Dan Wilson played catcher for the 1995 Seattle Mariners, the team that saved big-league baseball in that city with a miraculous pennant drive.
When Edgar Martinez smashed a double down the left field line and Ken Griffey scored from first base to beat the Yankees in the playoffs that fall, the noise in the old Kingdome became deafening. "That,'' Wilson said this week, "was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.''
For most people, one once-in-a-lifetime experience would be enough. Wilson, the former Gophers star, enjoyed another this weekend.
Twenty years after leaving the University of Minnesota to pursue a pro baseball career, Wilson, 41, walked across the Northrop Auditorium stage as a graduate of the College of Continuing Education on Saturday. "When you start at a certain place, that's where you want to finish,'' Wilson said. "I'm grateful for that. And I'm grateful that I can now say I'm an alumnus of the University of Minnesota.''
Whether qualified or not, pro athletes often are prompted by their teams and leagues to promote the importance of education, even if there is no evidence that they valued education themselves.
Wilson said he may want to coach at the Division II or III level, but he could have easily survived without a college degree. He wanted to be a role model to a select group of his most rapt fans -- his children.
"We have four kids, and for them to see the importance of education and to have them share in the moment with me is very special,'' Wilson said. "That's something I thought they needed to see. For me to show them that, I needed to finish school myself.''
Wilson left Minnesota after his junior season, in 1990, having already established himself as one of the best players in the program's impressive history.
He hit .337 as a Gopher and was named first-team All-America. When the Cincinnati Reds selected him with the seventh overall pick in the draft, he became the third-highest Gophers draft pick ever, behind Paul Molitor and Dave Winfield. He was also part of a great decade of Gophers catchers that included Greg Olson (drafted by the Mets in 1982), Terry Steinbach (A's in 1983) and Tim McIntosh (Brewers in 1986).
Wilson played for the Reds for two seasons before being traded to Seattle for Bret Boone. In Seattle, he established himself as one of the best-fielding catchers in baseball history, setting a record for a catcher with a career fielding percentage of .995.
He also made one All-Star team, caught for the Mariners team that tied a big-league record with 116 victories, and made the playoffs four times with a franchise that previously had known only futility.
While fulfilling so many of his career goals and making close to $30 million, Wilson slowly worked toward his degree.
"I took a few classes here and there when I first signed and was going through the minors, but nothing really significant,'' Wilson said. "Once I finished playing baseball, one of my first goals was to finish my degree. So I took one class per semester, or maybe two, and that's why it's taken me four or five years to finally finish things up.
"The flexibility of having some online courses offered through the U made it possible. I could have finished up somewhere else, but I really wanted to get my degree from Minnesota.''
Wilson's wife, Annie, graduated from Minnesota with a degree in elementary education. "For her, showing kids the importance of education was really a big thing,'' Wilson said. "She had a chance to teach for two years in the inner city of Minneapolis before we moved to Seattle.
"The importance of education, for her, was intensified though those experiences.
"She was very influential in giving me that charge, that energy, to do this. There were a lot of times I didn't want to do the work, and she was great in helping me push through.''
The Wilsons live in Seattle and remain friends with former Mariners Jay Buhner and Martinez. They've always been active in charities, and now they're considering starting their own nonprofit organization.
"That's something we've talked about and dreamed about for a long time,'' he said. "But first and foremost in my mind was finishing this up. It's nice to be able to go back and walk across the stage at a place I started I don't even know how many years ago. It feels like the completion of something that was a long time coming.''
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