100 YEARS OF FLORIDA BASEBALL
Versatile Wilkerson tops list of UF baseball greats
Published: Friday, February 14, 2014 at 6:15 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 at 4:45 p.m.
The best player to suit up for a Florida baseball team almost left before he took an official at-bat.
It was the fall of 1995 and Brad Wilkerson was struggling. The freshman from Owensboro, Ky., had chosen to be part of coach Andy Lopez's second team at UF, but nothing was working.
“Maybe it was being away from home, but it was a tough fall,” he said. “I thought I might go home. It was really bad.”
But in the last week of fall ball, something clicked. And it launched a career that earned him a nickname with the baseball diehards who attended the games — “Bluegrass Badass.”
As Florida approaches its 100th season of baseball, The Sun picked the top 100 players in school history. At the top is the left-hander who led the Gators to a pair of College World Series appearances.
“I don't have words for it,” Wilkerson said from Palm Beach Gardens where he coaches his son's middle school baseball team. “All the great players who have come through Florida. I don't know if it will last long the way Sully (Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan) recruits.”
An O'Sullivan recruit — catcher Mike Zunino — finished second on our list and two others are in the top 15. But Wilkerson stands alone at the top after an unparalleled three-year career with the Gators.
How impressive was Wilkerson? Andy Lopez has coached two teams to national titles — at Pepperdine and Arizona — but there is no question in his mind that the best player he coached was at the University of Florida.
“There's no way I'll ever coach another player like Brad Wilkerson,” Lopez said.
Wilkerson would be in the argument if you just went with what he did at the plate. He has the school's best all-time career batting average at .381 and ranks second all-time in RBIs and runs. His 55 homers in three seasons is the third-best total at Florida.
But what puts Wilkerson over the top was that he was also the Gator closer during their run to the CWS in his freshman season in 1996 and was a starting pitcher his last two seasons. His 26 wins are the fourth best total at UF and he is fifth all-time in strikeouts.
“I thought he was going to hit,” Lopez said. “He was too good, too confident. He oozed it. I really didn't think he would pitch as well as he did. I thought he'd be OK. But he was so competitive.”
It was at the CWS where Wilkerson provided one of those unforgettable games. Against Florida State in Florida's first game in Omaha, Wilkerson hit a grand slam in the eighth inning to give Florida the lead, then came in to pitch the ninth to close out the victory.
“There were times when you just wondered, 'How is he doing what he's doing?' ” Lopez said.
Wilkerson hears about that game all the time, even from FSU fans.
“I run into people all the time who bring up that game,” he said. “It's not such a great memory for the FSU fans.”
Wilkerson was named college baseball's player of the year in his junior season and was drafted in the first round by Montreal. He played for five teams in eight seasons, belting 122 home runs and knocking in 399 runs.
But major league statistics and accolades were not considered in the selection of the top 100 (which is why players with excellent major league careers — such as Robby Thompson and Ryan Raburn — but did little at Florida didn't make it.)
Wilkerson didn't play in the first game of his Florida career at Miami because Lopez wanted to ease him into the lineup.
“He was bouncing around the dugout and I finally told him, 'Wilkie, will you sit down?' ” Lopez said. “He said, 'I need to be playing.' And after that, he did.”
But his favorite story about Wilkerson is about batting practice when the players would try to hit the buses parked outside the left-field fence in the O'Connell Center parking lot for basketball TV broadcasts or concerts. One day Wilkerson, who was not a switch-hitter, decided he'd switch to the other side of the plate and try to hit a bus.
“I got Tim McGraw's tour bus,” he said.