Aug. 3, 2012
It was in 1984 when famous actor Robert Redford beautifully depicted the phenomenon that was Roy Hobbs on the big screen, a fictitious figure who possessed a natural ability to play baseball from the first moment he picked up a ball. It is a movie admired by several sports fans worldwide after portraying what so few have - that being a natural ability to play the game.
Florida State assistant softball coach Travis Wilson happens to be one of those rare people who could perform exceedingly well at America's pastime right from the onset, despite it being one of the most difficult sports to master. But after making a huge name for himself on the softball diamond in his native country of New Zealand, Wilson was given an opportunity at the ripe age of 19 to show what he was made of on the baseball field for the Atlanta Braves system.
Interestingly enough, the up-and-comer was a mere 16 years of age when he began his highly successful softball career, easily one of his country's youngest representatives.
"I had to grow up pretty quick being on tour as a 16 year old with guys twice my age," Wilson admitted. "I learned a lot about the game on those tours, how to handle myself in pressure situations and how to hit all kinds of different pitching. It really set me up for 1996."
It was in 1996 when Wilson was becoming a legendary figure for the New Zealand Black Sox, a professional softball team that competed in some of the top tours in the United States. In that year, Wilson guided his hard-nosed squad to the International Softball Federation title following a tournament win in Midland, Mich. In that weekend, Wilson batted .394 with two home runs and 11 RBIs to lead the tournament while the Black Sox defeated the United States and Canada twice apiece.
"It was probably the best softball team New Zealand had ever assembled and it set the stage for an unprecedented run of World titles," Wilson said as he reflected. "We took down the two powerhouses in the game and really set the tone of international softball for years to come."
While his home country's history-making title raised the bar for two more ISF championships in 2000 and 2004, Wilson began to pursue something extremely rare in his native land in achieving his next ambition of being a professional baseball player. Experience in the game of softball can always help in mastering the little intricacies and nuances of baseball, but the shift is never easy when facing a different-sized ball, different distances and overall a much different mentality.
"It was a crazy few weeks following the title. We had a lot of media attention back home and I was negotiating my contract to go and play baseball," Wilson said. "I never stepped on a baseball field before and I was about to sign with the Braves. I always wanted to get the chance to play professional baseball but I knew the chances of a young kid in New Zealand who had never played the game before getting signed were remote."
Wilson's knack for showcasing his natural ability to adjust so seamlessly to minor league baseball, after having no experience facing pitchers from sixty feet, six inches or running out balls at 90 feet or beyond, was very impressive. Of course, it wasn't his fault that he didn't have the opportunity to go after baseball considering the state of its popularity in New Zealand.
"There was no real organized baseball in New Zealand when I was young so a number of males played softball," Wilson added. "Cricket is the first choice for summer sports at home and after playing for two years I just didn't enjoy the game that much. My father played softball when he was young and he suggested my brother and I try it. We fell in love with the game."
Wilson made himself known in the American baseball circles, enjoying eight strong seasons at the Minor League level for the Braves and Cincinnati Reds organizations. He adjusted to the game quickly, hitting a solid .330 with 10 home runs and 52 RBIs at the Rookie League level in 1998. Following a couple more seasons hitting above the .300 threshold, Wilson earned a spot in the Carolina League with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans in 2000.
And it was in that very season when Wilson, who undoubtedly was the least experienced of perhaps anyone in the entire league, earned a spot in the coveted Major League Baseball Futures Game played at Turner Field in Atlanta. Playing for the World team that fell to the United States by a 3-2 score, Wilson played against some of the more well-known Major Leaguers of today - Josh Hamilton, C.C. Sabathia, Barry Zito, Josh Beckett, Mark Buehrle and Vernon Wells.
Possessing an innate ability to play the game so well, Wilson achieved another feat in the Braves organization when he was invited to the Big League team's 40-man roster after leading the organization in hitting during spring training. In that 2001 year, Wilson batted .325 for Greenville at the AA level before getting his second call to Richmond, the Triple A affiliate.
