Kenny Wilson rising high down under with Canberra
*Blue Jays farmhand Kenny Wilson is spending the winter down under with the Canberra Cavalry. Photo: Scott Powick/SMP Images.
By Alexis Brudnicki
Brisbane, Australia — Though it might be a surprise to fans in Canada, the Toronto Blue Jays have had a significant history in the Australian Baseball League.
Toronto’s roots in its fellow commonwealth country began the first time the ABL was in action, seeing some big-name minor leaguers spend their off-seasons down under, getting in time and at-bats before heading overseas to work their way up in the Blue Jays farm system. When the league was around previously, it saw Vernon Wells in a Sydney Storm uniform, Shannon Stewart playing for the Sydney Blues and Homer Bush was the league’s batting champion as a member of the Brisbane Bandits.
Prior to sending prospects John Tolisano and Kenny Wilson to the Canberra Cavalry this ABL season, the Blue Jays missed out on the option of sending players to Australia for winter ball, as the league went on a 10-year hiatus between 2001 and 2010. The break in play probably contributed to the lack of general knowledge that players and fans in the northern hemisphere have of the ABL.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” Wilson said of the league. “I knew it was fairly new [this time around] and they said they hadn’t played in like 10 years or something like that. It was all new to me though. I didn’t know anything about it.”
After Wilson’s season was cut short in Class-A Advanced Dunedin over the North American summer, the Blue Jays thought his winter might be well-spent in the Aussie league. The 21-year-old played only 48 games for the Florida State League team due to a torn left labrum injury that required surgery in June.
Doug Davis, Blue Jays Minor League Field Coordinator, asked Wilson if he would be interested in playing winter ball, and the outfielder packed up and hopped on a very long plane ride to Canberra. Before his journey across the world, Wilson tried to gather as much information as he could about the league and the competition.
“I tried to look up stadiums and team names and people who have played here and people who were going to be here this year,” he said. “But I mean that’s about all I could find on the league.”
Helping Wilson with the transition from Blue Jays baseball to the Australian game was highly-touted Jays prospect John Tolisano, who finished up the 2011 season in Double-A with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, champions of the Eastern League. Though the two Toronto farmhands started the ABL season together, Tolisano suffered a shoulder injury during the second week of play, sending him home for the year.
The switch-hitting 23-year-old got off to a torrid start, earning him Player of the Week honours in Round 1 of ABL action. While Tolisano’s presence is missed in the Cavalry lineup, the Blue Jays are still represented on the field and at the dish as Wilson gets ready for Spring Training.
“I’m just trying to make consistent, solid contact with the ball, not necessarily trying to hit .300 or anything,” Wilson said of his goals during his time down under. “I want to try to get on base. To me, getting on base is more important than my batting average because I can steal and we can score runs.”
Through 34 games in the ABL, the Tampa native is batting .250/.329/.375 with three home runs, eight doubles, 21 RBI and 11 walks. Wilson has 11 stolen bases, getting caught on the basepaths only one time. While his speed is an asset to the team, the young outfielder points to his 26 strikeouts as an area where he needs the most improvement.
“I definitely want to cut down on my strikeouts and try and get on base more,” Wilson said. “I’m just looking to score runs and get on base. I want to hit a little bit and just keep working on my defense and stealing bags and stuff like that.”
As Wilson continues to work toward Spring Training back at home in Florida, the comeback from his torn labrum would be complete if he can just find himself with a team out of camp.
“I’m just hoping that I still have a job,” he said of where he hopes to be at the end of March. “A job is never set in stone so I want to go into Spring Training and play hard. Hopefully I can break camp with a team and be in Dunedin or Double-A or whatever it is, but that’s my main goal. I just want to make a full-season team.”
Although he has seemingly simple short-term objectives, Wilson is constantly pushing himself to get the next level, but is most proud of what he’s already been able to accomplish. Getting drafted by the Blue Jays in the second round (63rd overall) of the 2008 draft was something the current Canberra outfielder had always dreamed of. Just 18 years old at the time, the decision wasn’t a tough one for Wilson, who earned $644,000 as a signing bonus.
“The money was right for me and my family and we felt that the decision we made was the right one,” he said. “I definitely wanted to go to college but I’ve always wanted to play pro ball and I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity.”
With his college education paid for whenever he decides to pursue it, Wilson is happy just playing baseball day in and day out for right now. Getting the opportunity to take the field on a regular basis in Canberra, he’s found that there is much to enjoy about the league in Australia.
“The best thing is the guys here and the camaraderie we have,” Wilson said. “We don’t always have the best facilities or the best locker rooms or anything like that but we make the best of it. We joke around and we just have fun. It’s a lot of fun out here.”
Wilson compares the Canadian guys he’s played with to the Aussies he’s befriended in the league, most notably because of their shared positive demeanour.
“I think for the most part they’re all pretty happy,” he said of Canadians. “They’re not too crazy. That’s the main thing I’ve noticed. Them and the Australians, they’re pretty happy most of the time.”
Though he’s never made a trip to Canada, Wilson looks forward to someday having a chance to be in Toronto, whether it be as a Blue Jay, or just to make a visit.
“I’d love to go there because I heard it’s a really nice city. I heard it’s beautiful up there and I would definitely love to go up there and check it out.”