In this July 27, 2013 photo, Yokohama DeNa BayStars Nyjer Morgan watches his RBI infield single for the go-ahead run in front of Hanshin Tigers catcher Akira Fujii in the six inning of a baseball game at Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya, western Japan. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)
NAGOYA, Japan (AP) — Given his past as a two-sport athlete (ice hockey and baseball), former Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Nyjer Morgan figured he would have no trouble adjusting to Japan’s unique brand of baseball.
A slow start and demotion to the minor leagues may have shaken that confidence, but Morgan is now starting to make a major impact with the Yokohama DeNa BayStars of Japan’s Central League.
The 33-year-old native of San Francisco is batting .303 with 31 RBIs and a career-high seven home runs in 67 games as the No. 3 hitter for the BayStars.
His progress has been so steady, the team was able to send veteran Alex Ramirez to the minor league team. Ramirez is one of the most successful foreign players in the history of Japanese baseball and earlier this season collected his 2,000th hit in Japan.
“It’s all a learning process,” Morgan said. “I didn’t get mad because I failed in my first month here. In this game you are going to fail more than you succeed. You’ve just got to keep a good attitude about things and make the adjustments.”
Going from the major leagues to Japan is one thing. Switching from ice hockey to baseball is something different all together, but that’s what Morgan did earlier in his career.
Inspired by the 1988 Calgary Olympics when he was 7, Morgan got involved in hockey and made it all the way to the major junior level with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League.
“I was watching the Calgary Olympics and saw the great rivalries, the banging and the face washing with the gloves and said ‘let’s try it,'” Morgan said. “I told my old man ‘Let’s go to sign ups’ and the next week I was on the ice.”
In seven games with the Pats during the 1999-2000 WHL season, Morgan scored two goals and recorded twenty penalty minutes. He also had a brief stint with the Prince George Spruce Kings of the British Columbia Hockey League.
While he had no trouble dropping the gloves, Morgan said the pressure on certain players to fight was something he didn’t feel comfortable with.
“Hockey and baseball are so different,” Morgan said. “In hockey you’ve got to be more rowdy and emotional, but here you’ve got to calm it down and work a little more using your mind instead of going out there and using your physical talents.”
When you’ve lived in the frigid conditions of Saskatchewan, the transition to Japan is not that harsh. Morgan said the main thing was getting used to the quirky tendencies of Japanese pitchers, who throw more off-speed pitches than their major league counterparts.
“The timing is different here,” Morgan said. “The pitchers mess up your timing, it’s not just a rapid fire like I was used to in the States.”
Morgan made his major league debut on Sept. 1, 2007, for Pittsburgh and spent two seasons with the Pirates before being traded to the Washington Nationals in 2009.
Before coming to Japan, he spent two seasons in Milwaukee, where he was teammates with Ryan Braun, who was suspended for the rest of the MLB season for violating baseball’s anti-drug policy.
“Being a former teammate and being one of his friends, it’s a tough situation,” Morgan said. “I’m pretty sure he’s glad everything came out and he got it off his chest.”
There have been very few instances of doping in Japanese professional baseball. Former minor league pitcher Rick Guttormson became the first player in Japanese baseball history to flunk a drug test in 2007.
Japanese baseball officials said tests found traces of Finasteride in Guttormson’s system. Finasteride was in a hair-growing agent the 30-year-old Guttormson had been taking for two years. It’s banned because it can be used as a masking agent.
While Morgan spoke out against doping, he said he can understand the temptation for some.
“I’ve batted .300 twice in the major leagues and that is hard to do,” Morgan said. “To consistently do that and stay on the field you’ve got to produce cause it’s a business even though it’s a game and you want to give the fans a good show, but you want to do it on a level playing field. A lot of guys do it so they can reach their dream to be a major league ballplayer.”
Morgan said if things continue in a positive direction, he’d like to finish his playing career in Japan.
“I love it here,” Morgan said. “The fans are great, everyone shows you so much respect and it’s just a lot of fun to be here.”