It seems like every professional sports team has some player who from an objective standpoint simply isn't very good, yet they are adored by the team's supporters for no apparent reason other than they exhibit some sort of intangible, non-quantifiable quality, such as "hustle," or "grit," or Lloyd McClendon's favorite, the "bulldog mentality." (God bless you, Ron Villone). This will be no more apparent than later tonight, when the World Series moves to St. Louis and our eyes will be assaulted by countless red shirts bearing the number 22 and the name "Eckstein" on the back.
For the Pirates, the man filling that role is shortstop Jack Wilson, who despite being one of the worst-hitting regulars in all of Major League baseball during his first three seasons, forced his way into the hearts of the Bucco faithful. For one year, in 2004, Jack was arguably the best all-around shortstop in the National League. He hit .308, collected 200 hits, played Gold Glove caliber defense, made the All-Star team, and actually played like he deserved to be one of the three jersey-shirts on sale at the Pirates clubhouse store in PNC Park. This wasn't entirely surprising, as he'd always been a decent hitter in the minor leagues, but Jack still was receiving perhaps unwarranted levels of adulation from the fans.
That offseason, the Pirates signed Jack to a 2-year contract extension to buy out his arbitration years, paying him a total of $8 million dollars. He responded by having his appendix explode, requiring an emergency operation that left him debilitated until spring, and he didn't regain his full strength until the second half, causing his final numbers to look gruesomely similar to those of his first few seasons. And still, the fans cheered.
After 2005, Jack vowed to strengthen himself over the winter, and he reported to Florida about twenty pounds heavier than usual, promising to hit more home runs. He fulfilled his promise, in April at least, hitting 5 homers and driving in 14 runs. He then proceded to hit just three home runs and knock home 21 runs the entire rest of the season. What's more, his added bulk caused his range to suffer, and his typically superb defensive level fell to merely average. His final line ended up at .273/.316/.370, numbers that are pretty on par with his career line to date, and are what should most likely be expected throughout the rest of his career. And still, the fans cheered, and are going to cheer as long as he's a Pirate.
The least understandable part about why Jack is so loved in Pittsburgh the way David Eckstein is in St. Louis and Marco Scutaro is in Oakland is the amount of money he makes. The vast majority of the time, the first players to become the target of the ire of the fans are the ones receiving the biggest paychecks. For instance, the Pirates signed Jason Bay, not only far and away the team's best hitter, but one of the most productive hitters in all of baseball, to a 4-year contract valued at nearly $20 million in last November. When Bay had an abnormally slow year hitting with runners in scoring position (just .242, down 104 points from the previous year), the fans began to get impatient, and Bay even began to hear some boos at several points throughout the summer.
Jeromy Burnitz, who was paid $6 million this season, struggled to a .711 OPS and was universally hated by everyone who had to watch the Pirates. Jack's OPS, a robust .686, came along with a price tag of $4,750,000, yet his play was deemed perfectly acceptable by the fans.
I'm racking my brain for possible reasons for Jack's immense popularity despite, with the exception of one year, rarely doing anything productive at the plate whatsoever and being one of the highest paid players on the team, and this is what I've come up with:
- Pity. Jack has endured his share of sufferings, from Lloyd McClendon ripping him to shreds as a 23-year-old rookie in 2001 with no experience above AA, to the well-publicized torment he received from Brian Giles and Mike Williams. Despite everything, Jack persevered and didn't quit just because people were mean to him.
- Jack tries. He tries his best, every time, and he shows emotion. These two characteristics are rarely seen in Pirates players these days (see: Jose Castillo), and discovering a player who sprints to first base on a comebacker to the mound and who gets visibly upset when an outfielder robs him of a hit in a clutch situation makes it very easy for said player to endear himself to the fans.
- Jack genuinely appears to be a nice guy, which also happens to be a rare trait in ballplayers who've come through Pittsburgh in the last couple of decades. He doesn't turn down autograph requests, and hosts bowling tournaments benefitting mentally handicapped children.
- Finally, I think subconsciously, the fan base can relate to Jack more than they can any other player. Jack is a mild-mannered California boy who looks far too goofy to be a professional athlete. Most people, if they saw Jack on the street and didn't know who he was, would just assume he's a preschool teacher or an auto mechanic or something.
Whoops, no, that's just Jack's Israeli soccer-
playing twin, Yossi Benayoun.
There. A face only a mother (or a Pirates fan) could love.
And better than David Eckstein to boot.