John Anderson has been the Gophers baseball coach for 37 years, long enough to have seen a number of sons of former players come through the program. So sometimes the feeling of déjà vu can be striking.
Like this year, when Anderson watches Eli Wilson throw the ball back to the pitcher or his mannerisms behind the plate.
“Sometimes I look and go, ‘Whoa, wait a second here. Which guy is it out there?’ ” Anderson said.
Wilson is the Gophers’ sophomore catcher — a 6-2, 190-pounder whose career trajectory is a steep line pointing up. Just over a year after arriving from Seattle as a skinny freshman who ran cross-country in high school, he is starting to look an awful lot like his dad.
Dan Wilson came to the Gophers in 1988 from suburban Chicago. By the time he was done at the University of Minnesota, he and Brian Raabe had become the first players under Anderson to win first-team All-America honors. From there, Wilson embarked on a 14-year career in the majors, the last 12 with the Seattle Mariners.
So when Anderson says he sees a lot of Dan in Eli, that is a good thing.
For Eli, though, he will have to take Anderson’s word. He was 7 when his dad finished playing. And frankly, he doesn’t remember much. “I remember going to games and watching him play,” he said. “Looking back now, I wish I had cherished it a little bit more. But there aren’t a whole lot of memories.”
Still, Eli is trying to make his own legacy, all the while being constantly reminded of his father; at Siebert Field there is a walkway named after Dan.
This weekend in Corvallis, Ore., the Gophers will play a best-of-three NCAA super regional series against Oregon State, battling a Beavers lineup that includes three first-round draft picks and a program with tons of recent success.
Eli Wilson’s role is huge. His catching is the start of a Gophers lineup that is strong up the middle. Unlike many other Division I coaches, Anderson lets his catchers call the game, so Wilson’s ability to absorb the scouting report and work with his pitchers is key.
He has taken a bit of a different path. He didn’t commit to baseball until he was a junior in high school.
“He started out as a young person wanting to be a hockey player,” Anderson said. “Then he was a big cross-country runner. He was really skinny when he got here.”
And while he caught a bit in high school, his first love was shortstop; Gophers assistant Rob Fornasiere broke it to him early in the recruiting process that that wasn’t going to work in college. Wilson was not heavily recruited by Division I schools.
He hit .319 as a freshman, appearing in 24 games, with little power. But hard work in summer ball and over the winter honed his skill and made him stronger. This year he is hitting .295 with nine doubles, five homers and 27 RBI.
And he has made a huge impact on the team. Partly because of injuries, Anderson moved Wilson behind the plate permanently and started batting him fourth; Anderson wanted to break up his lefthanded-heavy lineup with a righthanded hitter.
“He is, by far, the most improved player in our program from last year to this year,” Anderson said. You can’t have an NCAA-caliber team unless you’re strong up the middle. And it starts behind home plate.”
The Gophers are 33-7 with Wilson starting at catcher, having won 12 in a row entering this weekend.
Dan Wilson now works for the Mariners in player development and does some broadcasting for the team, which enshrined him in its Hall of Fame in 2012. When it comes to his son he, too, sees a lot of himself. And he’s happy Eli came to love the game without having to be pushed; Wilson and his wife, Annie, were careful to let Eli make his own decision.
“Sometimes that meant stepping back,” Dan Wilson said. “Eli has gotten to where he’s gotten because of what he’s done. He’s turning into the player he turned into because of the path he chose.”
Once he chose his path, Eli was all in. He and his dad spent hours at Seattle’s Safeco Field working on hitting. Even today they trade texts and calls on the intricacies of the position.
When asked about how to call a game against Oregon State’s packed lineup, Eli said he thinks more about his pitchers’ strengths than the opponent.
“We worry about us,” he said. “We say that all the time. This is about us. We focus on what we do best.”
Dan Wilson will be there to watch his son this weekend. He was at Siebert Field for the regional, too, where he heard over and over from former teammates how much Eli reminds them of him.
“Almost to a man they say that,” he said. “I guess he’s picked up some things over the years. But he’s his own player.”