PEORIA, Ariz. - They have been taking ground balls and talking to one another all week, the can't-miss-kid and the veteran shortstop one hamstring tear from limping into the sunset.
Dustin Ackley, 23, has now officially made the conversion from college outfielder/first baseman to second base, and said it’s the position he feels most comfortable in.
Jack Wilson, 33, a one-time All-Star who hasn’t been able to stay healthy since joining the Seattle Mariners in July 2009, wants to pass on what he’s learned over the years.
They may one day soon share the middle of the Mariners infield. For now, they share stories and conversation, hard work and good advice.
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“I saw a lot of first-round picks in Pittsburgh over the years, and it’s a role I took on there, working with the kids,” Wilson said. “Dustin wants to learn. A year ago, they moved him from the outfield and first base to second base, and his attitude was ‘Yeah, I’ll go for it.’
“The challenge here isn’t talent. They all have that. It’s how to elevate that talent. Dustin catches on quick – and that makes you want to help more.”
Ackley began talking to Wilson in the spring of 2010, and the two have been all but inseparable this week.
“Last spring at this time I hadn’t played a game at second base – ever,” Ackley said. “Now, when I do something wrong I can usually coach myself and know why I made the mistake.
“I feel more like a second baseman than a first baseman or outfielder. I know Jack has helped make me more comfortable.”
Like most veterans, Wilson occasionally feels his baseball mortality.
“In this game, play long enough and you have information that was taught you, and you want to pass it along,” Wilson said. “I was like these guys. You listen to a veteran, to your coaches, and you incorporate what you learn into your own style.”
Can Wilson recall his first camps as a young player?
“The first time I was called up for a spring game I was excited just to wear a big-league cap,” he said.
That was 1,251 big-league games ago, and there are days Wilson feels every one of them. When he looks at Ackley or Alex Liddi or Matt Mangini, he feels every bit the veteran.
“It was just a breeze ago I was a rookie. Now I realize I can’t waste any time. It’s too precious,” Wilson said. “I make them stretch before we take the field and after practice. I tell them not to make the mistakes I made. If I’d stretched more at 22, I wouldn’t have to work so hard at 33.
“I tell these guys, it won’t be that long before I’m home watching you play on the MLB television package and telling my son, ‘I knew this guy!’ I don’t know that I’m in the autumn of my career, but it’s sure late summer.”
Seattle’s new infield coach is former second baseman Robbie Thompson, who likes the relationship he sees between Wilson and Ackley.
“I’ve been on both ends of that situation in my career, and I think veterans helping young players is a good thing,” Thompson said. “Kids will listen to another player more than a coach, sometimes. They relate more.
“Jack’s been around the block, and there are tips and pointers that might help Dustin. Ack’s a smart guy, he listens and retains.
“Leadership on a team isn’t always by example,” he said. “Sometimes, it has to be one guy talking to others, whether it’s policing the clubhouse or helping a teammate.”
Ackley said Wilson has never pushed him to play one way or another, but made occasional suggestions, things that made his journey easier.
“You’re talking about one of the best defensive players in baseball, and I can have a little of his perspective? He’ll tell you something and say ‘Take what you like, don’t worry about the rest,’ ” Ackley said.
“There are times I’ll ask how I looked on a specific play, because I think I’m doing it right, but it doesn’t feel comfortable yet. If it’s the right way, I’ll keep doing it.”
For Wilson, helping Ackley or any other Mariners rookie is part of an obligation he has to the team.
“I haven’t picked up my end of the bargain in Seattle, and I’ve got a bit of a chip on my shoulder because of it. I want to get it done here,” Wilson said. “I was part of a trade that sent good players to Pittsburgh, then I signed a good contract to stay – and I’ve been hurt almost the entire time I’ve been here.
“I want to show Mariners fans I can play the game.
“One of the first things I said to Dustin was, ‘I’m not Coach Wilson. There are good coaches on this team who can work with you. I’m just here to talk about little things, maybe pass on some tips that made me more comfortable at that stage of my career,’ ” Wilson said.
At some point, Wilson knows, Ackley will be the Mariners’ second baseman.
“I’d love to be the shortstop in Dustin’s first game at second – who wouldn’t?” he asked. “That’s why I tell him to stretch. We both have to stay healthy.”
Manager Eric Wedge was asked about the team’s Rule 5 draftee, right-hander Jose Flores, who must remain on the big league roster or be offered back to Cleveland. “We’ve got to get him comfortable and show more patience with him than most pitchers,” Wedge said. “You want to give him as much time as you can before making a decision.” Milton Bradley arrived in camp and, beyond terse “hellos,” didn’t have much to say. He hasn’t yet decided if he’ll talk to the media this spring. New faces in camp along with Bradley were Mike Carp – who said he’d lost between 15-20 pounds this winter – Franklin Gutierrez, Brendan Ryan, Gabe Gross and Adam Kennedy. Position players report to camp today for physicals, and the first full-squad workout is Saturday. The bad news? There’s a 70 percent chance of rain Saturday. Closer David Aardsma walked to his first bullpen session of the spring – on crutches – and watched teammates throw. It was the first time he’s been on the field this week. Recuperating from hip surgery, Aardsma is weeks from taking the mound himself.