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Yankees Magazine: Don't Stop Believin'

Russell Wilson's visit to Spring Training offered valuable lessons about the importance of being confident -- and fulfilled a lifelong dream
Yankees Magazine

It was early on a Monday morning in Tampa, Fla. The Yankees were already a few days into Spring Training, and the roster of players at George M. Steinbrenner Field was filled with stars. From day one, an increased number of journalists and photographers were on hand to trail Giancarlo Stanton, trying to grab any possible quote from or image of the reigning National League MVP. If there was an opportunity to get a glimpse of him on the main field shagging fly balls, the press corps was there. If the slugger was in the dugout having a conversation with Aaron Judge, the sound of cameras clicking could be heard. And, of course, if Stanton was anywhere near a batting cage, all eyes were on him.

But the media's focus on this hot and humid morning had changed. On this day, reporters were taking a break from the Stanton beat and were instead on a back field chronicling the every move of a 5-foot-11 second baseman whose last official at-bat came as a member of the Single-A Asheville Tourists in 2011. The guy getting all of the attention was wearing No. 73, not exactly a number given to a star player. But regardless of his lack of Big League experience or his high number, on this day -- or any other day -- the new player's star shined about as bright as Stanton's.

It was early on a Monday morning in Tampa, Fla. The Yankees were already a few days into Spring Training, and the roster of players at George M. Steinbrenner Field was filled with stars. From day one, an increased number of journalists and photographers were on hand to trail Giancarlo Stanton, trying to grab any possible quote from or image of the reigning National League MVP. If there was an opportunity to get a glimpse of him on the main field shagging fly balls, the press corps was there. If the slugger was in the dugout having a conversation with Aaron Judge, the sound of cameras clicking could be heard. And, of course, if Stanton was anywhere near a batting cage, all eyes were on him.

But the media's focus on this hot and humid morning had changed. On this day, reporters were taking a break from the Stanton beat and were instead on a back field chronicling the every move of a 5-foot-11 second baseman whose last official at-bat came as a member of the Single-A Asheville Tourists in 2011. The guy getting all of the attention was wearing No. 73, not exactly a number given to a star player. But regardless of his lack of Big League experience or his high number, on this day -- or any other day -- the new player's star shined about as bright as Stanton's.

After revealing it was a dream of his to someday wear the pinstripes, Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson, who led the Seattle Seahawks to their only Super Bowl title in 2014, began living out that fantasy on Feb. 26.

An accomplished baseball player throughout his life, Wilson was first selected out of high school by the Baltimore Orioles in the 41st round of the 2007 MLB Draft. He didn't sign with the team, instead electing to attend North Carolina State, where he played quarterback. Three years later, the Colorado Rockies selected Wilson in the fourth round. He signed with the team and spent two summers playing second base in the Rockies' Minor League system.

In 2010, Wilson batted .230 with two home runs in 32 short-season Single-A games. The following season, he batted .228 with three home runs for the Rockies' Single-A affiliate, appearing in 61 games.

A few months later, Wilson informed the organization that he would be pursuing a career in the NFL, and after finishing his collegiate career at the University of Wisconsin, he found superstardom in the Pacific Northwest.

Despite all of his gridiron success, Wilson never completely abandoned the idea of playing baseball. The Texas Rangers acquired his baseball rights in the 2013 Rule 5 Draft, and he attended Spring Training with his new team in 2014 and 2015.

After staying away from the diamond for a few years, Wilson was traded by the Rangers to the Yankees in February, and the quarterback immediately accepted an invitation to come to Spring Training in Tampa.

And so, after putting on a Yankees uniform at his locker for the first time on Feb. 26, Wilson joined Didi Gregorius and a few other infielders on that back field at the Yankees' Spring Training complex. There, he fielded a hundred or so ground balls, made flip throws to the Yankees' shortstop and completed double plays with hard throws to first base.

After one of Wilson's perfectly accurate throws to first, Gregorius began to laugh.

"What an arm!" Gregorius shouted. Wilson just smiled.

As the workout rolled along, the second baseman continued to impress as his infield play looked more like that of the other players with each ground ball hit to him. At the end of the session, No. 73 walked off the field with the other infielders, en route to the home clubhouse for a brief break in the action.

Wilson's next order of business was to address the large contingent of media gathered for a press conference. But first, Yankees manager Aaron Boone asked his newest player to address the team.

In his five-minute speech, Wilson talked about his excitement to be wearing the pinstripes and to be part of a team he always dreamed of playing for. He detailed how when he was growing up, he told his father, who passed away in 2010, that he would someday be a Yankee.

"This is one of the greatest things I've ever had the opportunity to do," Wilson said. "This is one of my biggest dreams. I always told my dad that I'd play for the New York Yankees one day, and to be here and to be playing for the greatest organization in baseball is a blessing."

