If you want to know the difference between closing out a baseball game and staring death in the face, just ask Pirates pitcher Mark Melancon.
"We were literally 10 feet from full grown elephants and lions," Melancon said. "At one point, there were about 100 elephants around us. They could have thrown our little jeep around if they wanted to."
It was just a typical offseason for the right-hander and his wife. They crossed another adventure off their bucket list: A safari in Kruger National Park. It was part of an unforgettable trip to "the Dark Continent."
Have no fear, Pirates fans. There's no real plan in place to change the "Shark Tank" nickname given to the Bucs bullpen after Melancon's adventure off the coast of New Zealand a few years ago. But thinking out loud, while chuckling, Melancon did offer up the "The Lions Den" as a remote possibility.
While thrill seeking always grabs headlines, it's only part of this story.
"It's not necessarily dangerous stuff that we're looking for," he said. "It's about beautiful scenery and experiencing new things that a typical vacation may not have."
Certain things you can't plan for. Like the passing of Nelson Mandela. The former South African president died while the Melancons were in Johannesburg just two or three blocks away from his house. The streets were closed down while residents tried to get through the barricades in an attempt to leave flowers for their former leader.
This journey was designed with a greater mission in mind. To teach children. To give back. And to learn about a new culture. That was part of the itinerary in New Zealand, and when the opportunity presented itself this winter, Melancon jumped on the chance. For four days at an academy in Durban, Melancon taught baseball to children, ages 12-18. He moved on to Cape Town to do similar work after that.
"Kids from all over the continent. Kids from Uganda and Sudan. It was really neat."
As were the stories told by South Africans about their own experiences watching the Pirates in the postseason. Pittsburgh's first playoff appearance in 21 years sent shock waves around the world.
"I had some people tell me that they could feel the atmosphere in their living room," Melancon said. "That tells me how exciting it was just seeing the fans on TV. They lived it better through our games than any other games. It gave me goose bumps to hear that."
Beginning this weekend, the Melancons will host a South African couple at their home in Spring, Texas. An internship with Mark's trainer will give his new friend an opportunity to learn more about our great game.
"It's fun to be able to meet people like that," he said. "That's what makes vacations so much exciting for us. To be able to do that."
So what's in store for next offseason?
"I really like the to teach, get out and help kids." Melancon says. "Were going to keep our ears open. Wherever we can make the biggest difference and help out is probably where we'll go next."
Melancon's immediate plans are to join pitchers and catchers in Bradenton, Fla. Spring Training begins in a little less than a month, and Melancon hopes to build on a fantastic 2013 in which he proved he is not only an elite setup man but also capable of closing high-pressure games for a contending team.
Before the season opens for the Bucs on March 31 at PNC Park, Melancon may experience one more adventure. One that takes place in a conference room. An arbitration hearing will take place in February if the pitcher and the team can't agree on a salary for 2014. A process that can be, lets just say, less than pleasurable.
No matter how that unfolds, it won't be as stressful as staring a 5,000-pound rhinoceros in the face. Don't believe me ? Ask Mark Melancon.