By John Vittas
FORT MYERS, Fla. (August 12, 2022) – When Mussels’ left-handed pitcher John Wilson takes the mound at Hammond Stadium, it feels like a destiny has been fulfilled.
For the baseball-enthused seven-year-old version of John Wilson, this was exactly what he had planned all along.
John Wilson Jr. – also known as Johnny – grew up as the only Twins fan in his North Jersey town of Annandale.
“All of my friends were Mets or Yankees fans, or Jets or Giants,” he said. “That was always the battle. Being Twins and Giants was a fun one to explain to people. Some of the looks I got when I said I was a Minnesota Twins fans were interesting. People got pretty confused.”
While the connection seemed random, it was actually quite the opposite. Johnny’s father, John Wilson Sr., was the Twins’ Northeast area scout and had worked as a talent evaluator for the club since 1990.
The job came with plenty of perks for Johnny – including regular trips to nearby Yankee Stadium to watch the Twins take batting practice from the field.
“Whenever the Twins would play the Yankees in New York, we’d go to pretty much every game,” Johnny remembered. “We would get to go on the field and in the clubhouse and talk to Ron Gardenhire and guys on the team – Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer.”
Cuddyer was one of his father’s draft picks, a first-rounder from coastal Virginia – the same region that Johnny would ultimately move to for college years later.
“I was able to build a pretty cool relationship with him over the years,” Johnny said. “During my sophomore year of college, he came and spoke to us.”
On one of those trips to Yankee Stadium, Johnny received one a souvenir that he still cherishes to this day.
“Torii Hunter gave me his bat one time and I still have it in my house,” he said. “He pulled it right out of the bat rack and autographed it for me. Those experiences that my dad was able to give me were invaluable and something that I’ll have with me for the rest of my life.”
Wilson Jr. appreciates these experiences deeply. In a way, they paved the way for a long baseball journey of his own – one that would eventually include plenty of adversity. While those early Twins’ experiences shaped him, he’s not quick to share them with his Mighty Mussels’ teammates. He doesn’t want to be known for his connections to the organization – he just wants to be looked at as any another minor league pitcher.
“I don’t go up to them and be like, ‘Hey, my dad signed you,’” he said. “Sometimes they can put the connection together because we both have the same name.”
Humility is something that transcends the Wilson name. John Sr. never wanted to his son to be treated any different that the other amateur pitchers vying for a spot.
“It’s really uncomfortable when a parent comes down and says ‘Come check out my kid,’ the long-time Twins’ scout said. “I said nothing. I never promoted him. I never sent out video."
That humble approach was instilled in Johnny from a young age. The bright lights of Yankee Stadium were only a sliver of his full baseball experience.
“When he was seven, I would take him on the road with me for like 30 days,” Wilson Sr. said. “It was crazy.”
For his son who started swinging a bat at 18 months old, living the life of a professional scout was a dream. Days on the road for father-son combo started early. They’d leave the hotel after breakfast and find a local Little League field. John Sr. would carry buckets of baseballs and equipment in the trunk of his car, and he’d throw Johnny batting practice all morning.
After a quick trip to the hotel to change, the duo would head to the ballpark in whatever small town they were assigned to that day.
“He would sit there for BP at 3:30 and then for all nine innings of a seven o’clock game,” his father recalled. “He just loved the game. He was always in the stands with me.”
Johnny would only leave his seat behind home plate for two reasons – to chase foul balls or to hit some more in the cage when the game was over.
The elder Wilson found himself scouting much of the Eastern League, a Double-A circuit in which the Twins housed their affiliate in New Britain, Connecticut. Wilson Sr. would look to scout the opposition whenever they would come through New Britain in order to spend more time around his organization, but also because Johnny was building a relationship with the team.
“They probably didn’t know exactly who I was,” Wilson Sr. said. “I didn’t want to be high maintenance.”
But as Wilson Sr. interacted with manager Stan Cliburn and the players more and more, they started to gravitate towards the young man always trailing behind him.
“The coaches would throw BP to him and put him in a group with the players,” the elder Wilson recalled. “He would be the bat boy, he’d be out there with the players. They treated him like the king.”
When Johnny’s eighth birthday rolled around in July, the coaches ordered him a sheet cake and sung ‘Happy Birthday’ to him in the New Britain clubhouse.
“He lived the dream,” John Sr. said. “The whole team sang to John in the clubhouse. While they were singing, Denard Span put him up on his shoulders.”
Johnny’s experiences were never taken for granted by either member of the father-son combination.
“The Twins organization, the people that were in it is what made it,” John Sr. said. “It wasn’t me, it was the people in the organization. It was unbelievable. As a dad, forget scout, but as a dad it was just awesome to watch. He was getting to experience this stuff that not every kid gets to.”
All that time spent around Major League talent was sure to rub off on the young left-hander John Wilson Jr.. He rose through the middle school and high school ranks and emerged as one of the top players in the area.
As he continued to perform well for North Hunterdon High School, Division I coaches came calling. St. John’s, one of the top programs in the northeast, tried to get him to commit as a sophomore. Johnny’s father knew that game – they decided to wait. It ultimately came down to Old Dominion and Bryant, and the intel of the veteran scout came in handy.
John Sr. had built a relationship with the Old Dominion coaches over the years and trusted them, and John Jr. knew their new pitching coach well from his time at Stony Brook in New York. Johnny committed to Old Dominion, the same program that produced Justin Verlander.
