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Canadian has an American dream

Like many of his childhood friends, Nigel Wilson dreamed of someday becoming a professional athlete. And when you grow up about 30 minutes away from the famed Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, chances are you dream of playing hockey for the Toronto Maple Leafs. But not Wilson. He didn't want to play hockey for Toronto. Or Montreal. Or any other Canadian city for that matter. "The sport just never did interest me," he said.

What? A red-blooded Canadian who isn't interested in hockey?

"That's right," Wilson said. "I never wanted to play, never even thought about playing. A lot of my friends did, but not me. I just didn't like it. Baseball was my sport."

And so far, the Toronto Blue Jays _ the city's other team _ is glad Wilson would rather scoot around the bases than skate around the ice.

After three seasons feeling his way through baseball's minor leagues, the Dunedin centerfielder is making this Florida State League season his personal coming-out party. Check out his numbers going into the weekend:

sixth in the FSL in batting (.321).

tied for second in the FSL in home runs with six.

tied for fifth in the FSL in RBI with 26.

a team-leading 10 stolen bases.

And that's just at the plate. Defensively, Wilson has been little short of spectacular, with a knack for the incredible catch.

Last Monday against St. Petersburg, Wilson displayed his talents as a runner, acrobat and thrower in one incredible play. Wilson turned on his speed and then stretched far to his left to snare a sinking liner off the bat of Paul Ellis. As if that wasn't enough, Wilson quickly rose to his feet and threw a strike to first baseman Bill Abare, doubling off St. Petersburg's Skeet Thomas.

"That's what the game is all about _ playing hard," Wilson said. "You go out and play hard and good things will happen."

And regardless of the results or the sport, Wilson said he has always played hard. Back in his hometown of Ajax, Ontario, ("No jokes about the name of the town," Wilson said while breaking into laughter), Wilson was a three-sport athlete, starring in basketball and volleyball as well as baseball. Wilson says baseball wins out over basketball as his favorite _ barely.

While playing for the Team Canada junior team, Wilson was scouted by the Blue Jays, who signed him as a free agent in 1987.

But after his first two seasons in the minors, Wilson might have wished he had stuck with basketball. At St. Catherines of the Class A New York-Penn League, Wilson batted .204 and .217 in his first two seasons. It wasn't until last year at Myrtle Beach of the Sally League that Wilson showed signs of promise, hitting .273 with 16 home runs and 62 RBI in 110 games.

"The first couple of years were rough," Wilson said. "You look around and there's competition everywhere. Everyone on your team was a star at his high school and everyone is good. But you just can't get intimidated by that. You have to have a bit of arrogance. You have to be a little cocky to make it."

Wilson hopes to make it back to Ajax someday so he can drive into Toronto past Maple Leaf Gardens and to his place of employment _ SkyDome, where the Blue Jays play.

"Ajax has a couple of known athletes," Wilson said. "We have a swimmer, a couple of tennis players. But no real big-name baseball players. I'd like to be the first."

Bo knows imitators: Bo Jackson set the modern precedent for playing football and baseball, but the Florida State League is becoming a training ground for Bo wannabes. Last season, Minnesota running back and former Penn State great D.J. Dozier tore up the FSL with St. Lucie before the parent club New York Mets promoted him to Class AA. This season, former Michigan placekicker Mike Gillette batted .275 at Lakeland before the Detroit Tigers moved the catcher to Class AA last week. Not so coincidentally, Gillette's college football coach was Bo Schembechler, now president of the Tigers.

How do the St. Petersburg Cardinals spell relief? They don't. With the recent promotion of relief ace Troy Salvior, the Cardinals' pitching staff has just one save. Salvior had eight before moving up to Class AA Arkansas. The lack of a bona fide stopper showed sorely twice last week. Against Dunedin on Wednesday, the Cardinals gave up seven runs in the eighth inning and five more in the ninth inning to lose 12-4. Two nights later, the bullpen blew a 3-1 lead when Clearwater scored five runs in the eighth inning and four runs in the ninth inning for a 10-3 rout.