Every boy dreams of becoming a professional athlete when he grows up. Every boy dreams of playing for his favorite team in front of the home crowd. Every boy dreams of hitting a homerun, scoring a touchdown, hitting a clutch shot, making a crucial save, edging out his opponent with a heroiclast second push to win.
For most men, these dreams fade with age, recurring only now and then with strong scents of nostalgia. Others feed the dream. They keep it alive, coaxing it, fueling it to life through both hard workand natural talent.
David Freese, a one-time Memphis Redbird, exhibited the dream like no other. He was the hero of the 2011 World Series, saving his hometown St. Louis Cardinals from the brink of elimination with timely hitting, propelling them to the championship and winning the World Series MVP along the way.
Now, the Redbirds have a hometown dreamer of their own. Although he hasn’t yet had the dramatic heroics Freese experienced, Jacob Wilson has already notched a memorable moment in his young Memphis Redbirds career.
“I remember the first game I got called up here,” he recalled. “My mom couldn’t get off work. My dad came and my last at bat I hit a home run. I remember he was sitting behind home plate. I remember looking up and he was standing up, a smile on his face, clapping, and I somehow picked him out of everyone in the crowd. It’s a sense of accomplishment that I’m making them proud with what I’m doing every night.” Although it’s a dream come true for him to play for the team that his family held season tickets to while he grew up, Wilson said he can’t wait for a shot with the St. Louis Cardinals, Memphis’ Major League affiliate.
“Obviously it’s tough playing minor league baseball,” he said. “You play every day. If you don’t really love what you’re doing, then mentally you won’t be able to deal with that because there is so much stress within the game.
“But at the same time, if you do really love what you’re doing, you put in the work that you need to to be able to get to the next level,” he continued. “The higher you get, you start seeing the separating factor of the guys who are putting in the work compared to the guys who aren’t.”
The 25-year-old Bartlett born-and-raised ballplayer has had interest from the Cardinals since his high school days. He graduated from Bartlett High School in 2008 at the age of 17 when the organization wanted to draft him as a catcher. Considering he’d never caught a day in his life, he decided to take his talents to the University of Memphis where he could see better pitching, get stronger, and work on his swing.
Wilson, an infielder, said the college process made it clear that Memphis was where he wanted to go. The team was renovating its park and offered him a full ride to play. He also said that being in his hometown affected his decision.
Wilson played all four years for the Tigers, even though he could have been taken by the Oakland Athletics in the 21st round of the MLB Draft after his junior season. He said that what the A’s offered him was “way low,” and that he’d have better luck sticking it out one more year in college.
“I ended up going back my senior year and having the best year I had out of my four years there,” he said. “As far as numbers-wise, as far as my body being in shape, my strength, my speed, everything came together for me to have a really good year that year.”
Wilson batted .320 his senior season, hit 17 homeruns and drove in 64 runs-batted-in (RBI) at third-base (although he admits his natural position is second). His play earned him a Third Team Louisville Slugger All- American nomination and the Conference-USA Player of the Year award.
“It was kind of a slap in the face when I didn’t get what I was looking for my junior year,” he said. “It set a fire under me to go back my senior year and make sure I did something about it and didn’t leave any regrets.”
His outstanding play earned him a 10th round selection by St. Louis, the team he wanted to be drafted by. He signed with the franchise and began his climb through the minors, starting with the Batavia Muckdogs in 2012.
In2013, he started with the Peoria Chiefs, then moved up to the Palm Beach Cardinals. Mid- 2014, he got the call-up to AA Springfield where he played until midway through this summer when he made it to AAA, one step away from the big leagues.
“You know you want to move up as fast as you can,” he said. “You want to move up and get out of AAAas fast as you can. It’s not always about moving up, just getting that chance. It’s about finding a way to move up and stay up.”
Wilson has as decent a shot as any Redbird to make the Cardinals 40-man roster this September. As of Aug. 11, he’s batting .231, with 10 homeruns (fourth on the team) and 41 RBI’s (tied for fourth). In addition, he just returned from playing for the United States in the Pan-American games, where the U.S. took the silver medal. He was the only Cardinal prospect to play in the games.
But Wilson will remain patient, knowing that when he gets his chance, he’ll be that much closer to fulfilling his dream. “
It’s one of those things [being called up]. It could be tomorrow. It could be today. It could be two, three years from now,” he said. “There’s honestly no way we know that or will ever know that.
“It’s one of those things where you really have to make sure you show up and you take care of business every night,” he went on. “You can’t really take nights off when you’re at this point because the one day you take a night off is the one day the guy behind you doesn’t, and he can pass you right there. You might not see it for another month or so.
“But it’s so competitive within the organization for spots. The big league club doesn’t want guys who’ll take days off. They want guys who’ll show up and play every day.”
Knowing that he’s so close to the big time, so close to his dream, is a tantalizing motivator for Wilson. He will continue to work hard in order to try to force his way into the Cardinals’ roster. But while he’s in Memphis, he’s already living a dream, one he’s kept alive and burning since his boyhood days at Autozone Park with his family.
“I grew up coming to the games as a kid,” he recounted. “We had season tickets. I saw a lot of the guys that were in the big leagues play here growing up. And it’s always been a dream for me to be able to do this. “
During spring training this year, I talked to my fourth grade teacher,” he continued. “She said she still had a letter that we wrote — she gave us an assignment that said, ‘write a letter of what you want to do when you grow up.’And I had written a letter about how I wanted to be a professional baseball player. That was in fourth grade.
“It was cool that she got in contact with me and said she still remembered that and how proud she was of me,” he concluded. “That was a really cool thing, because I had completely forgotten about that. I knew I always wanted to play baseball, but for something like that to happen, it was just a cool experience to hear that.”
Written by Mac Trammell, special to the Express. Contact him at email@example.com.