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Mookie gives candid look at career, life in new book

NEW YORK -- Mookie Wilson is ready to express himself.

Wilson, one of the most charismatic players from the last Mets team to win a World Series, has delivered a refreshingly rich and candid history of his life and times in baseball.

Wilson tackles it all, from his hardscrabble youth in South Carolina all the way through his current pursuit of a degree in divinity -- his third academic degree, if you're counting at home -- in "Mookie: Life, Baseball and the '86 Mets," an autobiography co-authored with Erik Sherman.

Wilson, the consummate professional, was never much for a colorful soundbite as a player, but in retirement, he finally feels free to dish on his teammates and his life along the way to stardom.

The fleet-footed former outfielder sat down with an reporter to discuss his upcoming book, and Wilson said he was pleased that his voice came all the way through the writing process.

"That was my goal when I was searching for a writer," said Wilson. "I wanted this book to be me. I don't want it to sound like a Harvard graduate. I just didn't want that. I wanted a book that anybody could read and understand where I was coming from. I don't speak with words with 19 syllables."

Wilson, who now works as a preacher and as a goodwill ambassador for the Mets, begins his book in inevitable fashion: By discussing the play that most baseball fans ask him about. Wilson spends two chapters speaking about Game 6 of the 1986 World Series and the ball that rolled between Bill Buckner's legs, and after that, about the close friendship that's developed between them.

Wilson and Buckner have become an unlikely tag team at autograph signings, and over time, they've grown to appreciate each other for their shared bond in history. At first, they were wary to sign things together in public, but now they're comfortable enough to co-star in "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

"It's something that just happened," said Wilson when interviewed at The London NYC Hotel in Manhattan's Theater District. "We were pushed together, and we're victims of circumstance. The relationship has grown because of it. We never would've spoken the way we did if we hadn't gotten together to sign autographs one day. ...We were back the next month, doing the same thing again. All of a sudden, it's like, 'Can we have these two guys at the same store?' And fans would say things like, 'I can't believe you guys are sitting and talking together.' But that didn't happen right away."

That may not have happened right away, but when you read Wilson's story, it's amazing that it happened at all. Wilson tells his story of how he grew up in rural South Carolina with 11 siblings, and how he often had to miss school so he could help his father work to put food on the table.

Wilson never played organized baseball until high school, and without assistance from a local judge, he never would've been able to play American Legion ball. Wilson encountered further adversity when he was offered a scholarship to South Carolina State right as the school disbanded its baseball program.

But he would not be deterred. Wilson starred at a junior college and later transferred to University of South Carolina in 1977, where he became the first African-American player in that school's history nearly 30 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the Major Leagues.

Wilson talks about all of that -- and about his overpowering love for his family -- in his book.

"I always thought about writing a book for a long time, but the question was what I wanted my book to be," he said. "I didn't want it to be a baseball play-by-play. I wanted the book to have some meaning, a purpose, a direction for people to be inspired and entertained. I wanted them to leave with some insight. That's what I wanted my life to be, and I wanted my life to come across through the book."

His father, James Wilson, comes across as a particularly heroic role model who helped provide for his family by working the land and learning skills like carpentry and masonry.

The elder Wilson made just $25 a week when Mookie was growing up, but that doesn't mean it was an easy decision for him to leave college to sign a professional deal with the Mets. Wilson ultimately signed a contract for $22,000, but he said his father would've preferred he graduated college.

"What I've gone through is not a recipe for success," said Wilson. "Every standard in America would say, 'This kid is going to end up a statistic.' But I didn't, and that's because of my father. He didn't have a big, bold future for me. He didn't say, 'If you do this, you're going to be a doctor.' His goal was just to be a good person. And that was it, but he knew I had to be educated in order to do that."

Wilson talks about his marriage and life in the Minor Leagues in the book, but the story kicks into high gear once he makes it to the Major Leagues. The outfielder's first big league manager was Joe Torre, and he played with teammates like Dave Kingman and Rusty Staub in his early days with the Mets.

And while Wilson would later scale the top of the baseball mountaintop, his early days with the Mets were anything but ideal. Wilson, a team player through and through, said it was so difficult losing in the big leagues with the Mets in 1980 and '81 that he would've preferred playing in the Minor Leagues.

"I was accustomed to winning. I had won in every league I'd been in," he said of the early Mets years. "When you celebrate because you didn't lose 100 ballgames, that's not good. Some of the players couldn't care less about winning. When you get comfortable at losing and there's no threat to your job, there's not much incentive. You come to the ballpark, you play nine innings, you lose and you don't see anybody coming up to remove you from your job. That may be overstating it a little bit, but that's the way I saw it. Winning was not a priority. They wanted to win, but maybe they didn't know how."

The winning -- the part that draws most readers to the book -- is given a long and detailed remembrance. Wilson speaks about learning from players like Tom Seaver who were brought in to help teach leadership, and he talks about seeing players like Dwight Gooden and Daryl Strawberry grow.

Wilson expresses remorse for not being able to help guide Gooden and Strawberry away from the substance-abuse problems that sidelined their careers, and he talks about what it was like to play in a clubhouse with fiery personalities like Keith Hernandez, Ray Knight and Lenny Dykstra.

And it's that last relationship -- the juxtaposition with Dykstra -- that proves to be the most interesting. Dykstra and Wilson competed for playing time with the '86 Mets, and they both felt the same way: They wanted the lion's share of playing time. Wilson was able to hide his feelings for the good of the team while Dykstra expressed himself, but Wilson said they never had any friction between them.

"They don't know how they're characterized in the book, but the one thing they know is that I'm going to be honest," said Wilson of writing about his teammates. "I'm descriptive, but I don't think there's one description of a player in there where they'd say, 'You know I wasn't like that,' or come debate it. I think I was fairly accurate in everything I said about them. It would be nice if everything you had to say about everybody was nice. But there are some people that you give a less than nice impression to, and that doesn't make it not true. Anything that I've written that's in this book is the truth and the absolute truth. There is no doctoring or equivocation to make it a more interesting book. It is what it is."

Wilson dedicates an entire chapter to Game 6 of the National League Championship Series against Houston in 1986, and he goes on to detail his World Series experience and his post-Mets career with Toronto. Wilson later came back to the Mets as a coach and a Minor League manager, and he expresses a regret and disappointment that he doesn't have a larger voice in shaping the team today.

But the tone of Wilson's book isn't regret as much as it is triumph. Wilson writes that he is wholely content in his new role as a preacher, and he loves being able to speak to his congregation. Now, with his book hitting the shelves, Wilson has an opportunity to speak to America in his distinctive voice.

"The goal was to make it seem like you're having a glass of iced tea in Mookie's backyard and he's telling you his life story. And that's the feedback we've gotten," said co-author Erik Sherman of the book's conversational tone. "Mookie could've had any writer he wanted, but there's a tendency for some of these writers to inject themselves. That's not what he wanted. He wanted it to be in his voice."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for
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