Then, he talked about his experiences in football. In that part of the address, Wilson spoke about winning; specifically, how he helped lead the Seahawks to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances.

Wilson discussed how he is obsessively driven to win a second Super Bowl, and how that same focus will be needed in order for the Yankees to win their next championship. He also shared what he believes to be the keys to his success, and he offered to help the players sitting in front of him in any way he could.

"The most important thing I shared with them is that consistency is everything," Wilson told Yankees Magazine the next day. "Consistency in your approach. You have to have consistency in your process and trust that process. And ultimately, you have to play with passion. Play with great passion and believe that great things will happen - and they will."

A few minutes after Wilson's address to the team, Boone huddled with his quarterback/second baseman to go over plans for the rest of the day. Boone informed Wilson that he would be taking batting practice before that night's game in a group that would include Stanton, Judge, All-Star catcher Gary Sanchez and slugging first baseman Greg Bird.

"I told him that he better be on today because I'm putting him out there with the big boys," Boone said later that afternoon. "Russell told me that they better be on today."

Boone loved Wilson's confidence, so much so that he shared the quip with any player within earshot as he stood near the batting cage.

"I hope we steal a lot of his wisdom and his traits," Boone said. "I hope that they rub off on us. When you're talking about NFL quarterbacks, you're talking about the biggest sports stars in our society. To have a guy like Russell, a guy with such great character, it's very exciting. We're tickled to have him here for a few days. I'm quite certain that our guys will benefit from him being around, and you can tell that he's genuinely excited to be part of this team. We have a lot of high-character guys on our team, and in that way, Russell fits in perfectly. I'm excited to see how the next few days unfold."

As Boone shared his excitement about the guest player, Wilson was in right field, stretching with his teammates. Following the team exercise, Wilson partnered up with center fielder Aaron Hicks, a player known for having one of the best arms in baseball. Each throw back and forth came in faster than the last until the players dispersed to their respective positions for infield and outfield practice.

With his two young children sitting in the seats behind the first-base dugout and donning their own No. 73 Yankees jerseys, Wilson ran into the dugout and grabbed two bats inscribed "Russell Wilson, New York Yankees." He walked out to the batting cage as calmly as he could and waited his turn.

Finally, the moment that Wilson was most anxious for arrived - the start of batting practice. Judge walked out of the cage after hitting several pitches into a black net high above the center-field wall. With his teammates watching closely, Wilson stepped into the right-handed batter's box and -- as is the norm -- laid down a bunt. Following another bunt, he hit a ground ball to the left side. Then, he began to hit line drives to center field and left field.

When his first round came to an end, Wilson walked out of the cage with a smile on his face. He not only hung with the big boys, but he may have actually impressed them.

Stanton got into the cage next and slaughtered just about every pitch that crossed the plate. While Stanton was hitting, Wilson gathered some words of wisdom from Yankees special advisor Reggie Jackson, who hit 563 home runs in his career.

"That was pretty cool," Wilson said. "Any time you get to be around a legend and a Hall of Famer, especially in this environment, it's special."

In his second round of BP, Wilson hit three baseballs over the left-field wall, one of which also cleared a deck on the second level of GMS Field.

This time, when Wilson walked out of the cage, Sanchez greeted him with a fist bump.

Not to be outdone, Stanton, also a right-handed batter, came back into the cage and gracefully launched a baseball high into the air. It seemed to travel forever, sailing out of the ballpark entirely and probably landing somewhere in a back parking lot.

Wilson returned to the cage and hit three more batting practice home runs, finishing with six.

"I was ready to hit and to have some fun today," Wilson said. "But it was great watching those guys hit. You've got some future Hall of Famers in that batting cage. Just to be around them, hitting with them and working on fundamentals with them was great. I was really having fun out there."

Wilson also enjoyed hearing the reactions of the other players.

"Reggie kept saying, 'You can do this thing man,'" Wilson said. "He kept telling me that I could hit in the Big Leagues. Stanton and Judge were having fun with me whenever I hit one out. When I hit one over the second deck out in left, they were asking me if I had been doing this for a few years, hiding out and playing somewhere."

Of course, with football at the top of Wilson's priority list, he had little time to work on his swing.

"I was only able to practice one day before I came here," said Wilson, wearing a dark blue batting practice jersey and pinstriped pants. "But I think I was prepared in the sense that I've played baseball my whole life. It's not an easy sport by any means, but it's something that I've done since I was four years old. This is what I love to do. I love being out on the field. It brings great memories from my childhood back to me. I may not have the time to practice, but I believe that I definitely have the skill set."

By the time Wilson completed batting practice, his two young children were escorted out to the field. Wilson hugged each of them and walked with them down the first-base line for a short visit. With the Yankees' chief photographer a few feet away, the quarterback, who is married to singer and songwriter Ciara, posed for a few photos with his children. He then asked Judge, who was in the dugout, to join them.

