When you meet C.J. Wilson for the first time, you immediately think he could be a rock star, without the entourage.
Granted, it was early on a Saturday morning one week before the start of his first spring training with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, but his hair was tousled, he sported a three-day growth and wore big movie star sunglasses. Through dark, baggy clothes he looked surprisingly smaller than one would have pictured for an accomplished major league baseball player.
But then you meet CJ and spend a few minutes with him, and you begin to understand why so many people think so highly of him. He converses in long, thoughtful sentences without a trace of arrogance. He is overly modest, giving credit to anyone and everyone who has impacted his life. He lights up when talking about his hobbies, from painting art to racing cars. And he’s extremely patient and generous with his time.
Wilson has returned to his alma mater, Fountain Valley High School, several times since signing a mind-blowing five-year, $77.5 million free agent contract with the Angels on Dec. 8, 2011. He has spent hours getting reacquainted with old friends and meeting new ones, signing autographs on baseballs, No. 33 Angels jerseys and even on babies, and reconnecting with an adoring community that he readily acknowledges helped nurture the roots from which he has blossomed as an individual.
In some ways Wilson is a rock star, especially in the eyes of those many young baseball players and fans.
The impeccably manicured lawn and fountain blue outfield fence at Fountain Valley High is CJ’s personal field of dreams. He fondly remembers the countless hours spent there, working every day on his baseball skills and strengthening his left arm, all the while visualizing what it would take to play baseball and get paid for it.
“My fondest memories were of practicing and the instillation of a good work ethic when I was a kid,” recalled Wilson, who on this day was inducted into the prestigious Fountain Valley Baseball Hall of Fame, alongside more than 40 other baseball alumni including Casey Janssen of the Toronto Blue Jays and Chris Tillman of the Baltimore Orioles.
“I would hit in the cage at lunch. I use to stand on the right field line and try to throw the ball over the 350 (foot) sign in centerfield. That’s what I remember the most about that time here because it’s the same thing I do now.”
Christopher John Wilson was born on November 18, 1980 in Newport Beach and grew up in Huntington Beach. He was never the best player in the Seaview Little League, once telling the Eastbay Blog, “I actually wasn’t that good at all, and the coach was so discouraging. He told me, ‘Maybe you should play soccer.’”
But CJ loved baseball, and that off-season his dad bought him a book on hitting called, “The Techniques of Modern Hitting,” by Wade Boggs. From then on, CJ became a hitter.
During CJ’s freshmen year of high school, he was 5 foot 2 ½ inches, weighed 105 pounds and was one of the smallest kids in schoo. But that didn’t let it get him down. He wanted to be a baseball player so badly that through hard work, determination and a lot of push-ups and pull-ups during P.E. he made himself stronger and better.
But CJ also believes that along with some talent and hard work, you need a little bit of luck, too.
“You can be really, really good but if you tear your ACL at the wrong time you can be out of commission,” Wilson says. “I was a really late bloomer. I wasn’t able to throw the ball over the (outfield) fence my sophomore year, but eventually I did and then it became whether I could throw the ball into the screen in centerfield. And then it was how far I could throw the ball. It was a very simple thing that I took one foot, two feet at a time.
“That work ethic helped me get through the early days of my development and really paid off when I began to physically catch up with everyone else. That’s the way progression works in life, incremental with compound interest. You gain a step, you gain a step, you gain a step, and then after a couple of years you gain feet and yards.”
Moving to Fountain Valley
Wilson transferred to Fountain Valley High before his junior year to play under long-time Barons baseball coach Ron LaRuffa, Wilson played first base, the outfield, and was a starter and reliever on the mound. He graduated in 1998 after helping the Barons win consecutive CIF Southern Section championships.
“He had a very good work ethic and was self-motivated. His I.Q. was off the charts,” LaRuffa told Eastbay. “He was very smart and always figured things out. He continued to get better and better. He’s very intelligent and keeps pushing the envelope. CJ told me it’s not about becoming a star, it’s about playing a challenging game at the highest level.”
Upon graduating, Wilson wasn’t drafted by any major league team, and his only chance to play for a Division I college was as a walk-on. So he decided to enroll at Santa Ana Junior College to continue to grow and improve as a player. In his second year there, CJ was named MVP of the Orange Empire Conference and named California Junior College Co-Player of the Year. That earned him a scholarship to Loyola Marymount University.
That season Wilson batted .289 and finished the season 3-9 with a 6.95 ERA for the Lions. Although he wasn’t a standout player, Wilson was still selected by the Texas Rangers as the 141st overall pick in the fifth round of the 2001 amateur baseball draft.
It was from that moment on that the dream of a scrawny kid from Orange County began to take shape.