Texas Rangers pitcher CJ Wilson grew up in Huntington Beach, CA, where he played in the Seaview Little League. When talking about playing baseball as a youngster, he says, “My first year of Little League, I actually wasn’t that good at all, and the coach was so discouraging. He told me, ‘Maybe you should play soccer.'”
That off-season, his dad bought him a hitting book, The Techniques of Modern Hitting, by Wade Boggs. After that, CJ hit much better and his baseball career took off from there.
During CJ’s freshmen year of high school, he was 5 foot 2 ½ inches and 105 pounds. “I was one of the smallest kids in the whole grade but I didn’t let it get me down. I just did a lot of push-ups, pull-ups and bar-dips in P.E. class.” When it came to high school baseball, he says, “I wasn’t even the best kid on my team. I just worked; I just wanted it. I found a way to do it. I just never quit. I had guys on my high school team that were literally better than me but they just didn’t care. I cared; I just wanted it so bad. It has always been a goal of mine so I didn’t let anything stop me.”
Ron LaRuffa, CJ’s high school baseball coach at Fountain Valley High School in Fountain Valley, CA, says, “CJ transferred here for his junior year. He had very good work ethic and was self-motivated. His I.Q. was off the charts. He was very smart. He pitched here and played outfield. He was a really good hitter.” When LaRuffa talks about CJ’s journey, there is no lack of compliments. “He was very smart and always figured things out. He continued to get better and better. He’s done a lot for the Rangers. He’s very intelligent and keeps pushing the envelope.” Coach LaRuffa also says, “CJ told me it’s not about becoming a star; it’s about playing a challenging game at the highest level.”
CJ graduated from Fountain Valley High School in 1998; although he was skilled and worked hard, he wasn’t drafted by any major league team and was only given the chance to walk on at Division I schools. When he was 17, he decided to play baseball at Santa Ana Junior College. By going to Junior college, he was able to grow and develop his game to where it needed to be. It allowed him to put in the time and work to be able to play at a major league level. He played there in 1999 and 2000. His then-coach Don Sneddon says, “CJ was a driven athlete. He loved to play and be competitive every day. He did it and did it well. He was a working man. He made himself what he is today. He had the work ethic, commitment and self-belief that he could do anything and he’s doing it. It doesn’t surprise me.” When talking about CJ being in the big leagues, Coach Sneddon says “He doesn’t forget about his roots. He comes back and stays involved with the program. He’s very generous with his time and money. He shares his knowledge and is very unselfish. He keeps the dream possible for all players.” CJ’s former coach also seemed very proud and impressed when he spoke about CJ: “He doesn’t get caught up in the limelight; he just shows that with commitment and work ethic, anything is possible.”
In CJ’s second year at Santa Ana College, he was named MVP of the league and the statewide Junior College Association. He had high hopes of being selected in the 2000 draft. When that didn’t happen, CJ became more motivated to improve.
He was offered a scholarship at Loyola Marymount University to play for the Lions. That season, he had a .289 batting average as a hitter and finished the season 3-9 with a 6.95 ERA. Although it wasn’t a great season, CJ was still selected by the Rangers in the 2001 draft. They took him in the 5th round with the 141st overall pick. According to CJ, in only 5 weeks, he was promoted from rookie ball to Low-A ball mid-season, but then suffered a stress fracture in his leg. In 2002, he was a High-A ball All-Star and threw a complete game, notching a playoff win in AA. In 2003, he was a AA ace to open the season, but then had Tommy John Surgery in August of that year. He missed the whole 2004 season with setbacks from surgery, including nerve damage. In 2005, after 18 months of missing baseball, CJ was back on the mound. He logged some innings in 2005 and 2006 before becoming the Rangers’ closer in 2007 after Eric Gagne was traded. He stepped in for Gagne, recording a save in each of his first 11 chances. As the Rangers’ closer in 2008, he converted 24 of 28 save opportunities. In 2009, he had 14 saves with a 2.81 ERA but kept asking the Rangers’ president, pitching legend Nolan Ryan, about becoming a starter. “He’s been great with me and he was probably the first guy that believed in me, like really really believed in me to be a starting pitcher, to transfer from the bullpen to the rotation.” Says CJ, “Once (Nolan) showed a little encouragement towards that idea, I was pestering him about it all year in ’09. I’d be like ‘Hey, what do I have to do to start?’” CJ then said Nolan told him that they’d talk about it during spring training of 2010. Obviously, CJ’s pestering worked, because last year he was named to the starting rotation.
CJ lost his first game of the year, on April 16th against the Yankees, but then had three wins in a row between April 22nd and May 7th. Following those wins, he lost two consecutive starts but then rattled off wins in 11 out of 13 games, including seven in a row from July 18th to August 30th. He finished the regular season with a 15-8 record, led Rangers starting pitchers in games started, innings pitched, and ERA, and was second in strikeouts behind Colby Lewis. The Rangers were 24-9 in the 33 regular season games in which CJ pitched.
When asked about the 2010 season, CJ says, “This year, to go to the playoffs for the first time and all the way through the playoffs to the World Series, was like a dream come true…except for the part where we lost. It doesn’t seem real sometimes, because I just think I’m sort of just like a regular dude, so to be like a popular baseball player or something, every once in a while I flash back to the difficult moments and it makes me really happy to be here right now to be here through everything.”
Since the Rangers’ former ace Cliff Lee signed with the Phillies in December of 2010, CJ is now the Rangers’ number 1 pitcher. He signed a 1 year, $7 million deal and is looking to have another strong campaign in 2011. If he pitches like he did last season he’ll set himself up to cash in on a huge new contract in the off season.
Not bad for a kid whose Little League coach suggested he play soccer.