 2011 kind of felt like Wilson's last chance. He might not have the ability or desire to play beyond, and even if he did, a team might not want to sign him. He would, after all, be an old and broken-down middle infielder.
For a while, things were somewhat promising. Even though Dustin Ackley forced Wilson to the bench in Seattle, the Mariners were within 2½ games of first place in the AL West as late as July 5th. It sounds unbelievable now, but it's true - the Mariners were a .500 team when the season was more than half over, and they had a slim but real chance of making the playoffs.
Of course, they cratered. The Mariners went straight from 43-43 to 43-60, sustaining a major collapse in a season defined by major collapses. The trade deadline approached and the Mariners looked like certain sellers. Doug Fister could go. Erik Bedard could go. Jason Vargas could go. And Jack Wilson could go, to offer some contender some depth in the infield.
Jack Wilson didn't go. Not then, anyway, but he was still a candidate to get moved in an August waiver trade. All hope was not lost that Wilson might find himself shipped to a contender yet.
Then, on August 19th, Wilson was forced to the disabled list, having suffered a bruised heel while legging out an infield grounder. It seemed an unjust punishment for hustle, but it was what it was, and at that point it seemed highly unlikely that anyone would take a chance before the August 31 playoff roster deadline. Players on the DL can still be moved, but who would want an injury-prone player who was already injured?
It was the night of August 31 that brought news of a miracle: Wilson was acquired by the Atlanta Braves, who were looking for an improvement over Julio Lugo as their backup infielder. Suddenly, impossibly, Wilson was, for the first time in his career, a part of a playoff roster. He would serve as a backup to Alex Gonzalez, but being a backup is better than being nothing at all, and the Braves were 80-55. Their lead over the Cardinals in the Wild Card standings was 8½. Their playoff odds were nearly 98 percent. It was a solid lock. On his last legs, Jack Wilson had found his way to October.
I don't need to tell you how things worked out. The Braves fell apart. Wilson actually got considerable playing time over the final week, with Gonzalez sidelined by injury, and he didn't do much. Worse, at a critical juncture in the most important game of the season, Wilson screwed up.
With the Braves up 3-1 in the top of the seventh on Wednesday, Wilson had a chance to turn a routine, inning-ending 6-4-3 double play. Instead, he booted the ball, and the Phillies scored a run. It wasn't the tying run or the winning run, and more attention would later be given to Craig Kimbrel's blown save, but one has to wonder: what would have happened, if not for Wilson's error?
For the first time in his life, Jack Wilson was a lock to go to the playoffs, until he wasn't. His new team collapsed, and he had a hand in its failure. Now it's the beginning of the off-season, and there's no telling if Jack Wilson will still be there at the end. There's no telling whether Wilson will walk away, with this ground ball lingering on as one of his most vivid memories.
This season will give Lyle Overbay his first-ever trip to the playoffs. He was fourth on the active list. It will give Corey Patterson his first-ever trip to the playoffs. He was sixth on the list. But, improbably, Jack Wilson remains there in third, unless he should no longer be active at all.