Thursday, August 25, 2011
Nyjer Morgan loves to be an entertainer
By Jerry Crasnick
Definition of Nyjer: A tiny black birdseed cultivated in Asia and Africa that is high in calories and oil content, loved by finches and other wild birds, and has been used in the feedings of wild birds for more than 40 years.
Definition of Nyjer Morgan: An undersized outfielder who grew up in Northern California and is high in energy and showmanship, disliked by St. Louis Cardinals and Florida Marlins players and San Francisco Giants fans, and is now front and center in the Milwaukee Brewers' charge to the top of the National League Central standings.
NEW YORK -- As it turns out, Nyjer Morgan's first name has nothing to do with birdseed. The parents, Carl and Trina, went to school during the height of the Black Panther movement in the 1970s, and they were partial to names of Muslim or African origin. Morgan has a sister Naima, which is Arabic for "tranquil,'' and a younger brother Kwame. His parents named him Nyjer in reference to the Niger River, which runs 2,600 miles and is the third longest river in Africa behind the Nile and the Congo.
Morgan's personal back story has even more twists and turns. He left his home in San Jose to play junior hockey in Canada as a teenager, and survived long-shot odds to make it in pro ball as a late-round draft pick in Pittsburgh. He has a well-publicized alter ego named Tony Plush, the old-time sensibilities of a Mickey Rivers, the new age social media savvy of Brandon Phillips and the round-the-clock effervescence of Rex Hudler. His name could be Joe Smith, Bill Jones or Bernie Brewer, and he would still be a walking Six Flags thrill ride.
The folks in Milwaukee will tell you that Morgan has played a pivotal role in the Brewers' success since general manager Doug Melvin acquired him from Washington for minor league outfielder Cutter Dykstra, Lenny's kid, on March 27. Morgan has overcome two visits to the disabled list and staked his claim to the team's center field job since Carlos Gomez suffered a broken clavicle. He's hitting .313 with a .352 on base percentage and chasing down fly balls with aplomb, and he's shown a flair for high drama with comedic twists on several occasions this season.
Morgan fell a single short of the cycle against Minnesota on July 2 -- which just happened to be his birthday. Two weeks ago, he reached base on a strikeout-wild pitch to start a late rally against Pittsburgh, then won the game with a 10th inning sacrifice fly. And the topper might have come June 8 against the Mets, when he stroked a go-ahead double in the bottom of the eighth inning, and was stunned to learn it was actually the ninth inning and his hit had won the game. Morgan was oblivious until joyous teammates began bounding from the dugout in celebration.
All this helps explain why Brewers fans are eagerly awaiting Tony Plush Rally Towel Night against the Phillies at Miller Park on Sept. 9. The first 30,000 fans get towels, so they better come early.
"I just figure we're entertainers,'' Morgan said. "We're on one of the biggest stages. Trust me, if I was batting .202, I wouldn't be doing the [s--] I'm doing.
"People pay good money to see entertainment, and I want to be the entertainer. I want to be making diving catches in the outfield and running balls down. That's what makes me feel good -- when I look back at that pitcher and he's giving the pump, and my guys are fired up. It fires me up when the fans heckle me and give their best and I talk back to them. It's just entertainment.''
When it's suggested that Morgan has some Mark Fidrych in him, he demurs.
"The Bird Man was a little quirky," Morgan said. "I ain't that out there.''
|The Brewers acquired Nyjer Morgan from the Nationals in late March, and he's now their regular center fielder.|
The fans aren't the only ones entertained by Nyjer/Tony's antics. Morgan's quirkiness and non-stop energy have struck a chord in a loose and open-minded Milwaukee clubhouse. And if he's not careful, he might become a media darling. The New York Times recently profiled him, and he appears with teammates Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder on the latest cover of Sports Illustrated. He's getting more publicity than Kim Kardashian's nuptials.
"Geez, everybody is doing something on Nyjer,'' said a semi-exasperated LaTroy Hawkins when approached for a comment for this story.
