ShareThis Page

Pirates minor-league prospect making strides

| Saturday, Feb. 24, 2007

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.

Speed to burn
Outfielder Nyjer Morgan stole 59 bases last season, which ranked him second behind Pedro Powell (63 steals) among all Pirates minor leaguers. Morgan's career stolen base totals:

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."

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.