- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 24, 2009

BRADENTON, FLA. (AP) - Like the team he plays for, Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson believes it’s time to stop being a follower and start being a leader.

Wilson, now the clubhouse leader in seniority with eight seasons in Pittsburgh, is more conscious of helping to show the way on a rebuilding team he believes is showing signs of coming out of a slump that began in the 1990s.

“I’ve always been hesitant on that leadership role,” said Wilson, the only Pirates player to have been in their lineup every season since they moved into PNC Park in 2001. “I’ve always felt there’s been someone in the clubhouse that has more time than myself, and it’s not really my job. This is the first year I’ve been the senior guy. It definitely puts a change in you and your heart and how you want to lead.”

To prove that, Wilson is becoming an example for the Pirates’ ever-growing cast of younger players by following hitting coach Don Long’s suggestion to revamp the hands-at-head-level swing the 31-year-old Wilson has relied upon for a quarter-century.

“It’s really hard; it’s been really tough for me,” Wilson said. “I can show you films of me at age 6 and my hands are high. My son (6-year-old Jacob) holds his hands high.”

Wilson decided to cast off the only swing he’s known after he couldn’t hit for power a year ago following a calf injury that sidelined him for nearly two months. He ended the season with only one homer in 305 at-bats, down from the 12 he hit in 477 at-bats in 2007.

Something was wrong, and Wilson realized he needed to fix it. Instead of a tuneup, he went for an overhaul by adopting a swing that begins with his hands much lower than before.

Most major league hitters are reluctant to make such a drastic change, especially during what might be a contract season. Wilson is making $7.25 million in the final season of a three-year contract, although the Pirates have a club option of $8.4 million for 2010.

“It’s like a pitcher who throws overhand going to submarine,” Wilson said. “Probably no one knew it since we got here, but me and Donnie Long completely changed my stroke, completely changed my mechanics. … It’s the most foreign thing in the world when you’ve always been a hands-high hitter.”

Long encouraged the change because he believes that lowering his hands will allow Wilson to keep his bat in the hitting zone longer than before.

“If we hadn’t had the World Baseball Classic and the longer spring, we might not have done it,” Wilson said. “So far it’s starting to click a little bit. I’m not getting ahead of myself, but we’ll keep working and see how consistent we can be.”

Wilson agreed to make the change with the one caveat that, if he was convinced it wasn’t working, he could go back to his familiar swing. He didn’t even switch back while going 0-for-23 during a slump that ended Saturday, and he had a pair of doubles Monday during a 4-1 victory over Tampa Bay.

“Obviously, I didn’t really like it that much at first _ you’ve got to change your whole swing,” Wilson said. “But, watching films from past years of my bat path, he (Long) showed me we could have a better pass at the ball if we brought the hands down.”

Wilson has been with the Pirates for half of their major league record-tying 16 consecutive losing seasons, and he knows he is running out of time to play for a winner. He was nearly traded last season, and again during the offseason, and is all but certain to be dealt this season before his contract runs out.

Perhaps the only scenario in which Wilson stays with Pittsburgh the whole season, other than getting hurt, is for the Pirates to play far better than expected from a team that lost 379 games the last four seasons.

“What I like is we’re developing a bunch of leaders here,” Wilson said. “Ryan Doumit is blossoming into a great leader, (Adam) LaRoche, Freddy (Sanchez), even some of the new guys _ Eric Hinske’s been in the World Series. You definitely feel like you can step it up.”

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