In large part because Morgan is playing so well and the Brewers are 78-54 and leading St. Louis by 10 games, he's perceived as more of an energizer and social catalyst rather than an irritant or distraction in the clubhouse. He refers to Fielder as "Big Dog'' and likes to greet pitcher Randy Wolf with a wolf-like howl. Morgan thinks that Hawkins, the veteran reliever, has a penchant for stirring things up, so he calls him "Spatula,'' or "Spatch'' for short. Hey, nobody ever said the guy was an authority on kitchen utensils.
Morgan doesn't line base hits into the outfield -- he "tickles'' them there. He reflects on his turbulent 2010 season in Washington as a bit of a "learning curveball.'' Pressed to cite other offbeat terms in his lexicon, Morgan advises a reporter to look them up in the "Plush-tionary.''
"It works because it's sincere,'' Braun said. "This is who he is, and it's the same every day. He's happy. He's jovial. He's outgoing. He's personable. He comes to the park with a smile on his face, and he enjoys life as much as he enjoys playing baseball. We've kind of embraced his personality, and it's probably enabled him to become a better baseball player. It's worked for everybody.''
Before this season, every major league team that Morgan had played for had lost at least 93 games. It's no wonder he's on a competitive high.
"I saw him sleeping on a plane for the first time and I said, 'That's funny.' I never thought he slept,''' Hawkins said.
Any discussion of what Nyjer Morgan is inevitably goes back to his roots. Morgan grew up in San Jose's Evergreen section, the gritty, lower-middle class section of town, and everybody spoke in hyphy, the fast-talking patter conceived in the mid-1990s by Bay Area rapper Keak Da Sneak. About 10 years ago, Morgan and two buddies assumed dual identities to help facilitate conversations with girls. One friend became James Dot Dean, another Frankie Sleeze, and Morgan, the Rat Pack ringleader, was "Tony Plush.''
"We always wanted to be different,'' said Matt McKoin, aka Sleeze, Morgan's closest friend. "When everybody else was wearing baggy white T-shirts and big baggy pants, we were wearing slimmer-cut pants with button-up shirts and fancy sunglasses. We preferred the GQ look over the more urban chic.''
McKoin points to Morgan's rise from humble origins as evidence that he's living the "American dream.'' But the dream took a detour through customs. Morgan was 7 years old when he watched the 1988 U.S. Olympic hockey team on TV, and he was smitten. He prevailed upon Carl, an insurance claims adjustor, to take him to the local rink for signups. His ankles were wobbly that first day, but he quickly developed into a fast skater with an affinity for chasing loose pucks into the corners. Morgan also loved to rush the puck from his position as a defenseman, and fancied himself the second coming of Hall of Fame blue-liner Paul Coffey.
As a teenager, he followed his heart and chased his dream to Saskatchewan to play for the Regina Pats in the Western Hockey League. Drop your average black city kid down in the middle of moose country, stick him on a bus to places like Red Deer, Swift Current and Moose Jaw, and it reads like a sports version of "Northern Exposure,'' but with fewer teeth.
"It was weird, but it was something I knew I wanted to do,'' Morgan said. "It gave me a chance to just go out and see the world. My parents didn't hold me back. They let me go out and do what I wanted to do, and basically find myself.''
After two years, a new reality intervened. Morgan "got a girl pregnant'' and decided that a different life path was in order. He quit hockey "cold turkey'' and enrolled at Walla Walla Community College in Washington, where he turned his focus to baseball. After the Pirates took a flyer on him in the 33rd round of the 2002 draft, Morgan spent five years on the prove-it-nightly career track. He logged almost 2,000 at-bats with Pittsburgh's farm clubs in Williamsport, Hickory, Lynchburg, Altoona and Indianapolis before making his debut as a September call-up in 2007. McKoin's father runs a small construction company in California, and Morgan earned some walking-around money on job sites during his minor league offseasons.
After a 2009 trade to Washington, Morgan finally began making headlines last year, but it was one bombastic coming-out party. He was at the center of a series of home-plate collisions, bench-clearing brawls and other bizarre incidents, and earned an eight-game suspension and a $15,000 fine from Major League Baseball in September. He was branded as a serial agitator, and a tad on the unhinged side.
