Welcome back, Jack: Wilson’s time in Altoona short but sweet

Mirror file photo Jack Wilson chats with manager Tim Leiper during a rehab stint with the Curve in 2008.

Editor’s note: This is the sixth story in a series looking back at various aspects of the Curve as the franchise celebrates its 20th season.

There are plenty of reasons why Altoona wouldn’t necessarily be all that important to a player such as Jack Wilson, but after all these years, the longtime Pirates shortstop still has great memories of his time here with the Curve in 2000.

“This was the beginning of my Pirates career, so Altoona is very special to me because this was the first city I knew as a Pittsburgh Pirate,” Wilson said.

Wilson will be on hand tonight at Peoples Natural Gas Field as the Curve give away his bobblehead as a member of the fans’ all-time team. Even though he spent a small amount of time with the club, Wilson remains popular here in large part because he went on to become one of the most prominent Pirates players of the early 2000s.

Before all of that, however, Wilson was a minor leaguer with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was dealt to the Pirates at the trade deadline in 2000 for major league pitcher Jason Christiansen, and Wilson made his debut for the Curve on Aug. 2.

As players work their way up the professional ladder, they play in so many small minor league towns that it can be hard for them to differentiate between one place to the next.

That was definitely not the case for Wilson.

“I think Altoona was the perfect place for me to start (as a Pirate) because I felt kind of a big league presence to have a full city following you, following the standings, making it loud,” he said. “I consider Altoona being my first big league experience because I played in small towns with the Cardinals that weren’t anything like this. So that one month helped prepare me for the big leagues.”

Wilson’s best memory was “the ambience of the fans” as the Curve battled for a playoff spot down the stretch during his month with the club.

“I was coming from Little Rock, Ark., in Double-A for the Cardinals, and you go from an old stadium (Ray Winder Field) and we weren’t really in the playoff chase,” Wilson said.

“Then I come over here, and you’ve got this wonderful stadium with a roller coaster in the back and a super fan favorite in Adam Hyzdu, and right from the get go I saw what a class act the Curve and the Pirates were. I was just extremely excited to be there and be part of a playoff race.”

Wilson was a prized prospect at the time, and he hit a go-ahead two-run double that led to a win in his Curve debut at Portland. He played 33 games for Altoona in 2000, hitting .252 with one homer, 16 RBIs, seven doubles and two triples.

He knows he could have played much better than that, but admitted, “I felt a lot of pressure being traded for a big leaguer. I felt anxious and tried to do a lot.”

Wilson went on to have a lengthy major league career, playing nine of his 12 seasons with the Pirates. He had a career year in 2004, hitting .308 with 11 homers, 59 RBIs, 41 doubles and a league-leading 12 triples while becoming a National League All-Star and Silver Slugger winner.

He spent a week rehabbing for the Curve in 2008 and played four games at Blair County Ballpark, so Wilson got a chance then to see how much he still meant to Altoona’s fans. The club has had a number of good and popular shortstops over the years, but Wilson really was the easy choice when it came time for fans to vote for the Curve’s all-time team.

For many years, until the emergence of Andrew McCutchen and Jose Bautista, Wilson and pitcher Bronson Arroyo were the most successful Curve alums in the big leagues. In terms of career WAR in the major leagues, Wilson’s 23.5 is the fifth-highest of any Altoona player, behind only McCutchen (40.5), Bautista (34.7), Starling Marte (25.1) and Arroyo (23.7).

The one thing Wilson never got to do as a member of the Pirates was win. He was one of the club’s better players for many of the seasons during the 20-year losing streak, and while he enjoyed individual success, he never reached the playoffs with the Pirates or at the end of his career with the Mariners or Braves.

Personal accolades are great, Wilson said, but he added, “I think any athlete has that drive to be a champion, to be a part of a playoff chase or a playoff run and win something significant.

“In 12 years I never made the playoffs,” he added. “It’s the one thing I look back on that kind of seems missing.”

Wilson didn’t finish his career with the Pirates, but he will always be closely associated with them after spending so many years in Pittsburgh. Even after he was gone and playing for other teams, he was still a Bucco fan.

“When I was in Seattle I was following the Pirates,” he said, “and even when I was with the Braves I’m opening up the paper and checking the box score and following the Pirates.”

The Bucs finally made the playoffs in 2013 after a long drought, and that was special for Wilson on numerous fronts. He not only loved to see it for the franchise and the fans, but also because there were some players on the team — including McCutchen and Neil Walker — that he had played with in Pittsburgh.

“I was ecstatic for the city and the organization,” Wilson said.

“You could easily validate Pittsburgh being the greatest sports city in the world (at that point) because the Pirates, Steelers and Penguins all made the playoffs.”

Wilson is now head coach of the baseball team at his high school alma mater, Thousand Oaks in California. He will talk to his players about individual success or maybe bring in his Silver Slugger Award, but he makes sure they understand that team success is most important.

Wilson gets to coach his son, Jacob, who will be a junior this season. The former major leaguer wants to coach in college someday, but for now he loves working with the high school kids.

“I love that age,” Wilson said. “I love the kids that love to play the game and are trying to get to the next level.

“I feel at home on a baseball field. I actually think I was meant to be a coach. I love the fact that I was able to play in the big leagues and learn from the best minds in the game, and now I can turn around and share that with these young men.”

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.