Kovacevic: On Melancon, Mandela, molding

| Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, 10:25 p.m.

Mark Melancon is a deeply spiritual man with a diverse world view. So even though his job demands that he emerge from the Pirates' pen in the eighth or ninth inning of nail-biters night after night, he has always taken to heart Clint Hurdle's favorite credo: “The game doesn't know it's important.”

It's how the manager impresses upon his players to perform as they normally would, no matter the setting. That there's always something somewhere that means more.

Here's betting Melancon has never grasped it with a greater feel.

“What an experience this has been,” he was saying Saturday by phone from Johannesburg, South Africa, where he's representing Major League Baseball on a two-week mission to promote the game. “It's been so moving, so humbling.”

There's one reason above all, and it has nothing to do with baseball: Nelson Mandela, the iconic South African freedom fighter, died Thursday.

The hotel where Melancon checked in the next day happened to be two blocks from Mandela's home.

“I'd look outside, and all you could see are mourners, people carrying pictures, crying,” he said. “It's like the whole city of Johannesburg shut down. There were traffic jams everywhere … and rightfully so. It really gave me a firsthand sense for how much Nelson Mandela meant. I'll never forget it.”

At the Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building, Mandela's life was celebrated by those structures being lit in the six colors of the South African flag. Where Melancon was, he simply opened the drapes, surveyed the scene and, as so many of us did, read up a bit.

“I found a good book that brought some light to it for me,” he said. “His life was built on compassionate acts, on kindness. There's a lesson in it for all of us.”

On Saturday, Melancon began giving lessons of his own in South Africa. He and the Kansas City Royals' Jeremy Guthrie are guest instructors at MLB's African Elite Camp, which collects 36 of the continent's top baseball players ages 15-19 as well as 15 coaches, mostly from the host nation, Nigeria, Uganda and Ghana.

“The players were raw, no question, and you can see they're different depending on the conditions they come from,” he said. “South Africa's a little ahead, the Nigerians next, but those from the other countries … they play back home without shoes. Which for me …”

He paused.

“In the positive sense, it's refreshing, you know? It's about love for the game. To see that here, where baseball is kind of a backup sport to cricket, to have these kids love our game, that's special. It makes me look forward to the day when you can see real quality come out of here, maybe get kids drafted.”

Baseball doesn't have an international draft yet, of course, but the Pirates made waves in 2008 by signing Gift Ngoepe, born and raised in South Africa, out of a scouting combine in Italy. Ngoepe, a 23-year-old second baseman, reported to Bradenton as raw as they come. But he has reached the high Class A level and, this past summer, was named the system's best defensive infielder by Baseball America.

Melancon hasn't met Ngoepe but plans to seek him out next spring.

“Anyone who can do what Gift's done, what these kids here try to do against these odds, my hat's off,” he said.

This is Melancon's third Elite Camp venture for MLB after sessions in Taiwan in 2011 and New Zealand in 2012, and he comes across as a big believer in Bud Selig's decade-long push to expand baseball's international borders beyond Latin America and the Far East.

“It's a great game we have,” Melancon said, “and it's an honor to take it to places where they're just picking it up.”

Australia has produced 202 professional contracts out of its Elite Camp since opened in 2001. The European camp has produced 57 contracts from 10 countries since 2005. When outfielder Donald Lutz made the Cincinnati Reds this past summer, he was the first major leaguer to have been trained in Germany. The Royals just paid a 16-year-old Italian, shortstop Marten Gasparini, a $1.3 million bonus that was highest in European history. Even in Brazil, where most every child is a one-named soccer star in waiting, the camp has produced seven contracts in its first two years.

It might take a while, but long-term, long-distance outreaches always do.

And eventually they come back the other way.

Melancon had lunch Saturday with members of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, which is exactly what it sounds: They study the physics and other properties of several sports, including baseball. And part of that study, apparently, involved watching a whole lot of Root Sports over the dish.

“I love this. It's amazing because here we are, thousands of miles from Pittsburgh, and they're telling me how they were watching the Pirates and how they felt like they were right there in PNC Park for our playoff games,” Melancon said. “Man, I loved hearing that. It made me proud that our game and our great fans could be felt this far away.”

Hmm. Maybe the game is important.

“It is, in its own way,” Melancon said. “But Clint's right: There's always something bigger.”

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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