Pirates minor-league prospect making strides
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Before he was one of the fastest players in the Pirates' spring training camp, center fielder Nyjer Morgan was a flash on the ice.
Morgan, who grew up in California, has played baseball since he was 5 years old. But after watching the 1988 Winter Olympics on television, he fell in love with hockey.
"I saw that Canada-U.S. rivalry, the passion out there, and it drove me to the game," Morgan said. "The next week, I was at the rink."
"When I first started, I was a defenseman. But once people realized I was fast and always rushed the puck like Bobby Orr, I was always skating it up."
When he was 16, Morgan was invited to play junior hockey in Canada. He toured the Great White North for four years, including a stint with the Regina Pats of the Western League.
It was hard enough being an American on foreign soil, playing somebody else's national game. The color of Morgan's skin made it even more difficult.
"I was playing in little towns, and I was the only African-American in those towns," Morgan said. "I definitely had to bite my tongue a few times. It helped me be a better person, understanding personalities and how to adapt. It was tough, but I benefitted from it."
Morgan is 6 feet tall and a lithe 172 pounds, but he was not afraid to dish out some hits on the ice.
"I was a banger, always mucking in the corners," he said. "I had heart. If you have heart, it can push you a long way."
After his daughter was born, Morgan realized he'd better look beyond hockey and enroll in college. Morgan played two seasons at Walla Walla (Wash.) College, and the Pirates took him in the 33rd round of the 2002 draft.
In 2004, his second season as a pro, Morgan batted .255 and stole 55 bases at Class A Hickory. A year later, he was bumped up to Lynchburg. He raised his batting average to .286, but his steals dropped to 24.
Before the 2006 season, minor-league hitting instructor Gregg Ritchie told Morgan to hit the ball on the ground more often and use his speed.
"He's a pure runner," Ritchie said. "He made good strides about halfway through the season and kept running with it."
Morgan began last season with Lynchburg. After hitting .303 and stealing 38 bases, he was promoted to Class AA Altoona at the end of June.
Morgan finished second in the Class A Carolina League in steals, despite spending the final two months of the season with Altoona. His 21-game hitting streak is the longest in the history of the Lynchburg franchise.
Although he played in just 56 games for Altoona -- he was shut down for the season Aug. 27 by a hamstring injury -- Morgan wound up tied for the team lead with 21 stolen bases.
"If you have speed and you know how to use it, it's going to be a deadly weapon," Morgan said.
That rule holds true for baseball and hockey.
"I haven't touched the ice for about three or four years," said Morgan, 26. "This is what I love doing, so I had to make that transition from hockey to baseball. I've always been a baseball player at heart."