BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) -Pirates center fielder Nyjer Morgan proudly refers to the vast acreage he covers as Morgantown.
Uh, isn't that name already taken by the city that is home to West Virginia University?
``That's OK,'' Morgan said, laughing, relating how he has yet to make the 75-mile trek from Pittsburgh to the college town. ``There's room for both of us.''
There isn't room in the Pirates' outfield for two starting center fielders, and that's where Morgan hopes his defensive skills give him an edge over Nate McLouth, who isn't as fast as Morgan but hits for more power. McLouth had 13 homers in 329 at-bats last season, while Morgan hit .299 with one homer in 107 at-bats following a late-season callup.
The McLouth-Morgan competition is determining the only undecided position in the Pirates' starting lineup. So far, neither is pulling out to a significant edge, with McLouth hitting .294 with one homer and five RBIs to Morgan's .269 with no homers and an RBI.
``It's just nice to know that you have a chance to be in the starting lineup,'' said McLouth, a backup the last two seasons. ``All you want is the opportunity.''
If there's a tiebreaker, it may come down to Morgan's defensive ability. His Willie Mays-style, over-the-shoulder basket catch against Houston's Ty Wigginton on Sept. 14 was one of the most replayed defensive gems of the season.
``Most definitely my best asset is my speed. I was blessed with natural speed. I never ran track before, none of that stuff, I've just got it in my genes, I guess,'' said Morgan, whose first name is pronounced as NIGH-jer. ``It was my biggest asset in hockey, too.''
Did he say hockey?
Funny how a player who has excelled with a wooden stick in his hands since age 16 is so good with a leather glove.
While he has always played baseball, the 27-year-old Morgan's principal sport as a teenager was hockey, even though he grew up in San Francisco.
He was good enough to play junior hockey from ages 16 to 19, including a brief time at the major junior level with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League - making him one of the few major leaguers to reach such a high level in hockey. The WHL is one of the three primary feeder leagues to the NHL.
Morgan was fast and feisty while playing against future Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller and Penguins forward Ryan Malone, but ultimately didn't progress any further because of a lack of goal-scoring ability.
``It's just something I've always done,'' Morgan said of playing hockey. ``The most different thing about it was the culture shock and the new personalities and going up to Canada where it was a little bit slower, and a lot colder.''
He was also one of the few black players in the league. When he met with any racial remarks, dropping his gloves usually solved the problem, though, at 175 pounds, he often was outweighed.
``I got into quite a few knockdown fights. I actually handled myself pretty good,'' he said. ``That's one of the things I love about the game. ... Somebody always wanted to test me because I was always the only black guy out there, so someone was always saying something stupid. So then you'd have to drop your mitts and give the fans a show.''
There was plenty of speed to go with his competitiveness, but Sidney Crosby he was not. Two years after he stopped playing junior hockey, he was a 33rd round draft pick by the Pirates in 2002 from Walla Walla College. He needed four full seasons in the minors to refine his raw talents into a major league-ready player.
Morgan doesn't want to go back to the minors, not after taking 11 years and two different sports to finally reach the big time.
Asked what would be the ultimate achievement, dancing in the outfield after winning the World Series or raising the Stanley Cup, Morgan didn't hesitate to answer.
Given his personality - he is always laughing, kidding his teammates, clearly enjoying his moments at the ballpark - the answer is not surprising.
``Hockey is great, yeah, but ... there's something about the World Series,'' Morgan said, relating to how players throw their gloves and caps when they clinch. ``Doing the yard sale with your boys, throwing up everything, watching all that. There are guys in this clubhouse that have actually had that feeling, and words can't explain it.''
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