In Nigeria, the country’s massive film industry is sometimes called “Naijawood.” During the past week of baseball, Nyjer Morgan has become a human highlight reel of spectacle himself, running into catchers, pegging a fan, rushing a pitcher, and finding himself at the very bottom of a dogpile. Opinions vary about each of his individual acts, but the overall body of work, culminating in yesterday’s brawl, has brought him near-universal condemnation and an instant “Nyjer Morgan Needs to Go” over at FJB, Nats Triple Play, and Nationals Enquirer. Quite a turnaround for a guy who, one year ago, received a writeup by Dave Cameron proclaiming that “Nyjer Morgan and Adam Dunn are nearly equals in value,” and of whom the Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg wrote, “[Morgan] is preordained to read the words ‘fan favorite’ at every stop in his baseball career.” Morgan’s having a bad year in a lot of ways. But just how bad is he?
On Saturday, August 21, Morgan engaged in an “ongoing dialogue” with a fan in Philadelphia, and then threw a ball into the stands; the ball hit and injured a different fan. (Another fan defended Morgan’s actions.) On August 25, Major League Baseball suspended him for seven games, which he appealed.
On Saturday, August 28, Morgan ran into St. Louis Cardinal catcher Bryan Anderson, who was standing aside from the plate; Morgan didn’t touch home, and was called out when Ivan Rodriguez turned him around and pushed him back towards the plate. He cryptically described his version of events: “I could have took the kid out if I wanted to, but I kind of grazed him. It wasn’t, in my eyes, intentional.” Manager Jim Riggleman condemned his actions and held him out of Sunday’s game. Morgan took exception to Riggleman’s public statement of condemnation, saying, “You don’t blast your player in the papers.”
On Tuesday, August 31, on a play at the plate, Morgan ran over Marlin backup catcher Brett Hayes rather than slide. Morgan was on second with a Alberto Gonzalez at first when Adam Kennedy hit a slow double-play ball to Dan Uggla; Uggla flipped to Hanley Ramirez at second for the first out, but Hanley double-clutched and threw home to get Morgan, who had rounded third and was trying to score. It was a high throw, and Hayes was standing directly on top of the plate, blocking it with his body. Had Morgan slid, he might have scored; but if the throw had been lower, Hayes would have been crouching and he’d have been out with a slide. So Morgan may have calculated that the only way to score the run was to knock the ball out of Hayes’s hand. Hayes held on, recording the out, but sustained a separated shoulder, a season-ending injury. After that play, Morgan reportedly cursed out a Marlin fan.
That all brings us to last night. Because of the Hayes incident the night before, it was perhaps to be expected that the Marlins would plunk Morgan, and Morgan took his first beaning with equanimity as he jogged to first. But when Chris Volstad threw the ball behind him in the 6th (with the Marlins up 15-5), he charged the mound like a man possessed, winding up at the bottom of a pile of Fish as National 3rd base coach Pat Listach started punching Marlins just to even the odds.
This time, Morgan’s manager and teammates were behind him, at least in public. Mark Zuckerman of Nats Insider reports, “The consensus among the Nationals is that Morgan’s only real infraction in the last week was the incident with Anderson.” Based on everything I’ve read, I hesitantly agree. Morgan’s teammates believe that he had no malicious intent in throwing the ball into the stands or in running into Hayes at home, and they didn’t fault him for stealing two bases with his team down by 11 runs in the fourth inning.
As to the fan he hit with the ball, I can’t tell whether he’s to blame without video of the incident, but I believe that if he truly had malicious intent his teammates wouldn’t be sticking up for him at this point. However, I completely agree that he’s blameless for stealing bases after getting plunked. The rule against stealing bases with your team up by a lot or down by a lot, in my view, is one of the most absurd of all of baseball’s “codes,” one whose relevance was entirely dismissed by the steroid era, during which we learned that, quite frankly, no ten-run lead is ever completely safe. Morgan stole a base when the lead was 14-3, but it wound up being 16-10, and in a slugfest like that, anything goes.
While the events of the past 24 hours have heaped condemnation upon Nyjer Morgan, I think the Marlins are being forgiven too easily — which is surprising, considering all of the drama the team has produced this season. Morgan was the Nationals’ leadoff hitter, but Volstad didn’t hit him immediately — he struck him out in the first and gave up a sac fly to him in the second. (In the meantime, Volstad plunked Wil Nieves in the second and Alberto Gonzalez in the third, both presumably unintentionally.) Volstad waited till Morgan’s third plate appearance — when his team was up 14-3 — to go after him, which shows that he put his team’s runs above his team’s honor. But that’s just what Morgan did on the basepaths, stealing a run to get his team’s offense going. So Volstad threw the ball behind him the next time he showed up, and Morgan took the law into his own hands.
I’ve written before that I don’t have much use for baseball’s arcane, archaic notions of honoring your opponent by not running up the score on them. Morgan’s actions had clearly proved over the previous week that he was volatile, and getting in a bench-clearing brawl while appealing a 7-game suspension is not a good way to endear yourself to an arbitrator. But if you ignore his behavior in Philadelphia and St. Louis, I don’t think Morgan did anything wrong in Miami. Sure, he took his life into his own hands — Volstad is 6’8″ and has about 60 pounds on the featherweight Morgan — but while rushing the mound was inadvisable, it wasn’t hard to justify after the other team deliberately threw at him twice.
Morgan’s having a bad year at the plate because his walks are down, his strikeouts are up, and his BABIP is 47 points lower than last year. For the second year in a row, he’s leading the majors in times caught stealing. And the former eccentric fan favorite who once referred to himself as “Tony Plush” has quickly turned toxic in the nation’s capital. He isn’t doing the Nationals much good in the lineup right now, and it wouldn’t hurt their season much if Major League Baseball told him to cool off for a week, as will inevitably happen. But he isn’t the only one to blame for yesterday’s brawl. The headhunting Marlins shouldn’t be let off the hook.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.