Mookie Wilson is well aware that the first thing baseball fans think of when they hear his name is the ground ball he hit between Bill Buckner's legs to win Game 6 of the 1986 World Series for the New York Mets. So aware, in fact, that the first paragraph of the preface to his new book, "Mookie: Life, Baseball and the '86 Mets," addresses it, just to get it out of the way.
But there's so much more to the Mook. Born William Hayward Wilson, he still has no idea why folks started calling him "Mookie." Though he's an accomplished chef, he is a devotee of protein shakes. He's a fisherman, a licensed securities trader and a truck driver who goes by the handle "Night Rider."
And soon Wilson will be an ordained Baptist minister.
On a rainy Thursday in May, Wilson strutted on the stage at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, sharply clad in black pants and an extra-long brown sport coat. He was speaking to a group of students, many of them athletes, many of them African-American, on the subject "Sports and Race in America."
"Sure, I could run faster, hit the ball farther and throw harder than the next guy, but I didn't want my intellect measured by my athletic ability," Wilson said. "The goal is not to walk in the office and demand a multimillion-dollar contract. The goal is to achieve unrestricted equality."
Wilson, now 58, has seen his share of inequality, and he makes that point. He was raised on a farm in Bamberg, S.C., with six brothers and five sisters. Wilson's father was a sharecropper, and it was the 1960s, when the civil rights movement was just gaining steam. Blacks weren't allowed to go to the same restaurants or doctors as whites. Schools, movie theaters and restrooms were segregated, and tensions were high.
"They were troubling times, when you really had to be careful where you went and what you said," Wilson said. "But segregated America is a story to today's youth. They don't understand there is still a segment of this country that refuses to do away with a deep, embedded anger, resentment, even hatred. I don't accept it, but I have learned to coexist with the way things are, and succeed in spite of it."
It's easy to see why Wilson will make a good preacher. His megawatt smile is as bright under the stage lights as it was under the outfield lights at Shea, and his contagious laugh ripples into the microphone as he tells the LaGuardia students that the American Dream is about being happy, not making money.
"I'm a retired athlete, plain and simple, who has to work for a living, and there is no shame in that," Wilson said. "I'm proud of who I am. I'm happy in my own skin. I accept my faults. I'm not perfect, and I'm not trying to be."
What Wilson is trying to do is make the congregation of Zion Mill Creek Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C., realize he's more than just a ballplayer. Even as a child on the farm, religion and baseball were separate -- Saturdays were for ballgames, Sundays for church.
Wilson, whose wife, Rosa, is already an ordained minister, became involved with Zion Mill Creek Baptist by starting a Future Leaders program, mentoring young men on Saturday mornings and taking them on outings. He enjoyed it so much that he began taking ministerial classes, learning to write sermons and practicing his delivery. Wilson is now an associate pastor but has yet to go through the process (an oral examination) to become officially ordained, mostly because his duties as an ambassador and instructor for the Mets often call him away from the church.
"Mookie is ready," said Bishop Wendell Sumter of Zion Mill Creek Baptist. "He's genuine in his calling and is very humble, despite all the accolades he has received. He's only himself. He doesn't try to be anyone else, and when you have that spirit, people are willing to listen and hear what you have to say."
Wilson knows there are people who only go to church to see "Mookie Wilson, center fielder" deliver a sermon, but he's a realist, too.
"If my name brings even one more person to the church who might not have come if I wasn't there, and they feel God's grace through one of my sermons, then it's a very good thing," he said. "I would just prefer that people come to believe that if I had never played ball, being a minister would have been my true calling."
Wilson tries to make the Bible's messages relevant to today's society, playing on popular commercials and sayings in his sermons, such as, "Batteries Not Included" and "Can You Hear Me Now?" But he also uses a little bit of baseball in nearly every sermon he gives, because the game taught him so much.
"I use baseball as a platform to get my message across, and it's always greatly received," Wilson said. "I will use it until I run out of baseball stories."
Wilson has so many stories, especially about those '86 Mets. They were champions, but they were also a raucous bunch known for partying as hard as they played.
"Baseball can get really, really, crazy," Wilson said, "but my religious background kept me grounded. The Bible says, 'Teach your child the way he should go, and when he gets older, he will not depart.' Well, guess what? That worked for me."
Now, although part of Wilson wishes he were managing the Mets, the rest of him is content to guide others down their proper path.