Johnny hit the ground running, going 6-1 with a 3.41 ERA as a true freshman, earning Freshman All-American honors in his first year in Norfolk.
His father came to as many games as he could, “double-dipping” as he called it as both a scout and a proud parent. When Wilson Sr. made trips to watch John pitch at Old Dominion, he would break out the clipboard and radar gun and write up reports on the opponents.
However, at the end of that season, Johnny felt something in his elbow. He knew it wasn’t good. After months of tests and rehab, medical staff couldn’t find anything structurally wrong with his arm. But in the fall, he felt pain again and ultimately underwent Tommy John surgery in March of 2018.
The injury kept him out for the entire 2019 season as well. Two full years on the mend was worst-case-scenario for the budding star.
“I was in a dark place I guess you could say for a little bit,” Wilson Jr. said. “It was the first time not being able to be compete on the field. During my sophomore year, we only won 15 games. Being on the sidelines for that and not being able to help brought me down a lot. I was very thankful for the support staff. They were able to really help.”
With his elbow recovering, the ODU coaching staff allowed John to hit for the team in 2019, taking his mind away from the time lost on the mound.
“It was nice being on the road and being around the guys again and feeling like I can contribute in some way,” Wilson Jr. said.
2020 offered new hope. Johnny had returned to the mound in the fall of 2019 after not facing hitters for 29 months. His elbow was fully recovered after a miserable two-year medical nightmare.
He built his arm strength back up and immediately had success, beginning the 2020 campaign with just one run allowed across his first three outings. But just as he was feeling good again, COVID struck.
“To get that mojo back and then the season gets cancelled, it kind of killed all the momentum that I had,” Johnny said. “It was a weird time, so I took a couple of weeks off, then started throwing 60 or 90 feet every day.”
At home during the pandemic, the fourth-year junior had no idea what the future would hold. Would he have to wait until 2021 to pitch again? By that point, he’d be 23 years old and likely past his window to get drafted.
By early June, the sports world slowly re-emerged into a COVID-riddled world. Johnny got an offer to play in the Northwoods League, a highly regarded summer wood bat league for college prospects. He was throwing bullpens in June, excited to suit up for the Mandan Flickertails in North Dakota. The night before his flight to North Dakota, he received an unexpected call.
“It was from an unknown caller, and usually I just decline those,” Johnny said. “This just so happened to be the one time I picked it up.”
It was Minnesota Twins farm director Alex Hassan – the top decision-maker in his father’s organization. Hassan called to let him know that the Twins were prepared to offer him a contract to join the organization as a non-drafted free agent and have Johnny report to their complex in Fort Myers whenever it opened back up.
“It was a feeling that I’ve never felt before,” Johnny said. “That was the moment that I realized all this hard work that I put in my whole life had paid off.”
Johnny couldn’t accept right away - he had one very important person to call first.
“I told (Alex) that I needed to call my dad real quick and let him know. It was a special moment for both of us. Growing up my whole life as a Twins fan and going to Twins games all the time, it was definitely something I had dreamed about my entire life.”
Since the Twins’ complexes remained closed due to the pandemic, Johnny still went to North Dakota and pitched for the Flickertails, making the professional deal official after the Northwoods season wrapped up.
“That summer was awesome, it was a lot of fun,” Johnny said. “I had the opportunity to play with different kids from all over the country. We had a really good mix, and it was a fun group to be a part of. The biggest thing was that I needed innings and time off the mound. That was really beneficial for me.”
Wilson tossed 22 innings that summer and didn’t allow a single earned run. The perfect ERA of 0.00 solidified the Twins’ decision that after two-plus years of fighting to get back to health, Johnny was ready for pro ball.
“I was watching a movie and he called me,” Wilson Sr. said about that phone call.
As excited as the family was, the scout in John Wilson Sr. did not want his son to be signed out of gratitude.
“The way I look at it is, if he doesn’t belong, he’s taking innings from somebody else,” Wilson Sr. said. “I called Sean Johnson our scouting director and said, ‘I don’t need a favor.’”
Johnson and Hassan assured their dedicated scout that they had done their diligence on Johnny and saw the potential in him that was required of a professional prospect. Hassan invited both of them to Target Field in Minneapolis, where Johnny signed his contract in the Twins’ front office.
Wilson Jr. reported to Fort Myers for spring training in 2021 and split his season between the Twins’ two affiliates in Fort Myers.
“I was able to learn a lot last year,” Johnny said. “I don’t throw very hard, but I know how to pitch. That was the one thing my dad always taught me growing up. He said if you learn how to pitch from a young age, you can worry about the velocity down the road when you get stronger and more physical.”
Wilson Jr. refined his four-pitch arsenal at the Twins’ complex in Fort Myers, where the organization has countless resources and coaches to help pitchers reach their potential.
Despite a fastball that sits in the 86-89mph range, Wilson had no trouble getting batters out in the Florida State League in 2022. Wilson did not allow a single run in the month of April and boasted a 2.66 ERA at the end of June, helping the Mighty Mussels clinch the First Half title and punch their ticket to the Florida State League playoffs.
No matter where his career takes him – whether it’s the Major Leagues, the coaching ranks or following in his father’s footsteps as a scout, Johnny knows the unique perspective he enjoyed as a young player will prove beneficial.
“Meeting Big Leaguers and Hall of Famers – it helped grow my love for the game,” he said. “It was unbelievable. Some of the experiences my dad was able to give me really shaped me into the person I am today.”