Ivy Leaf - Winter 2008
The Difference Maker
By Steve Crider
It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. John Wilson would argue the same about age. Beneath his navy blue batting helmet, the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, native looks like every other college baseball player at Penn State Altoona. But a quick toss of the hat reveals that this four-year senior is a little different than most … primarily in the ‘life experience’ department.
That’s because Wilson turned fifty-three in July. And while most of his contemporaries are worried about their eligibility for social security, Wilson’s more concerned about his eligibility to pinch hit. He isn’t concerned with getting a senior citizen discount at Denny’s; he’s making sure base runners are paying attention to the opposing pitcher’s pick-off move. And you certainly won’t find him partying at the baseball house after a big win. Instead, he’s encouraging his teammates—most of whom are three times his junior—to stay away from excessive alcohol and drugs. Meet John Wilson, the 53-year-old player/coach on the Penn State Altoona baseball team whose incredible life story of perseverance and determination is literally one for the ages.
“Addiction doesn’t care if you live on Park Avenue or a park bench. It’s real and it can happen to anyone. I said from the day I became clean that I wanted to make a difference.”
LOVE OF THE GAME
Wilson grew up in Pittsburgh’s rough Lower Hill District with his mother, Adelaide. She began taking her 12-year-old son to Forbes Field to watch Pirates baseball games in the summer of ‘69. And while Wilson enjoyed watching his heroes play, it simply wasn’t enough for this curious youngster. He wanted to be a ball player—a big leaguer—just like his idols Roberto Clemente and Manny Mota. So Wilson hung out by the dugouts during pre-game hoping for autographs, a bat, a high-five, or any kind of acknowledgement from the players. He’d stay after games, waiting outside the locker rooms. Eventually, his persistence paid off.
“Mota gave me a bat before a game one time,” said Wilson, “so I brought him a pack of chewing gum the next day and kept doing it every game after. Clemente gave me a bat too, although I don’t have it anymore.”
Almost forty years later, Wilson jokes that his apartment could pass as a mini-Cooperstown. He has hundreds of autographs from former major leaguers and has bats from the likes of Mota, Jeff Kent, and Pete Santangelo.
“We used to play with the bats back then,” laughed Wilson. “I remember hitting with the one Roberto Clemente gave me. We didn’t know they’d be worth anything today.”
By the time he was old enough to attend games on his own, he never had to spend a penny on tickets.
“I got tickets from every visiting team because I knew players on every club,” Wilson said smiling. “I even knew a bunch of the umpires … Doug Harvey, Tom Gorman, Harry Wendelstedt.
I would meet them at the taxi and carry their bags in from the cab right up the steps and into the stadium. Then I’d find a seat, watch the game, try to see them afterwards, and do it all again the next day.”
One player with whom Wilson still maintains a close relationship is former player and current Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker. The two met when Baker was a player with the Atlanta Braves in the 1970s. In his usual fashion, Wilson would hang out by the locker room after games and would sometimes walk back to the team hotel with certain players. As the two built a rapport, Wilson got Baker’s address and began writing him letters.
“I don’t like to be a bother,” said Wilson. “But I call him periodically and leave him messages. I went out to see him at the Little League World Series this past year when he was broadcasting for ESPN. And when the team he manages is in Pittsburgh, I will be at the game.”
Wilson proudly wears the ball cap of the team his friend is managing, whether it be the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, or now the Cincinnati Reds. In addition to the occasional phone conversation or Christmas card swap, Baker has assisted Wilson financially while attending Penn State Altoona.
“Dusty always tells me if I ever need anything, to just let him know,” said Wilson. “He tells me, ‘as long as you’re doing the right thing, I’ll help you however I can.’”
Wilson grew up attending Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh but transferred to Fifth Avenue High School in tenth grade. Wilson’s alma mater merged in 1976 with a number of other schools into what today is known as Brashear High School. It was during his final years as a teenager that Wilson first encountered some problems with the law … namely, drugs.
His first arrest came as an 18-year-old for marijuana possession, for which he received five years probation. Wilson’s dependency on drugs and alcohol got progressively worse, and he checked himself into Western Psychiatric, a mental health facility, on a number of occasions.
“It got to the point where, in the last six months, every time I used I would become suicidal,” admitted Wilson. “At that point, I knew there was no other option but to get help.”
