Did I just see right?
In the batter’s box with a 3-0 count, Julio Franco on first base and his Cleveland Indians tied 3-3 with the Seattle Mariners with one out in the seventh inning, Nigel Wilson couldn’t believe the signal being relayed from third base coach Jeff Newman.
Expecting the take sign, the left-handed outfielder was stunned when he was given the green light to swing at the next pitch.
Seasoned fastball hitters are usually given the go-ahead to swing at anything close as pitchers would try to get the count back in their favour with a fastball down the middle of the plate, which they assume hitters will take.
However, Wilson was the furthest thing from a tested major league hitter.
Hitless in his first 25 at-bats with 16 strikeouts and no walks, he was certainly not a candidate to be given the green light on a Mike Jackson 3-0 pitch.
Yet here was Wilson in a tight late-inning ball game being asked to do that with a hitter’s count.
“In that situation, I am definitely taking the next ball so I was very surprised when the third base coach gave me the green light which I was not expecting,” he said.
As he settled back into the batter’s box, Wilson devised a plan.
“If the ball was close, I was going to swing,” he said.
As expected, Jackson threw a fastball right down the middle, which Wilson deposited 440 feet away for his first major league hit.
“Your first hit at that level is always something that’s special, but to do it with a home run was very exciting,” said Wilson, who was born and raised in Ajax. “It would have been much more fulfilling though if my parents were there.”
Wilson’s first home run was recorded in the second game of a double header in 1996.
“My parents were at the ball park for the first game which I didn’t get into and they left to get back home,” he said. “On the drive back, they had the radio on listening to the second game, so they were at least able to hear when I hit the home run.”
Wilson said he was surprised when manager Mike Hargrove summoned him to pinch hit in the seventh inning of the double header.
“I was in that position many times before and nothing happened, so I didn’t think much when the manager told me to go to the tunnel and swing a bat,” said Wilson. “While I was doing that, he told me I was on deck.”
Signed by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1987 as an amateur free agent while in Grade 12 at Ajax High School, much was expected of Wilson.
After four seasons in the minor leagues that included a .274 average with 26 home runs, 69 runs batted in (RBI) and 137 strikeouts in 137 games at Double “A” Knoxville in 1992, Wilson was in Venezuela playing winter ball that year when he learned that the expansion Florida Marlins had drafted him second overall behind pitcher David Nied, who was the first overall pick.
A nagging quadriceps injury and his failure to adjust to the breaking ball resulting in far too many strikeouts delayed Wilson’s major league debut until September 1993. After seven games and 11 strikeouts, he was shipped to Cincinnati, where he appeared in five games before joining Cleveland, where he played 10 games and picked up three hits in 13 plate appearances.
With just 22 major league games and a disappointing .086 average under his belt, Wilson headed to Japan, where he enjoyed much success.
Playing for the Nippon Ham Fighters, he captured the batting crown in his first season with 94 RBIs, his second successive home run title the following season and went 4-4 with a three-run home run in 2000 before retiring the following season.
It was only when his career was winding down in Japan did Wilson turn his attention to what his life was going to be after baseball.
“Having spent most of my life in the sport, I knew I wanted to open a baseball facility where I could teach and mentor young people,” he said.
In 2007, Wilson launched The Competitive Edge, a baseball facility in Ajax with four retractable batting cages, an open area for fielding ground balls and a simulator that measures real-time data and displays live results for instant feedback.
Last year, he unveiled travelling Under-16 and 18 showcase teams – Ontario Yankees – that play about 50 games against their age group in Canada and the United States from May to August. To be eligible for selection, players must be averaging not less than 75 per cent in school.
Wilson is proud of these achievements and a recent honour bestowed on him by the Durham District School Board, which welcomed him into its “Definitely Durham” Hall of Fame.
“This one stands out for me,” said Wilson. “Most of the awards I have won are sports-related, but to be recognized for community service and being a role model is special.”
The son of Trinidadian immigrants, Wilson spends a lot of time interacting with young people in schools and the community.
“I try to stress the importance of staying on the right path, pursuing goals and not falling prey to peer pressure and distractions,” said the married father of four children, who conducts camps for the Blue Jays across the country. “I let them know they are going to face hurdles which they will have to deal with as they go along. Making the wrong decision could however possibly ruin a life.”
Wilson recalled the challenges he faced in his first year as a professional baseball player.
“When I turned pro, life became real difficult and I was not prepared for what I was up against,” he said. “I would sit in restaurants in Alabama and not get served because of my skin colour. I used to call my parents and tell them that the stuff I saw on TV was real because I was experiencing it. My Black teammates were Americans from the south, who were accustomed to that treatment, so they knew what to expect. I didn’t. I had to grow up very fast and remind myself I was there to play baseball.”