From Rocky hockey to baseball’s big stage
Before he was one of Major League Baseball’s most well known characters and slugging it out for a National League championship, Nyjer Morgan was a Nelson Junior A Leaf.
It was 1997 when a young Morgan arrived in Nelson after being cut from the BCHL’s Vernon Vipers. At that time the Leafs played in the Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League and the local squad was pleased to welcome the San Francisco native into the Civic Centre dressing room.
“He was an energetic individual. He played a high tempo and had an edge on the ice,” says Mike Laughton Jr., who was one of the assistant coaches on the Leafs during the 1997-98 season.
George Cochrane coached the Leafs that season and Morgan made an immediate impact on the ice and off.
“He was a very quick skater with speed to burn and it shows when he plays the outfield,” says Vince Vulcano, the other assistant with the Leafs that season. “He was one of those kids that was a great team guy, good in the dressing room. He didn’t score many goals, but he was a physical player who liked to throw the body around and drop the mitts from time to time.”
This afternoon Morgan will lace up cleats instead of skates, but his speed and enthusiasm will be key if his Milwaukee Brewers hope to advance to the National League Championship Series.
The National League Central champion Brewers took a 2-0 series lead over the Arizona Diamondbacks, but have watched their Phoenix-based opponents storm back to tie the series at two. The first pitch in the decisive game goes at 2 p.m. Pacific time at Miller Park in Wisconsin.
Though Morgan did not play in Game Four, he started in centrefield for the first three games and has been a key cog in the Brewers’ season so far.
Now in his fifth season in the major leagues, Morgan has become one of the sport’s most colourful characters. His enthusiasm, humour and at times brash style has garnered the 30-year-old plenty of headlines over the season. He currently entertains media after the game with his Tony Plush character that he uses as an alter-ego to amuse fans and journalists alike.
Neither Morgan’s success on the field or the attention off it surprises his former Nelson hockey coaches.
“He just wanted to get out and experience as much as possible… he was a very vibrant individual,” says Laughton.
“He was excited to be here and wanted a chance to soak in the hockey culture.”
Though he was a leader in the dressing room and well liked by his teammates, baseball didn’t come up much. Even when it did, nobody was sure what to think.
“He was a joker all the time and nobody really took him seriously,” says Vulcano. “On one of the bus trips he told the guys that he was drafted by the major leagues. Everybody was like ‘you’re full of it.’ Years later when he was playing with Pittsburgh [Pirates], I remember the highlight when he climbed the wall in centrefield and made that fabulous catch. I said, ‘that’s Nyjer Morgan, I coached him.’ It instantly brought me back to that conversation on the bus.”
Laughton had a similar experience.
“You lose a little touch where the guys end up and then all of a sudden I’m watching TV and they are talking about Nyjer Morgan the outfielder,” says Laughton. “It was like, ‘is that the guy I know?’ When I saw him on TV, sure enough it was him.”
After one season in Nelson, Morgan worked his way through the junior ranks playing for North Okanagan and Delta. In his final season of junior hockey in 1999-2000, his blistering speed and enthusiasm landed the winger in the Western Hockey League with the Regina Pats.
In a 2008 interview with the Regina Leader-Post, Morgan reflected on his time playing hockey in Canada. He said it was sometimes tough being the only African-American on a small town team.
“Definitely it was a culture shock,” he told Leader-Post sports reporter Matthew Kruchak. “But I’m an outgoing person. I’m going to make friends with whoever has an open mind and isn’t narrow-minded. I get down with anybody.”
In that same interview, Morgan credited hockey for some of his success in America’s national pastime.
“Hockey gave me a little more heart,” he said. “Everything happens for a reason. I was meant to go up there and play hockey for a little bit because it got me ready for what I’m doing now.”
After his hockey career ended, Morgan returned his focus to baseball. He attended Walla Walla Community College in southern Washington state. From there he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates. After five seasons in the minors he finally got his shot and hasn’t looked back since.
Still, Laughton admits his course to Major League Baseball’s big stage was a little unorthodox.
“Hockey was obviously something that enticed him,” says Laughton. “He chose at that point to pursue it and see where it led him. Having the backing of already being identified as a prospect in baseball, he must have just wanted to pursue his passion.
“It’s nice to know that you had a little part in their development as an athlete. It’s pretty cool to see someone like him have success at that level of sport.”
Laughton says Morgan’s path can be a lesson to other young athletes.
“It shows what it takes to get to these levels,” says Laughton. “Here was this 16-year-old kid coming from a different culture and coming into an area where he doesn’t know anybody. It’s impressive the sacrifices these young people make to advance themselves.”
Vulcano is not surprised to see Morgan achieve the success he has earned in the last few years.
“He was one of those kids, whatever he did he did to the best of his ability and enjoyed it to the fullest,” says Vulcano. “He was a character you always remember… no doubt.”