Like most 7-year-olds, Nyjer Morgan dreamed of one day becoming a professional athlete. Just not the kind of athlete anyone would expect - or the kind of athlete he has become today.
Morgan didn’t dream of playing center field in the major leagues. He dreamt of hoisting the Stanley Cup at center ice.
Yes, the Washington Nationals’ new spark-plug leadoff man wanted to play hockey. Actually, he did play hockey, spending four seasons in the Canadian junior leagues before turning his attention full time to baseball.
For plenty of kids who grew up in Canada, the Upper Midwest or New England, that wouldn’t seem like such an unusual story. Morgan, though, grew up in San Jose, Calif., where hockey barely registered on anyone’s radar screen, let alone a 7-year-old black kid.
But from the moment he watched the 1988 Winter Olympic Games on television, Morgan was captivated by the sport.
“I told my dad I wanted to play,” he said. “Went to the local sign-ups and then went from there.”
There’s only so much top-level ice hockey a kid can play in San Jose, so at 16, Morgan took his game north of the border. He spent the next four years bouncing around several Canadian junior league teams, including the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League, a breeding ground for future NHL stars.
Though he scored two goals in his debut game, Morgan (an aggressive, intense forward) wasn’t quite skilled enough to play at that level, and he was released after only seven games. Knowing he needed to go to school, he hooked up with the baseball coach at Walla Walla Community College and wound up starting a new and ultimately far more lucrative career.
With his speed, ability to track down fly balls to the gaps and talent on the basepaths, Morgan was a natural on the diamond. He didn’t draw much attention coming out of a tiny community college in Washington but the Pittsburgh Pirates made him their 33rd round draft pick in 2002.
Seven years later, he finally found himself with a starting job on a big league roster. And following his trade to the Nationals last week, the 29-year-old now finds himself as the leadoff man and center fielder.
Hockey, though, is always in his thoughts. When the Pirates had an off-day last April, Morgan and then-teammate Nate McLouth went to Mellon Arena and skated with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“He looked good,” said McLouth, who grew up in Muskegon, Mich., playing on outdoor ponds. “You could tell he was pretty good back in the day when he played.”
And when the Penguins, fresh off their Stanley Cup victory over the Detroit Red Wings, brought the famed trophy to PNC Park a few days later, Morgan was practically moved to tears.
“The whole thing gave me the willies,” he said at the time. “Honestly, I got really emotional. That’s our team, from our city, and I grew up with hockey as my first love. When you’re a kid playing hockey, that’s your dream, to see the Cup, to touch the Cup, and there it was right in front of me.”
Now that he’s living in the District, perhaps someone will gently point out to Morgan that the Penguins aren’t exactly popular in these parts and he’ll switch allegiance to the Capitals.
No matter what team he roots for, Morgan’s hockey mentality makes him a better baseball player. He tracks down fly balls with the same burst of speed as a winger on a breakaway. He takes out shortstops as if he were checking an opponent into the boards. And he plays with the kind of underdog mentality that only comes from a life spent defying the odds.
“I ain’t even supposed to be here,” he said. “I just think having myself be able to open up some eyes and being able to come to an organization that wants me, that’s really special.”
By John Solomon
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