Chasing A Dream

Wilson charts course in minor leagues

Many boys dream of someday becoming a Major League baseball player. As the years go by, most of those dreams dissipate, leaving only a few with the hope of making it to The Show. But for some, like former Harvard third baseman Steffan Wilson, the dream is worth holding on to, no matter how remote it may seem.

After being selected by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 28th round of the 2007 MLB First-Year Player Draft on June 8, Wilson chose to sign a contract with the Brewers, thereby forgoing his senior season with the Crimson. For Wilson, it meant the opportunity to play professionally and chase a promotion to the big leagues, his goal since the first time he picked up a bat.

A TOUGH DECISION

Despite being named the Ivy League’s best professional prospect by Baseball America before the 2007 season, Wilson’s choice to leave Harvard early was hardly clear-cut. His junior campaign was subpar by his standards and failed to live up to the preseason hype. Although he batted .331, he managed only three home runs and 17 RBI with a .484 slugging percentage—all career lows for the powerful right-handed hitter.

Had Wilson stayed with the Crimson another season, he might have been able to improve on those numbers and, consequently, his draft status.

“It was definitely a tough decision and I talked to [Harvard coach Joe Walsh] about it,” Wilson said. “He was supportive of whatever I decided to do. It’s tough because I lived with some of the guys on the [Harvard] team and I loved living with those guys.”

But in the end Wilson made the jump. He signed a minor league contract with the Brewers and was assigned to the organization’s rookie-level affiliate, the Helena Brewers, in the distant Pioneer League.

Wilson’s move surprised some in scouting circles.

“He’s not a prospect,” wrote Keith Law, ESPN.com columnist and senior baseball analyst for Scouts Inc., in an e-mail. “I was shocked that he came out early, especially after that bad junior year.”

But despite some negative evaluations, those closest to Wilson—including his Harvard coaches and teammates—fully endorsed his decision, insisting that by going pro Wilson is now where he belongs.

“We all knew from watching him take [batting practice] every day that he’s been a pro hitter ever since he showed up at Harvard,” said rising senior pitcher Shawn Haviland.

A NEW START

Wilson made a big first impression in the Pioneer League. After mediocre showings in his first few games, Wilson went on a tear, bringing a seven-game hitting streak into Helena’s July 14 game against the Casper Rockies. In his first at-bat, he smashed a two-run shot over the left field wall for his first professional home run. The next day, he hit two more longballs. By the time July came to a close, Wilson had established himself as a power threat and a mainstay in the Brewers lineup, finishing up the month batting .389 with five home runs and 22 RBI. His hitting prowess helped Helena secure a berth into the Pioneer League playoffs as the first half’s North Division champs.

“I’ve enjoyed watching him play,” said Steve Wendt, Helena’s Director of Broadcasting and Media Relations and the voice of the Brewers on local radio. “He plays extremely hard every day. He handles himself in a very professional manner.”

Wilson’s torrid run has abated lately, and his batting average is down to .352 through August 14. But according to Wendt, struggling is just as much a part of the learning process for a young player as success.

“He was so hot that the baseball gods aren’t going to let you stay like that,” Wendt said. “You can tell [Wilson] is a rookie level player because he’s pressing a little bit right now, but I’m very impressed with how he handles himself.”

On top of adjusting to the professional game at the plate, and moving to Montana, Wilson has also had to adapt to the lifestyle of a minor leaguer. So far, it appears that the transition has been a smooth one. Without having to deal with the academic rigors that he faced at Harvard, Wilson is now able to focus solely on baseball.

“I joke with him. I say, ‘This must be easy now that you don’t have to worry about your course load at Harvard,’” Wendt said. “You see a lot of these guys where it is kind of a weight lifted off their shoulders.”

Wilson has also enjoyed some of the perks of the pro game.

“We clinched [the Pioneer League playoff berth] and there was champagne waiting for us in the locker room,” he said. “We don’t get to do that in college necessarily. Just the way pro ball is run in general is a style I really like.”

CLIMBING THE LADDER

Although Wilson has found success with the Brewers thus far, he has no designs on playing rookie ball forever. Like every other player toiling in the minors, Wilson hopes to some day make it to the big leagues.

How realistic those hopes are remains to be seen.

At 6’1 and 220 pounds, Wilson certainly has the build of a major leaguer, and he has shown the ability to drive the ball with power. He has also played extensively at first base as well as third, demonstrating his versatility in the field. But with no shortage of slugging corner infielders in the minor league ranks, Wilson will have to prove himself at every level and distinguish himself from the rest of the pack.

“[Playing in the majors is] everybody’s dream,” Wilson said. “It’s tough because when you get here you see so many good players. The minor league system is absolutely necessary to see who can keep climbing the ladder.”

Wendt thinks that while Wilson’s rise through the system may not be meteoric, he may have the talent to one day latch on with a major league team, whether it’s Milwaukee or another club.

“To me Steffan’s a guy who can make it to the higher levels of the minor leagues and from there you never know,” Wendt said. “The goal is to get to the major leagues and not always with the team who drafted you.”

Wilson has little to refer to in the way of precedent: There are only a handful of former Crimson players in the minor league system and the last Harvard product to reach the major leagues was Jeff Musselman ’85. If Wilson wants to make it out of the Pioneer League, he will have to become somewhat of a pioneer himself and create his own identity as a pro.

“Hopefully I’m able to push through it and do it,” Wilson said. “Maybe only in dreams, but right now it’s a dream just to be playing.”

—Staff writer Loren Amor can be reached at lamor@fas.harvard.edu.

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