By Margo Sullivan
LONDONDERRY — It's a long way from the Little League ball fields behind the fire station to the San Francisco Giants bullpen, but his teammates call Brian Wilson "the Travelin' Man" for a good reason.
Wilson, who grew up in Londonderry and pitched for the Londonderry High School baseball team, has done more than just make it all the way to the Bigs. After years of struggling to stick with the team, he enters this season locked into the role as the Giants' closer.
Wilson is an aggressive player, according to Giants General Manager Brian Sabean. The challenge will be monitoring his control and his composure.
"There's a lot of pressure at the end of the game," Sabean said. "It's like kicking the field goal in football. I think he's aware of that, but he's still going to have to go through the trials and tribulations, because he hasn't done it yet at the major league level."
But Wilson, 26, thinks he's up to the task. In a telephone interview Friday, he said he loves to have the game riding on his shoulders. Asked about any goals for this season, he said he hopes he can help the team make the playoffs.
Wilson and his family live in Arizona now. He left New Hampshire after high school and played college ball at Louisiana State University. But he still has ties to home. And the people who knew him growing up are getting a big kick out of watching him play major league baseball. The Giants open their season tomorrow against the Dodgers in Los Angeles.
Chris Moran, now of Lowell, Mass., was Wilson's catcher at Londonderry High School. They grew up together, played Little League together, and their mothers still stay in touch. Moran saw a couple of games when Wilson played in the minors, and he follows Wilson's career over the Internet.
"He's a special talent," Moran said. "You could see that when he was 8 years old. I remember him just being the best player in the state. He could throw any type of pitch at any count and throw it for a strike."
As Moran remembers it, the talk about Wilson someday playing professional baseball started in junior high. He said Wilson had the talent but didn't have any great physical advantages otherwise.
"He wasn't really bigger than anyone else, and he didn't have any kind of weird mechanics. It was pure talent," he said. "He had the talent to be there, and he worked."
'He could have played any sport'
Mike Beeman, Wilson's former coach and teacher at Londonderry High, said he always thought Wilson had the stuff to pitch in the major leagues. The giveaway was that Wilson could throw a ball faster than 90 mph when he was still in high school. Not many kids can do that, he said. Plus, he set a goal of getting to the big leagues and stayed focused.
"He had that mentality," Beeman said. "He was incredibly competitive, almost to a fault. If you need somebody to go into battle with, take Brian Wilson."
Despite that competitive streak, Wilson was fun to be around, he said.
"He was the comedian on the team — and not always to my liking," said Beeman, who remembered Wilson used to tell jokes under his breath. Wilson also played basketball and had a routine before every game. He used to paint his legs the color of the opponent's uniforms to psych them out.
"He could have played any sport," Beeman said. "If you'd put a tennis racket in his hand, he could have played."
Beeman, who now lives in Tifton, Ga., said Wilson was also his student all four years at Londonderry High.
"We had our battles," he said. "We were tough on each other."
Beeman remembers a tough time when Wilson's father died between his junior and senior years. Father and son had an "incredible bond," he said.
Beeman and Wilson have stayed in touch. His former coach called him last August when San Francisco was in Atlanta to play the Braves.
"It's a sign of what kind of kid he is," he said. "He called me back within an hour and said, 'Come on down to the game.' He had me come out to the bullpen."
Full of confidence
Wilson pitched most of last season in the minor leagues, before being called up to the big club in August. He pitched well down the stretch, converting six of his seven save opportunities from late August to September. That won him the closer's job heading into this season.
Mike Hogan, now the Timberlane Regional Middle School principal, coached Wilson at Londonderry his freshman and sophomore years.
"I've been looking into the box scores and hoping the best for him," Hogan said. Wilson and Moran were among a handful of youngsters who made the varsity team in their freshman year. In Wilson's case, the reason was his talent, plus the "fact he threw strikes," Hogan said.
"Brian had an opportunity to play summer baseball on the (American) Legion team," he said, and some of the Londonderry High players told the coach to go take a look at him. Wilson was about 14 or 15, Hogan said, and he was in the right place at the right time. Hogan had one of his weaker teams, and Wilson was good enough to make varsity.
Wilson came in with a curve ball, some off-speed pitches and a "pretty good fastball," Hogan said. He remembered him as about 5 feet 6 and a skinny kid.
"He won four games pitching as a freshman, which is exceptional," Hogan said. "He had a lot of confidence, and he was a happy-go-lucky kid."
Although Hogan thought Wilson was special, he still wasn't sure if Wilson would ever get to play professional baseball — but knew he had the talent and the drive.
A long road to the majors
Bob Napolitano, Wilson's baseball coach during his junior and senior years at Londonderry High, said there was no question that Wilson had the talent to play professional baseball.
"He was an exceptional pitcher and a good hitter," he said. "He had the tools. He worked hard."
But Napolitano wondered if Wilson would get a chance at a pro career, because the scouts don't spend a lot of time watching players from New Hampshire.
"You don't get people looking at you, like players in Arizona, Florida and California," he said, where kids can play baseball all year long. But the scouts did show up and saw Wilson pitch a shutout against Manchester Memorial, he said.
"He just pitched a great game," Napolitano said. "It was the third game of our season. There were about 30 scouts, and he plowed the batters down, bagging 13 or 14 strikeouts."
Wilson could have played professional baseball after graduating from Londonderry High. The Cleveland Indians drafted him in the 30th round, but he ended up the 906th pick, possibly on word Wilson had a scholarship offer from LSU.
He went to college and played two seasons with the Tigers, until an arm injury sidelined him. After the surgery, he played summer ball on Long Island and then rebounded with the Giants, moving up through their farm system.
Wilson made his first appearance in the majors on April 23, 2006. The Giants were eyeing him as their closer a year ago, but when he struggled in spring training, they decided to let him get a little more seasoning.
Now that he's nailed down the job as the Giants' closer, Napolitano expects Wilson to shine this year. And he'll be watching, along with many others who played with and coached Wilson back in his Londonderry High School days.