Luckily for Pirates, Morgan gave up hockey
Two-sport star fought the odds, made baseball his career
PITTSBURGH -- "I didn't think black people could skate, but he took to it like a fish to water. Immediately."
You can tell there is still a hint of disbelief in Trina Perry's voice, but she has no trouble remembering what she saw. As she goes through old videos and photos and finds evaluations of her son's hockey skills from two decades past, Perry can't help but have a good laugh.
She flips through the mementos left in her home and begins to reflect on that 7-year-old son of hers who, in 1988, went to the Eastridge Ice Arena in San Jose, Calif., to sign up for the local hockey team. That son -- Pirates outfielder Nyjer Morgan -- had been watching hockey on TV and, by the age of seven, was enamored.
Then the stories and the memories start coming back.
Perry remembers having to curtail Morgan's strong-mindedness, present early, through discipline. Now, she sees how far that determination has taken him.
She remembers how at age eight, Morgan had already become a phenomena on the ice. By age nine, he was a "little legend" in the hockey circles of northern California.
"His hockey ability and sense was amazing," Perry said. "People would come to see Nyjer."
As natural as the ice felt under Morgan's skates, Perry also remembers the cost of her son's talent. Sure, there was the financial cost to be dealt with, but the emotional costs were sometimes much heavier.
Morgan stood out because of his natural skills. He was also singled out because of the color of his skin. His aggressiveness was perceived as less acceptable than that of teammates and opponents. Consequently, Morgan often spent significant time in the penalty box, which kept him from being able to show how good he really was.
"I won't say the 'R' word, but it was definitely there," Perry said. "There was a lot of angst because he was so aggressive and so good. People didn't know how to handle it. He didn't draw a lot of credit, but he created a lot of buzz."
Buzz. It's something Morgan continues to create, but now just in a different arena.
"I was going to try and be like Bo Jackson and do them both."
Morgan grew up as part of a generation that watched Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders excel as two-sport Major League athletes, and he had dreams of the same.
When he picked up hockey at age seven, Morgan already had two years of Little League under his belt. And for years, he split his time between the two.
"I think I had equal talent in both," Morgan says looking back.
By the time Morgan reached the age of 16, baseball had taken a seat on the backburner. His father set him up with a junior hockey team in Canada, prompting Morgan to leave home and venture to Canada alone. Morgan continued to play baseball on the side, but there was no question that the focus was hockey.
He jumped around to different teams, eventually landing as a forward with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League, a major junior hockey team.
"He was a kid who was always smiling and seemed to be excited about an opportunity to play hockey with us," Pats general manager Brent Parker recalled."He was a huge energy guy. He always gave everything he had, which made a real impact on our guys.
"His hockey sense wasn't tremendous because of not having played for a long time, but I remember him being a great skater and as tough as nails."
As it turned out, Morgan played in just seven games for the Pats, his skills being too raw to compete against players destined for the National Hockey League. Soon after his stint with the Pats, Morgan found out he was going to be a father and was forced to make a decision.
"I knew I needed to go to school because I didn't know how far hockey was going to take me," Morgan said. "I had one opportunity to go to school, so it was one of those things where I had to take it and see what happened."
A chance meeting with the head coach of Walla Walla Community College's baseball team led to Morgan being offered an opportunity to play baseball for the Warriors in 2001. He took it. He hung up his skates for good.
"I was done," Morgan said. "It wasn't that hard, really, because I knew I had baseball. I really didn't think about it. And it's really never hit me on, 'What if I did this differently?' I really don't even think about it."
"I never saw him get a base hit. He turned on a ball and sent it down the right-field corner and that's the only contact I saw him make."
That was all area scout Kevin Clouser had to go on as he met with the Pirates' scouting team shortly before the 2002 First-Year Player Draft. There was something he saw in Morgan -- a fight, a raw ability to hit, speed -- that convinced him, albeit without ever seeing Morgan get a hit, that the Pirates needed to take a chance.
"I wanted to sign him from Day 1," said Clouser, now scouting for the Brewers. "I thought he had enough aptitude and athletic ability to make the adjustments. There's definitely a mentality to those hockey guys. They're fighters. They are tough guys. I thought Nyjer had it."
Selling that to the Pirates' brass, however, was no small chore. Outside of Clouser, there was little excitement about the 21-year-old Morgan. Even after the Pirates used their 33rd-round pick to snag him, the consensus was that there was little need to sign him.
Clouser continued to push hard. Convinced by Morgan's Walla Walla head coach, Clouser had gone to see the outfielder in late April, only to find Morgan sitting on the bench nursing a sprained ankle. He attended a second Walla Walla game a few weeks later, marking the only time Clouser would actually watch Morgan before trying to convince the organization of his potential.
Apparently, one look told Clouser everything he needed to know.
"I knew this guy was going to play at 100 percent until someone told him to stop," Clouser said. "That hunger, that drive was apparent from day one. I know he had some work to do and hadn't played a lot, but I saw raw potential."
Knowing that Morgan likely would have signed for nothing, the Pirates finally offered the speedy outfielder a $2,000 signing bonus in August. With no hesitation, Morgan began his professional career.
"As soon as somebody was going to give me an opportunity, I was going to focus to succeed," Morgan said. "It was one of those things where I just wanted to get my foot in the door, and then I knew I could do the rest."
"I've been an underdog everywhere I've been. I've never been highly touted. I've never had the exposure that most people get. I just always believed in my abilities and knew I could play."
Morgan may have been convinced that he knew he could play, but he still had to show he knew how. His skills were raw. His know-how of the game had holes to fill. He didn't understand the Minor League system, simply because he had been in the hockey world for so long.
Furthermore, he showed the same aggression on the field that he had always shown on the ice -- but to a fault. In fact, Morgan's all-out-hockey-like-play initially deterred baseball coaches from agreeing to have Morgan play for them during the professional off-season.
"Nobody wanted anything to do with him," Clouser said. "He taught me about what guys can overcome. To see him grow up and do the things he's done, he's been an example to me. Guys who are hungry, who are playing to put food on the table, they're going to be good."
For those who watch Morgan roam the outfield now, it's hard to understand how he calls his energy "toned down" from what it once was. But he'll tell you how father-figures like Clouser, Triple-A manager Trent Jewett and Class A manager Dave Clark helped him grow up on his way to Pittsburgh.
And now, the little-fighter-that-could is making the most of his chance with the Pirates. At the age of 28, Morgan was finally given the chance to be an everyday player, a job he has seized despite limited expectations coming out of Spring Training.
As for those skates? He hung them up when he began college and put them back on for the first time last year when he was invited to skate with the Pittsburgh Penguins during their run to the Stanley Cup.
A circuitous path? Sure. But certainly a unique story.
"I thought his career was going to be in hockey," Perry said. "He lived and breathed hockey. That's what he wanted to do. But I had a sense that he'd be successful in athletics. Everything he pursued, he did so 100 percent. I hope he really rides the wave."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.