Help came in the form of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, where Wilson checked in as a 32-year-old struggling addict. He completed the twenty-eight-day program at Gateway and was referred to a halfway house in Williamsburg, Pennsylvania, to continue the rehabilitation process. Wilson spent approximately six months at the halfway house before coming to another transitional facility in Altoona in 1987. As time progressed, he became a house manager, counselor assistant, and eventually a resident counselor to his fellow residents.
Wilson began receiving payment for his services in 1989 and remained with the agency as an employee for thirteen years. His hard work paid off in 1997 when he earned a certificate as a Certified Addictions Counselor in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In 2000, he took a position with Cove Forge as an adult counselor for a short time before pursuing a civil service position, commonly known as a Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialist (DATS) at the Huntingdon State Prison. Wilson went through a tedious interview process and was chosen for the position contingent on a background investigation. But something on his background check led the prison to rescind the position and deny Wilson employment.1
According to Wilson, after holding a number of menial jobs from 2001-2004, he was faced with a decision. During this three-year period, his certification as an addictions counselor lapsed due to insufficient continuing education and training. It was at this point that Wilson, now 50 years old and eager to return to the counseling profession, made a move that he thought would enhance his marketability.
Throughout his rehabilitation and employment in the Altoona area, Wilson stayed involved with America’s pastime as a player in the Greater Altoona City Baseball League. Since 1988, he and current Penn State Altoona head baseball coach Joe Piotti had played with and against each other on the diamond … Wilson as an outfielder, Piotti as a second baseman.
THE COLLEGIATE EXPERIENCE
Nearby Penn State Altoona welcomed Wilson in the fall of 2004. He began as a full time, provisional student before eventually gaining entry into the human development and family studies major. As a freshman, Wilson sought out his former teammate to become involved in the baseball program.
“My approach was just to help the team in some capacity, whether it be coaching or playing,” said Wilson. “I had a lot of fears because of my age. I thought it would be held against me.”
He gained a roster spot every year; through three seasons, Wilson had played in ten games and made eleven plate appearances. In 2006, he had two hits including a double and two runs scored. Last season, in a spring break game against Ramapo (NJ), Wilson was plunked in the back by a fastball and eventually scored a run. Four days later, as Penn State Altoona was taking on Anderson (IN) and Ramapo was waiting in the stands to play next, Wilson got another plate appearance. As the public address announcer proclaimed Wilson the pinch hitter, the entire Ramapo team gave him a standing ovation.
In fall 2008, Wilson plans to leave Penn State Altoona with a degree in Human Development and Family Studies. He also will have earned a Chemical Dependency and Substance Abuse Prevention certificate and hopes to return one day to the counseling field in a state correctional facility.
This past August, Wilson celebrated twenty-one years of continuous abstinence, which he attributes to a “willingness to live and become a productive member of society.” In 2006, Wilson had t-shirts made on his own dime to represent the Elite Baseball Academy with which he served as an instructor. The front of the shirt has the Academy’s name and logo. The back reads “#22 The Difference Maker,” representing Wilson’s uniform number since his freshman year and the difference he strives to make in others’ lives.
“I have had a lot of parents tell me over the years that I’ve made a difference in their son’s life, and I try to live by that motto,” he said. “Helping other people, it helps me. The help that I got, the treatment, counseling … it saved my life. Addiction doesn’t care if you live on Park Avenue or a park bench. It’s real and it can happen to anyone. I said from the day I became clean that I wanted to make a difference.”
A sign hangs on Coach Piotti’s office door stating, “You don’t quit playing when you get old. You get old when you quit playing.” Clearly, the words could have been written about Wilson. As he enters his senior season at Penn State Altoona—while nearing senior citizen status—his goals and objectives to the 2008 team are the same as the last three years.
“I want members of the team to remember me as someone who was trying to make a difference in their life,” said Wilson. “I care about every guy that has ever put on a Penn State Altoona uniform, and if I can pass on some knowledge and experience so they don’t make the same mistakes I did, then the time has been well worth it.”
Spoken like a true difference maker.
1 Wilson later discovered that some of the charges on his criminal record were inaccurate and has taken steps to remedy the situation. It is unclear what charge prevented Wilson from gaining employment at Huntingdon.