BRADENTON, Fla. -- Mark Melancon was busy during his trip to South Africa as an ambassador for Major League Baseball, putting in full days at camps instructing kids in the finer points of pitching, but he had some free time. What he saw during his explorations there opened his eyes to a culture vastly different from the norm in America.
One day Melancon told his taxi driver to pull over in a low-income area so he could absorb some of the environment. He walked through a house narrow enough for him to touch both walls at the same time. Five children lived there, alone, because their parents had died of AIDS. The oldest, a 21-year-old woman, was raising the rest.
"The amount of culture that I learn from other people, being able to go into some townships, which is the ghetto, and go through some of the houses that these people are living in and even see where Gift grew up and the conditions that they live in every day, it's just mind-boggling," Melancon said.
Gift would be Gift Ngoepe, a 24-year-old minor league shortstop whom the Pirates signed out of South Africa. Cricket, rugby and soccer dominate the South African sports scene, but the concept of baseball exists as well. Melancon said that until this year, ESPN broadcast baseball games in South Africa.
Baseball has a strong presence in certain international communities, notably Latin American countries like Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, as well as Japan. The league's ambassador program targets countries with emerging baseball scenes, such as New Zealand, the Netherlands and Italy. Cal Ripken Jr., Bo Jackson, Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza have served as ambassadors in the past.
MLB's efforts to expand the sport to South Africa date back several years. Curtis Granderson traveled there in 2008, as did C.J. Wilson after the '10 season.
This particular trip sent Melancon and former major league reliever Craig Lefferts to Durban, a town on South Africa's east coast about five hours southeast of Johannesburg. For five days, they spent all day on the field with children ages 11 to 18. In full Pirates uniform, Melancon demonstrated mechanics and posed for pictures with kids wearing "shark tank" shirts, referencing the nickname for the Pirates' bullpen.
"Split them into groups and then I brought in a few games that we'd play at the end, a little competition," Melancon said. "It was a full day worth of work, for sure."
The children Melancon worked with did not immediately make the connection of who he was, as far as his status as a professional athlete at the highest level in the United States. He didn't care. That wasn't what was important.
"I don't think they understood, really, what Major League Baseball is," he said. "If they were to come here and see how I grew up and how we grow up as Americans, a lot of those kids ... and there were kids from Nigeria, there were kids from Sudan, Uganda. There were kids in the camp from all over. Their conditions may even have been worse than what I saw."
Similar teaching opportunities allowed Melancon to travel to Australia, New Zealand, China and Taiwan in the past.
"It's been really neat," he said. "It's been a privilege, an experience. I'm always excited to do it. I love being able to help."
Melancon flew into Johannesburg the day before Nelson Mandela passed away. He tweeted pictures of mourners lining the streets and carrying portraits of Mandela. During his travels, Melancon also hit Cape Town and Kruger National Park, visited the place where Mandela cast his first vote and checked out one of the local schools.
While on a safari, Melancon checked off what is known as the big five, seeing a lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros.
"The safari was so neat," he said. "If you haven't been able to do that, it needs to be on the top of your bucket list."
Melancon brought part of his experience back with him. While there, he met Chad Gravenorst, who worked at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa. Gravenorst and his wife showed Melancon around, and later traveled to the U.S. to stay at Melancon's Houston home.
"He's currently interning with my trainer in Houston," Melancon said. "It's been really good and he's probably thinking about moving over here in the next month or so permanently."
Melancon is currently working to build on his spectacular 2013 season, spent mostly as the Pirates' setup man. He struck out 70 batters and walked eight in 71 innings last season, an absurd 8.75-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He saved 16 games in relief of Jason Grilli, who missed time because of a flexor strain in his right forearm.
That performance represented a drastic improvement from his 2012 season, his only year with the Boston Red Sox, when he allowed 31 earned runs in 45 innings and was briefly sent to the minor leagues early in the season. The renaissance had started, though, by the end of 2012. In September of that year, Melancon allowed one earned run in 10 innings, striking out 13 and walking one.
Melancon kept up with his training in South Africa, tweeting a picture of himself using TRX handles to work out. What he brought back from the trip, though, was less physical, more educational and psychological.
"It's always an eye-opener," he said. "It's humbling."
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrinkPG.