It started, as such things often do when Nyjer Morgan is involved, with an angry confrontation. But unlike some of the others, this one took place out of the public’s eye. It was early March, in Viera, Fla., near the start of the Washington Nationals’ Grapefruit League schedule. Jayson Werth, the Nationals’ new $126 million right fielder — who was brought in, in part, to give the Nationals a strong clubhouse presence — felt Morgan was short-cutting some wind sprints in the outfield, and said so.
“Man, you don’t know me,” Morgan said, according to people familiar with the incident. “You’ve been here two weeks.”
Werth and Morgan both soon wound up in the Nationals’ clubhouse, where the confrontation continued and escalated, to the point where punches were about to be thrown, until teammates stepped between them and separated them.
A few weeks later, Morgan was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for a fringe prospect. And what has happened since then is almost unfathomable to anyone in Washington who saw Morgan brood and brawl his way to a career-worst season in 2010: Morgan has become a cult hero in Milwaukee, a unifying force in the Brewers’ clubhouse and one of the stars of the 2011 postseason.
Although Morgan, 31, has just three hits in 20 at-bats this postseason (.150) — as the Brewers prepare to face the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series on Wednesday night — he will forever be remembered in Milwaukee for the third of those hits, a 10th-inning, series-clinching, walk-off single in Game 5 of the Division Series that vanquished the Arizona Diamondbacks and put the Brewers one step away from the franchise’s first World Series appearance in 29 years.
From the roguish charm of his Tony Plush alter-ego, to his central role in the Brewers’ “Beast Mode” shtick, to his solid offensive production (a .304 batting average and .778 OPS as a platoon center fielder and No. 2 hitter), Morgan, after only 61 / 2 months with the team, is as beloved in Milwaukee, by some regards (including applause volume and jersey sales), as MVP candidates Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.
“I know from talking to him in spring training that he wanted to end the perception of him in D.C.,” said Brewers third baseman Jerry Hairston Jr., who was with the Nationals for the first half of the 2011 season before being traded to Milwaukee in July. “He’s worked hard at that. Here in Milwaukee, he’s really worked to narrow that competitive edge he has. He’s had an incredible year. He’s really kind of grown up. He’s a great person. He really is.”
Morgan confirmed the details of the March confrontation with Werth, but otherwise declined to comment on it. He did, though, express a feeling of redemption through their respective batting averages: “Even in my worst year [in 2010], I hit .253,” Morgan said. “What did [Werth] hit?” The answer to that rhetorical question, of course, is that Werth hit .232 in 2011.
Morgan acknowledged the notion that his act — equal parts play-to-the-crowd theatrics, keep-it-loose clowning and in-your-face edginess — plays better on a winning team than on a losing one. On a winning team, you’re a charming eccentric. On a losing team, you’re an obnoxious loudmouth. But there is little question Morgan’s personality turned dark at times in Washington in 2010, as he dealt with some personal issues — which he has referenced in the past, but has never fully explained — as well as a steep decline in production from his dazzling 2009 season.
His increasingly bizarre behavior in 2010 culminated in a September brawl in Florida that began when he charged the mound against Marlins pitcher Chris Volstad. But by that point, with his plummeting numbers and moodiness, the media and fans had already begun to turn against him.
“The D.C. fans, I really don’t know if they embraced me,” Morgan said. “I mean, a few of them did. But I kind of got a bad rap there. It wasn’t the greatest year.”
Former Nationals manager Jim Riggleman has noted the fact that Morgan is hitting second for the Brewers, after protesting a move out of the leadoff spot late in the 2010 season. “Sometimes a change of scenery is what you need,” Riggleman said. “Not hitting leadoff was not going to sit well with him in Washington, but you go somewhere else and say, ‘Well, this is my role.’ ”
When the Brewers traded for Morgan in March 2011, General Manager Doug Melvin sat him down and asked about some of the incidents in Washington, but stressed he should be himself — even if “himself” included an alter-ego or three. (Morgan calls his serious, interviewee persona “Tony Gumbel,” and when he cuts himself off from members of the media he says he is “Tony Hush.”)
“I told Nyjer to go out there and play and have fun,” said Melvin, who slipped once during this interview and referred to Morgan as “Tony,” as in Plush. “I said, ‘View this as a new start.’ . . . The way he plays the game is very important for us. He plays the game hard. He plays with toughness. And we felt as an organization we needed a little toughness. Sometimes you get shoved around a little bit.”
No one has shoved around the Brewers more in recent years than the Cardinals, and a month ago Morgan shoved back. In a game at Busch Stadium, he tossed a wad of chewing tobacco in the vicinity of Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter, nearly touching off a brawl, then took to Twitter and referred to St. Louis first baseman Albert Pujols — who had rushed in to get between Morgan and Carpenter — as “Alberta” and “she.” Morgan was already despised by the Cardinals from his Washington days, after he ran over catcher Bryan Anderson in 2010.
On Wednesday night, Morgan faces Carpenter again for the first time since the near-brawl. But don’t expect any fireworks between Morgan and the Cardinals. In Monday night’s Game 2, Morgan found himself at first base after a walk, a few steps away from Pujols. Nary a word was spoken between them.
“You can’t say anything right there,” Morgan said after the game. “It wasn't the right time.”
Will there be a right time, perhaps before this series is over? At the question, Morgan sank into the chair at his locker, then rose back up with a gleam suddenly in his eye.
“We’ll see,” Tony Plush said. “Stay tuned. Aaaaaaaaah!”