TAMPA, Fla. — On Monday morning, Aaron Boone arrived early at George M. Steinbrenner Field. The first-year Yankees manager was still feeling out his routine, but he expected to be among the first in the clubhouse, considering his team's fourth spring training game, against the Phillies, wasn't scheduled until 6:35 that night. Instead, as he strode into the weight room, he discovered one of his minor league prospects already sweating through a workout. It was Russell Wilson.
After some small talk, Boone told Wilson about the players he'd be hitting with in batting practice: Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird.
"You better be on it today," Boone said. "I'm throwing you in with the big boys."
Wilson replied, "They better be ready for me."
The Seattle Seahawks quarterback had been daydreaming about this debut for the better part of a month. While in the Bahamas recovering from the sting of missing the playoffs for the first time in his NFL career and preparing for the Pro Bowl, Wilson received a call from his agent, Mark Rodgers, informing him of the chance that his baseball rights could be traded from the Texas Rangers to New York. Three days after the Super Bowl, when the trade was finalized, Wilson began poring through his schedule, and the team's, to find a time when he could come to its spring home in Tampa.
"Baseball has always been deep in my heart and deep in my veins," he said. "It goes back to the foundation of who I am and where I've come from."
As a child, Wilson was a fair-weather football fan, switching allegiances from the 49ers to the Cowboys to the Packers. But he only ever had one baseball team, and he repeatedly promised his father that he'd one day be a New York Yankee.
In high school, he was a three-sport athlete, switching from football in the fall to basketball in the winter and baseball in spring. And he tried to straddle his two favorite sports for as long as possible. After graduating, he declined a $350,000 signing bonus from the Orioles, who had drafted him in the 41st round in 2007, to play for N.C. State. He famously left the Wolfpack for Wisconsin after a dispute with coaches about whether he should continue to play baseball.
And even though he is now clearly committed to football full-time, Wilson couldn't pass up an opportunity to put on the pinstripes.
After his workout Monday morning, Wilson slipped into his Yankees uniform for the first time. He thought about his father, who died due to complications of diabetes in 2010, and how proud he would have been. Wilson had chosen No. 73 because 7 was his high school baseball number and 3 is his football number. ("I tried to get No. 3, but someone already had it," Wilson joked, referring to the number retired in honor of Babe Ruth.) Once dressed, he addressed his teammates as a group, telling them that he intended not only to have fun for the week, but also to teach and to learn.
"Besides being in the [batting practice] group with Aaron Judge and Stanton and Sanchez and those guys—the thing I'm excited about the most is really learning about the Yankees and how they've won 27 world championships," Wilson said. "You think about 27 world championships, what that takes, the mentality—there's something, there's an aroma around here, and I can't wait to figure it out and learn more about it and use it for my football career."
Shortstop Didi Gregorius was the first Yankee to get some work in with Wilson. In the early afternoon, the pair practiced turning double plays together. After a few rounds, Gregorius noticed how smooth Wilson's footwork looked and how powerful his throws appeared. He asked Wilson how much he'd practiced to prepare for the week.
"He told me he hadn't played baseball in a year and a half," Gregorius said. "And I just looked at him and laughed. I was like: 'You're lying, man! No way.'"
Wilson conceded, at least, that he had taken a few front-toss pitches over the weekend to prepare for batting practice. At BP, he looked every bit the part. Wearing pink sunglasses and swinging a Louisville Slugger, he got good contact on several of his first few hits, but it took him 17 tries to get his first home run. After that, he went yard on three of his next four pitches. And in his final round, a bottom-of-the-ninth, two-out scenario, he closed the day by blasting one into center field. In total, he sent six pitches out of the park.
"This is what I know, and what I've known my whole life," Wilson said. "Now I couldn't just go step on the basketball court—I wouldn't be good at basketball. But baseball, that's like riding a bike."
After the first day, many of his temporary teammates walked away with the impression that Wilson could make a major league roster if he devoted all his energy to the endeavor.
"I don't make those kinds of decisions," Gregorius said, "but it's obvious to me that he could make it. He's really talented, and he hardly plays."
Said Judge: "For him to go from running away from 300-pound guys chasing him and throwing passes and go straight into taking ground balls and hitting homers, it's extraordinary. He'd definitely have a shot."
For Boone, the most meaningful thing Wilson did on the baseball field was just walking onto it. Although this is a young Yankees roster, and although it's still very early in spring training, baseball players are creatures of habit. It can be hard to straddle the line between routine and complacency. Wilson talked to many players, including Judge and Stanton, about how he hates to waste even a single waking minute. He showed that to all of them through his overwhelming desire to be at spring training and his eagerness to attack every drill.
"He's almost giddy," Boone said. "You can tell. This is like the first day of school."
On his second day, Wilson's enthusiasm didn't wane, even when things went wrong. After hitting two home runs in batting practice, Wilson began running through infield drills again. After a few fairly routine plays, Wilson tried to scoop a grounder only to watch the ball bounce off the heel of the glove and fly up to smack him in the face. Play paused as teammates and coaches quickly stood at attention and asked if he was OK.
"Don't worry," Wilson joked. "I've been hit harder than that before."
Even a slap in the face couldn't snap Wilson out of the pure joy of being back on a baseball field. A few plays later, he sprinted forward and cleanly fielded another grounder. This time, with some flair, he flipped it behind his back to Gregorius for the turn to first.
As the fans in the stands let out an audible "Wow," Russell Wilson turned and slyly smiled.