GENARO C. ARMAS
The Associated Press
ALTOONA, Pa. - The pitch lined off John Wilson's bat like a missile. Impressed by his own prowess in the hitting cage, Wilson took a step back from the plate and sniffed the lumber.
The most senior of seniors on the Division III Penn State-Altoona baseball team plans to savor every moment of his final collegiate season, even if much of the time is spent on the bench.
"I smell wood burning," Wilson shouts after hitting a line drive that elicits howls from players surveying his swing. Hall of Fame outfielder Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox "used to say that, but guys didn't believe that."
Wilson is 53. Old enough to be father to the rest of the teens and 20-somethings he calls teammates. Old enough to remember watching games in old Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, his hometown.
And two decades removed from a life-changing stint in a rehabilitation center to overcome addictions to drugs and alcohol that drove him to suicidal thoughts.
Wilson is believed to be one of the oldest men to play collegiate baseball, though the NCAA doesn't keep records.
But he's young at heart enough, and in shape enough, to keep up with guys like Tony Petulla, a 22-year-old senior catcher who threw pitches in an indoor batting cage one recent chilly morning.
"The most feared hitter on the team!" Petulla says as he walks behind Wilson, who smiles and nods. Besides an ever-so-slight paunch hidden under a blue sweatshirt, Wilson's 5-foot-9 frame is fit.
His mouth might be considered Major League-ready, running almost nonstop between words of encouragement for teammates and mock self-congratulation that draws hearty laughter.
"You know what they say? Superstar? You heard that song," he says as he smacks another hit in the cage. His coaches and Petulla let out a cackle.
"Hey, I had it on my phone before all this happened," Wilson says. "I want you all to know that!"
Baseball has been a constant in Wilson's life, a security blanket that has provided many hours of enjoyment since he was a kid growing up in the rough Hill District in Pittsburgh.
His mother began taking Wilson to games at age 12 at Forbes Field, the old home of the Pirates demolished in 1971. Like dozens of other kids fascinated with baseball, Wilson hung around the park hoping to get a glimpse of greats like Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente.
But it's Manny Mota who really left a mark after he gave Wilson a bat one day as his young fan waited by the railing near the dugout. Mota played six seasons with the Pirates but is best-known for being a pinch-hitting specialist with the Dodgers.
"I would be at the ballpark before the players got there. Waited until they came out, every game. I still do that today," Wilson says.
It was after high school when he started getting into trouble. He was arrested for marijuana possession at 18 and sentenced to five years probation.
The addictions only got worse from there.
"I drank every day. Every day until I passed out," Wilson says. His marijuana use led to other drugs: "Whatever I could get my hands on," he says.
Wilson says he used alcohol and drugs to "make me more outgoing, and allow me to overcome my fears."
But in the end, he hated himself. "Basically, I was at the end of my rope."
He spent time at a psychiatric institution before checking himself into Gateway Rehabilitation facility in suburban Pittsburgh for a 28-day program in 1986. He moved from there to a halfway house in Williamsburg, then a transitional house in Altoona the following year.
He's been clean and sober since then, "approximately 21 years and so many months," he says proudly.
It's in Altoona where he became an addictions counselor. He also continued playing ball, joining the competitive Greater Altoona City Baseball League.
Fast-forward to 2004, when Wilson learned that his counseling certification had lapsed. He enrolled at Penn State-Altoona and sought out Joe Piotti, an acquaintance from playing in a summer league in the city.
Piotti coached the school's baseball team. Could Wilson try out for the squad?
He earned a spot on the team that season, though he tried at first to keep a low profile, and "spoke when spoken to."
Boy, has that changed.
"He's always talking good things about everyone," says 20-year-old junior pitcher Paul Keith. "He's never down, always trying to pick the team up."
Keith says he was initially hesitant about having Wilson as a teammate.
"But what surprised me when I showed up to tryouts, I saw how much energy he still has for being his age, and the level of play he's at. How he can hit, run and throw," Keith says. "It really surprised me, and I give all the respect you can possibly give a guy for doing what he does."
When he plays, he plays right field. He's appeared in only 11 games, going 2-for-5 with three runs and an RBI in his career.
His real value comes off the field, Piotti says. Wilson coaches first base, throws batting practice and is an unofficial mentor in the clubhouse.
"I get him in when I can, and he appreciates that," Piotti said. "He just shows up every day and has some input with the team, which I hope he does."
Any generational differences with his teammates have been whittled away. He's got a Facebook page and iPod , just like most of the other guys on the team.
Wilson and Petulla talk music when Petulla gives his teammate a lift to practice.
"It was like having a 22-year-old right beside me. He listens to rap, hip-hop, R&B," Petulla says. "He's always like, 'I need to get that on my iPod, get some of this stuff on it.' So it's kind of funny."
Wilson has friends closer to his age, too, namely Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker. They met during one of those many instances over the years when Wilson hung around the ballpark, stayed in touch and now talk every couple of months.
Baker knows Wilson by the nickname, "Buck." Wilson says Baker helped him pay the tuition bill his freshman year.
"I told him if he was going to do it, I'd help him," Baker said at Reds spring training camp in Sarasota, Fla. "My mom went back to school at 40. I told him if my mom could go back to school at 40 with five kids, he could."
"I've heard the kids love him," Baker says. "I'm proud of him."
Though Wilson is in his last year of eligibility, he's scheduled to complete his degree in human development and family studies in 2009. From there, he doesn't know what he'll do, though he's thinking about coaching full time or, perhaps, going into sports psychology.
Before that, though, there's a senior season to complete. The team starts play this weekend in Florida during the school's spring break. Wilson plans to get away to see Baker at Reds camp during a day off.
"I'm just as happy as a lark, man, because I'm doing what I'm doing," Wilson says. "Baseball. It's great."