Throughout his Minor League career that began in Danville in 1997 and ended with AA-Chattanooga for the Reds in 2004, Wilson batted .273 with 63 home runs and 410 RBIs. He made several minor league all-star game appearances and can hold his head proud for having a successful professional ball career despite picking up the game at such a late age.
"I gave baseball a pretty good run. Having never played the game I made it onto the Braves 40 man roster in 2001 and led the Braves in spring training in hitting that year also," Wilson said. "I got the chance to play in a number of minor league all-star games and play in the Futures game in 2000 in Atlanta before the Major League All Star game. I wouldn't change anything about my time with baseball; I just had wished I had the chance to play the game at a younger age."
The multi-faceted athlete now soaks up his life as FSU softball's assistant coach, hired in the summer of 2011. In just his first year, Wilson helped guide the Seminoles to their best overall record since 2004, finishing 47-16. His main responsibilities include working with the team on their fielding, refining their hitting mechanics and tossing batting practice nearly every day.
Of course, Wilson has also been taking charge in the recruiting side along with fellow assistant coach Craig Snider. This summer has been largely spent on the road looking after some of the nation's best prospects throughout the Southeast, Midwest and out West, as he and the staff continue to attract some of the top amateur athletes to Tallahassee.
Amazingly, Wilson still continues to play travel softball in the offseason, showing off his skills for North America's top-ranked team in the New York Gremlins from Clifton Park. This past weekend in Ashland, Ohio, Wilson and his team took the ASA Men's Major title after winning four straight games on championship Sunday. Wilson was instrumental in the championship series going 3-for-8 and driving in four runs and scoring two more as the Gremlins won the final two games by scores of 7-4 and 9-5. "It was a very satisfying four days of competition in Ohio," said Wilson from Irvine, Calif., where he was recruiting. "We were thrown into the loser's bracket after losing the winner's bracket semifinal in a tough game. We had to do it the hard way and win five games in the space of 24 hours to claim the title and it was great to come back like that. It was one of the most memorable days of softball I have ever had."
Nowadays, it is Wilson's balance of time that makes him an incredible coach and inspiration to young athletes. In his mid-thirties, he continues to play softball at an incredibly high level, spends endless time on the recruiting trail, all while supporting his wife Jill and their well-raised one-year old son Tyler. The youngest Wilson was a fixture with the Seminoles this past season, always providing a moment of comic relief after a rigorous practice or hard-fought game.
And the fact that Wilson can multi-task at such an enormous level and exude so much passion for the game of softball, even when taking on the boundless task of being a good father and husband, is what helps him teach and influence his student-athletes so well. He hopes to continue playing the game as long as he can still feast on opposing pitchers that routinely clock at about 84-87 miles per hour.
"I feel I can relate to the girls better as I know what they are going through at the plate," Wilson said. "I know how difficult it is to play this game at the top and I feel when you can give real life experiences it helps the girls to relate. Everything I get on them about for messing up I have done myself 10 times over. If they ever came and watched me play I would be in trouble!"
Wilson has one more softball tournament left on the schedule for 2012 with the ISC World Championship in mid-August. He will look to finish strong before regrouping with the FSU softball team in the fall.
"It's the big one over here for club teams," Wilson said. "It involves 48 teams in a two-life tournament over seven days. The best in the world are here and after the ISF it is the toughest to win. I've been to six of them already and lost the final twice. This is the year I hope to finish it off."
While Wilson focuses on a strong finish, it is amazing to look back and see how he started his life in the United States. He was a young softball icon in New Zealand who morphed into a tremendous minor league baseball talent in America, learning to play America's game in the process. Judging by the warm reception he received from a few Atlanta Braves players in spring training back in February, as well as legendary skipper Bobby Cox, it is clear that he made quite an impact in their farm system.
And so Wilson continues to march forward, carrying on his everyday life with a myriad of tasks and to-do's as a coach, player, father and husband. When people meet him and discover his incredible back-story, they'll realize that he voyaged to this country and accomplished something that was never deterred from a lack of experience; rather it was a routine transition made possible by his natural ability. From there, he has taken every chore in life and checked them off his list.
In more ways than one, Travis Wilson could be another Roy Hobbs.