WIlkes bypasses big stage for baseball

Eugene, OR: There are 50,000-plus fans fixated on Chris Wilkes any and every move as leans under center barking out a snap count in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. This is South Eastern Conference Football (SEC), and Wilkes has one of the best jobs in all of America: Quarterbacking the Ole Miss Rebels.

Each Saturday, Chris Wilkes and the Rebels are on national television, ESPN, ESPN 2, ABC and CBS, competing in some of the most hostile stadiums in the country, in arguably the best conference in all of college football. It is a dream that hundreds of thousands of young boys across America have — a dream that, for the majority of those boys, will never be realized. It will become irrational, impossible, unrealistic and far-fetched. But for a handful of gifted athletes, it will become a reality.

For Wilkes, the dream was realized. He signed on the dotted line and committed to play football for Ole Miss during his senior year at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, FL., the same school that produced Johnny Damon and A.J. Pierzynski. He even planned on heading to Ole Miss in the summer of 2008 so he could attend the second session of summer school.

In interviews, Wilkes made it sound concrete. He was on his way to Oxford, Mississippi. Those plans went out the door when Wilkes was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 19th-round of the 2008 MLB Draft. Ole Miss tried to lure him to Mississippi by offering him another scholarship to play baseball as well as football, but Wilkes rejected, and that was that. He turned down a chance to be a two-sport athlete in the SEC, he turned his back on his favorite sport and he signed with the Padres, beginning the uncertain road to what he hopes is a career in the major leagues.

Wilkes could have been a part of Ole Miss's 9-4 2008 record. He could have been a part of the thrilling 31-30 victory at the Swamp against Tim Tebow and the No. 4 Florida Gators. He could have been a part of the stunning 2008 Cotton Bowl victory over Texas Tech, 47-34. He could be closer to his family and friends, spending the summer preparing to face perennial powerhouses, Florida, LSU, Georgia, Alabama and the rest of the SEC.

Instead, Wilkes has a much smaller roll, in a much more relaxed environment. He is in Eugene, Oregon, 3,100 miles away from his home in Orlando, Florida, playing Class A summer baseball for the Eugene Emeralds in the Northwest League, where the average game attendance is 3,500, not 50,000-plus.

Sound like a bad trade-off? Not to Wilkes.

"I felt like this was my opportunity to take it," Wilkes said. "You don't know if you're going to get another chance like this, you could get hurt or something like that, and I felt like ‘ok if this doesn't work out I can always go back to school and play football still.'"

Baseball was never his best sport. That was always football, a sport Wilkes had instantaneous success in as soon as he entered high school.

As a freshman, Wilkes took over the starting quarterback job at the end of the season in which the Panthers finished 0-10. Between his freshman and sophomore year, Wilkes sprouted nearly five inches, from 5-foot-11 to 6-foot-4. Sophomore year, Wilkes helped turned the program around as he led the Panthers to a 5-5 record. During his junior season, Wilkes threw for 1,146 yards and 14 touchdowns. As a senior, Wilkes and D1 prospect teammates, helped the Panthers finished the complete transformation of the football program in 2008, as Dr. Phillips finished 10-0, ranked Top-5 in the nation. Wilkes threw for 1,360 yards and 16 touchdowns and was rated the No. 49 quarterback prospect in the nation by Scout.com.

Along with Ole Miss, Wilkes was being recruited by the University of Miami (FL), Georgia Tech, Arizona State, Nebraska and Colorado.

Wilkes wasn't noticed on the baseball diamond till the end of his junior year.

"We started facing better competition, my velocity got harder, and [we] beat a big-time team that was really good, they were 24-0 and we beat them, 2-1," said Wilkes, who pitched a complete game. "I think that put me on the map that game.

"I guess football you could say was my first love and then once I got into pitching and got older, I felt like I could dominate when I want to. I felt like it was on my shoulders more so I could control it."

Wilkes' senior year saw him go 4-1 with 60 strikeouts and a 2.27 ERA in 46.1 innings.

Pitching was appealing to Wilkes because he felt like he didn't have to rely on anyone else. He didn't have to worry about a receiver catching his pass, a lineman missing his assignment. He just had to worry about himself.

"Baseball, I'm pitching, if I give up a hit, it's my fault, it's not someone else catching a pass, or someone else worrying about my backside blocking for me," Wilkes said.

So far, this summer has definitely been a learning experience for Wilkes and success hasn't come as quickly as it did in Arizona. In his season debut for the Ems, Wilkes faced just 12 batters in four shutout innings, but ran into trouble in the fifth inning, giving up four runs. Despite his difficult inning and slow start this season, Wilkes has remained patient and has learned to let the game come to him—he understand that in this league, he doesn't have to shoulder all the blame anymore.

"It's a game of peaks of valleys and you just can't be too high, or not too low," Wilkes admits.

Last summer, Wilkes had tremendous success with the Arizona League Padres, where he went 7-1 with 3.21 ERA over 15 games and 10 total starts. In 61.2 innings of work, Wilkes allowed 64 hits, struck out 45 batters, while walking just five. At seasons end, he was tied for the most wins in the league.

"We know it's there," Ems' pitching coach Bronswell Patrick said. "He did it last year, that's why he raised everybody's eyebrows because he went out and did what he did last year.

"He won seven games for us down there last year. He was able to command all his pitches, use his changeup behind in the count, throw his slider over for strikes, and that's what's hurt him this year, he hasn't been able to throw his changeup behind in the count or use his slider when he wanted to. We've been working on the side and things like that, so I think it's going to come around. It's going to turnaround for him as soon as he gets more and more confident throwing certain pitches in certain situations."

Wilkes has learned some valuable lessons in the Northwest League.

"Staying down in the zone is huge," Wilkes said. "As soon as you get up, you make that mistake and you get hurt."

"He's the type of kid that they [the Padres organization] are high on, he's just got to go out there and perform," Patrick said. "I have a lot of confidence in him."

Patrick and the organization were pleased that Wilkes came into spring training in such good shape, but he emphasized that Wilkes still needs to go the extra mile.

"He's the type of guy that has to go out and work hard and do the extra things that the other kid maybe doesn't really have to do to get by, but he's the type of kid that he's really got to go out and do the extra part of it to be successful," Patrick noted. "That's something we always talk to him about, ‘Hey make sure you're taking care of yourself off the field and let your performance take care of itself on the field.'"

If Wilkes said he didn't think about what could have been at Ole Miss, he'd be lying, but he knows that this is where he is supposed to be.

"I miss it [football] sometimes when I see a game or something like that, and you see all the fans and the college atmosphere and stuff like that," Wilkes acknowledged. "But when I look at it now, I'm so glad that I took this opportunity. I don't regret it at all."

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