"You're a natural," Judge said as the two stars walked back to the dugout. "I still think you've been hiding out on one of the back fields and practicing."

With about an hour left before that night's game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Wilson -- who at that time did not plan to appear in any of the exhibition games during his time with the team -- signed several autographs for fans, some hoping to have Wilson write his name on baseballs and others holding out footballs and Seattle Seahawks jerseys.

From there, he joined Judge, Stanton and Sanchez in the indoor batting cages. He studied their swings as they hit off batting tees.

And then, in another dream-come-true moment, Wilson made his way out to the field and stood alongside his Yankees teammates for the national anthem.

"It really hit me at that point," Wilson said. "That's when I realized that I was a Yankee."

Video: Russell Wilson homers in Yanks' batting practice

As the game got underway, Wilson watched each pitch from the dugout. He spent time with several different players on the bench and on the top step.

Less than 12 hours after he left the ballpark for the evening, Wilson was back at Steinbrenner Field. In many ways, day two was just like the first. Wilson's day began with infield practice on a back field, and batting practice followed that. But for all the similarities, there were stark differences.

While Wilson still took batting practice with the same group of stars, the winds had literally changed from one day to the next. With the wind blowing in, Wilson did not clear the fences. And the media circus that surrounded Wilson on his first day was gone, off to cover a road game that most of the team's stars did not take part in.

Following the morning workout, Wilson signed more autographs and then retreated to the home dugout on the main field of the Yankees' Spring Training complex.

Reflecting on the day he finally became a Yankee, Wilson discussed his favorite part of the experience.

"Being around the players was the best part of the day," Wilson said. "There are so many great players on this team, from Brett Gardner to Aaron Judge to Giancarlo Stanton to Gary Sanchez to the younger guys. Being around those great hitters in the cage and turning double plays with Didi Gregorius, one of the best shortstops in baseball, were amazing experiences."

When he wasn't taking part in baseball drills, Wilson found himself gravitating toward two specific players.

"Aaron Judge and I spent a lot of time together in the locker room, on the field and in the batting cage just talking about the process," Wilson said about the Yankees outfielder, who was recruited out of high school to play football at Stanford University. "He asked me some questions about how I get prepared, and we shared a lot of our thoughts about the mental side of the game and the mental approach it takes to be successful in football and baseball. I learned so much from those conversations.

"I had some great conversations with Brett Gardner, as well," Wilson continued. "We talked about what success looks like and how do you have continual success and what it takes to make that happen. He's a great person and a great player, just like so many other guys in that locker room."

While other players began to leave the complex for the day, Wilson continued to wax poetic about the realization of a dream. In addition to any advice he provided to the young Yankees he was with, Wilson knew that he would be able to take away important intangibles from the experience.

"I really believe that success leaves clues," Wilson said. "It's been great to be able to talk to Reggie Jackson and Willie Randolph, guys who won championships in the '70s. We talked about why they were successful. We talked about what it took to win then and what it takes now. And it's still the same. Discipline, hard work and pride were the keys to their success, and those were the same things that CC Sabathia talked to me about. I can definitely take that back to the Seattle Seahawks. When you think about the best sports organizations in the world, the New York Yankees is the first one that comes to my mind. Being around this team can only make me better."

Wilson's week with the Yankees got even more impactful and exciting. On Thursday, he addressed the organization's Minor Leaguers at the Yankees' player development complex. And, although Wilson was not originally expected to step up to the plate in a game, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll gave his quarterback the approval to do so. The Yankees were also on board.

On Wilson's second-to-last day with the team, Boone called on the quarterback to pinch-hit for Judge leading off the bottom of the fifth inning against the Atlanta Braves. Following an ovation from the home crowd, Wilson stepped into the box to face Braves southpaw Max Fried, a 2012 first-round pick.

The 24-year-old pitcher immediately challenged Wilson with a fastball. Wilson fouled the pitch straight back.

Fried followed with a curveball that Wilson took for the second strike. Wilson worked the count even but ultimately struck out on a 93 mph fastball.

Despite the strikeout, Wilson remained positive about the at-bat.

"The best thing for me is that I had no fear up there," Wilson said. "I went up there with confidence and trusted myself. I was ready, and I will always remember when they announced my name. I used to go crazy when Derek Jeter was announced and would walk up to the plate. To have that feeling and that experience, I'll never ever forget it. It will be a memory of mine forever."

On his final day in camp, Wilson was asked how he thought things would have turned out had he chosen baseball instead of football. And for Aaron Boone, a first-time manager trying to instill as much confidence in his young team as possible, Wilson's answer epitomized what it meant for him to be on the team, even if it was only for one week.

"I think I would have been successful in baseball for sure," Wilson said. "I don't believe in any other option. That's just what I believe."

Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the April 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

New York Yankees, Russell Wilson