Bucs' Morgan inspired by hockey roots

Hockey roots inspire Bucs prospect Morgan

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Watching Nyjer Morgan motor effortlessly under fly ball after fly ball, you'd find it hard to believe that baseball hasn't always been a part of his life.

Standing six feet tall -- and that's stretching it -- maybe you'd have an even harder time believing the California-born Morgan spent the latter part of his teen years in Canada playing junior hockey.

Both are true, and each was necessary in Morgan's evolution into the player he is today.

The 1980 Olympics are forever engrained in memories as the time when the underdog United States hockey team completed its improbable run to the gold medal after a semifinal win over the heavily favored Soviet Union. Though the U.S. did not medal eight years later in Calgary, the competition wasn't lost on Morgan, as the then-7-year-old was so inspired he wasted little time dropping his cleats and hitting the ice.

"I saw that Canada-U.S. rivalry, the passion out there, and it drove me to the game," he said. "The next week, I was at the rink."

It was a love affair that led him to move to Canada at the age of 16 in order to further his hockey career. Things were difficult at times, Morgan said, because he was often the lone African-American in the small Canadian towns to which his team traveled. Mostly smaller than his opponents, Morgan developed the competitive edge he carries today by learning not to let the big boys push him around.

"I was always banging and mucking it up in the corner," he smiled. "If you bang somebody in the corner and they look at you, you couldn't shy way, you had to go."

Just four years after he moved north, he'd reached the major junior level with the Regina Pats, and called players such as current National Hockey League goalie Ryan Miller (Buffalo Sabres) his teammates and friends. But then, along came a daughter, and Morgan decided to dust off his cleats and attend college in order to be able to better support his family.

It proved to be a fortuitous decision indeed, as baseball scout Kevin Clouser soon discovered Morgan while Morgan was playing junior college baseball at Walla Walla College in Washington. In 2002, he was drafted by Pittsburgh in the 33rd round of the First-Year Player Draft, and just like that, he hung up his skates for good.

"I haven't touched the ice for about three or four years now," said Morgan, 26. "I do miss it, but [baseball] is what I want to do. Baseball is what I love doing, so I had to make that transition from hockey to baseball. I've always been a baseball player."

And he's always been fast, too. As a youngster, Morgan was a defender just long enough for his hockey coaches to learn that he skated like the wind, rushed the puck and liked to scrum, and then he was turned into a forward. Later on, the speedy outfielder would steal 55 bases in 134 games at Class A Hickory in 2004, and swipe 164 total in 383 career Minor League games.

In his four years in the Minors, Morgan has hit a combined .291 (431-for-1481) with 48 doubles, 22 triples, five homers and 120 RBIs.

There's not much glaringly wrong with Morgan's game, Minor League hitting instructor Greg Ritchie said, but there are things, such as learning consistency and using his speed effectively, that Morgan will focus on during this Spring Training. Morgan has played just 56 games at the Double-A level, and he will likely head either there or to Triple-A Indianapolis to log some extra innings before he sees any action at the Major-League level.

"The finer points of stealing bases, and being more consistent with them, will come as he plays," Ritchie said. "He's a pure runner ... and his ability to keep the ball on the ground and use his speed is everything."

Even after he missed the first half of 2005 with a shoulder injury, Morgan still managed to finish fourth in the Carolina League in steals (38). He made the All-Star roster the next season, showing a determination to learn and to succeed that he learned one winter nearly 20 years ago.

"[Hockey] gave me a mindset of always playing hard, and helped me understand that concept," Morgan said. "It was a new way of living and it helped me grow up."

Dawn Klemish is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.