In hindsight, Morgan chalks it up to a "bad two weeks,'' but concedes he might have lost his way during a trying 2010 season.
"I came in a little bit big-headed last year, just because I had some success, and I didn't know how to even up the success with the failure,'' he said. "Everybody needs to go through a little bit of failure to succeed in this game.''
Things were destined to end badly. In spring training, Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth confronted Morgan over an alleged lack of enthusiasm for doing sprints, and the two exchanged words. Was the incident the tipping point in Washington GM Mike Rizzo's decision to trade Morgan to Milwaukee? That's hard to say. But butting heads with the team's prize $126 million free-agent acquisition clearly wasn't the best thing for Morgan's job security.
Morgan has found a more welcoming environment in the Milwaukee clubhouse, where free spirits abound and he has the latitude to summon the entertainer within. But his fellow Brewers aren't hesitant to pull him aside and tell him when it's time to harness the exuberance. Hawkins, a respected veteran who has taken it upon himself to monitor Morgan's conduct, said his buddy has been a "model citizen'' this season.
"When he first got on Twitter, I sat him down and told him, 'When you write something, read it three or four times before you push that 'send' button,''' Hawkins said. "He listens. If he doesn't, I'm going to have to get on him harder next time. I haven't had to do that, so I know he listens.''
He enjoys life as much as he enjoys playing baseball. We've kind of embraced his personality, and it's probably enabled him to become a better baseball player. It's worked for everybody.
-- Brewers left fielder
Ryan Braun on Morgan
Sometimes it's hard to know where Nyjer ends and Tony begins, but they both abide by the governing principles of "Plush-damentals,'' -- the art of laying down a bunt, throwing to the right base and playing the game in a fundamentally sound manner with (hopefully) just the right amount of panache.
Things got a little testy recently in San Francisco when Morgan engaged in a running dialogue with Giants fans, earning a rebuke from broadcaster Duane Kuiper. But when so many fans these days view ballplayers as detached, robotic millionaires, Morgan's childlike exuberance and zest for the game resonates with the common man.
Jason Albert, a freelance writer in Minnesota, conceived a fake Nyjer Morgan Twitter account this spring with imagined conversations between Morgan, sweater-clad GM Doug Melvin and "coach'' Ron Roenicke. Albert recently came clean in an entertaining online column.
"Genius,'' said Morgan, who was so impressed he sent the faux Tony Plush a Tweet of appreciation.
On his own Twitter account, Morgan is one interactive gadfly. At the suggestion of followers, he has donned argyle socks beneath his uniform and spent a day flying a kite on the shores of Lake Michigan. When Morgan recently visited the Humane Society and adopted a cat, "Slick Willie,'' the whole world quickly knew about it. His girlfriend takes care of the cat when he's on the road with the Brewers.
At age 31, Morgan is earning $450,000, barely above the big league minimum, and hoping for financial security and a long-term home. It's hard to believe that, four years ago, he was playing in the Arizona Fall League and crashing on his friend Frankie Sleeze's couch in Phoenix.
"I asked him earlier this year, 'Nyj, if you could choose anywhere in the league to go play, where would it be?''' McKoin said. "He told me, 'Right here in Milwaukee.'''
Skeptics might say that Morgan's act is contrived and laden with shtick. But as Morgan is quick to point out, he rolled out of bed at 6 a.m. each day last winter and worked out like a demon. Nobody handed him anything, and as an afterthought-made-good, he truly embodies the principles of the American dream.
In his transition from sports villain to fan favorite, Morgan has pulled a reverse Tiger Woods. And as Milwaukee's resident gap-hitting, high-sock-wearing catalyst, he's provided some welcome support for MVP candidates Fielder and Braun. So why not have a little fun with it?
Judging from that devilish grin, he's ready to team up with Tony Plush on some more interesting plot lines this season. What's next on their agenda?
"Stay tuned,'' Nyjer Morgan said.
Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.
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