Behind the Story with Nyjer Morgan

Nyjer Photo 5.jpgWhen Nyjer Morgan was traded to the Nationals along with left-hander Sean Burnett from the Pirates for outfielder Lastings Milledge and relief pitcher Joel Hanrahan at the end of June, there was little known about Morgan and Burnett outside of Pittsburgh. The 29-year-old Morgan entered the season fighting for a job in left field with less than a year of Major League service time and Burnett was a middle reliever, the least glorified position in baseball.

What was clear from the trade was if players don’t fit the newly formed Nationals player mold, they won’t be on the team for long. Rizzo cleaned out their bullpen, reshaped the starting rotation and found a centerfielder that covers more ground than Rock Creek Park. There isn’t a pitcher in the bullpen that was on the Opening Day roster. Lastings Milledge tried to play centerfield but he had his own agenda, showed up late for team meetings and was quickly made an example out of when they demoted him to Triple-A Syracuse. Joel Hanrahan struggled as a closer in 2009. He blew his first two save opportunities of the season and converted only five saves in 10 chances with the Nats this season. Morgan and Burnett have quickly made names for themselves.

In Morgan’s first month, he set the Nationals (2005-present) record for hits in July (40) and stolen bases in a month (14). Morgan is batting .387 (43-for-111) with six doubles, a triple, a homer, seven RBI, an MLB-best 14 stolen bases and 20 runs scored in 28 games with the Nationals. Burnett has been the left handed reliever the Nats missed the first three months of the season. In 13 appearances, Burnett has posted a .098 (4-for-41) batting average against and a 2.5/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio en route to one hold and a 0.73 ERA (1 ER/12.1 IP).

It isn’t a secret what Morgan has meant to the team.

“We now have a true centerfielder with speed and a true leadoff man who can steal some bases and get on base,” Third Base Coach Pat Listach said. “He causes some havoc and we can manufacture runs with him in the lineup.”

“He stabilized the centerfield position,” outfielder Austin Kearns said. “When you get a true centerfielder like him you appreciate it, you realize how important that is so that’s kind of been something that we’ve been missing here.”

“I think, he’s really the first true centerfielder we’ve had here,” Adam Dunn said. “His speed makes up for a lot of mistakes.”

Nyjer Morgan wants to be the mayor of NatsTown and he will get your vote. Don’t expect him to campaign with cheesy commercials and cliché catch lines. He will just be himself and it will win you over. All you have to know is that Morgan will always give 110 percent. (I know it isn’t possible but Morgan turns impossible odds upside down.) He played baseball for the Walla Walla (Wash.) Community College Warriors for two seasons and was drafted by the Pirates in the 33rd round of the 2002 First-Year Player Draft. He signed for $2,500 and now is starring at the Major League level.

Nyjer Photo 6.jpgTo truly know Nyjer Morgan you have to know Tony Plush–his alter ego or gentleman’s name. In Pittsburgh, they only know him as T. Plush.

Nyjer Photo 3.jpgTo know Tony Plush is to know a person who doesn’t believe in gravity, limits or accepting defeat. Every base can be stolen and every ball can be caught. To know Tony Plush is to know a person who at all times has more energy than the sun but still says he keeps it toned down to play the “gentleman’s game” of baseball. To know Tony Plush is to know, as he says it, “a person who is out there.” Not only out there in centerfield but more along the lines of out there right between funny and flamboyant.

It took Morgan less than a minute to become comfortable on the top bench of the clubhouse. Once he did, it was joke after joke.  He is a comedian with a smile as big as Texas… just don’t catch him after he sat in traffic for an hour. He has a distinctive high-pitched laugh that follows each line. It has only been a month but he already loves Washington. “It is the perfect place for me to really show my game skills off,” he said. “I was fired up just to come over here.”

He is confident. He still thinks he can play in the NHL and Interim GM Mike Rizzo loves his hockey mentality. Believe it or not, Morgan says he has to keep his emotions and energy contained to play baseball.

“I have to control my emotions because it’s more of a gentlemen’s like game and you’ve got to think it more, you can’t really react on your emotions and everything,” Morgan said. “I definitely learned how to harness the two. But my hockey background does play in a lot out here on this diamond.”

“He’s got a lot of energy. In everything he does in life, he’s got a lot of energy. He’s always got a smile on his face, always upbeat, kind of a positive influence on everybody,” Burnett said. “If you’re having a bad day he’ll cheer you up just with his energy level. As a baseball player when he gets on the bases he rages havoc and I know, being a pitcher, he’s not a guy you want on the base path.”

Morgan grew up in Northern California during the generation that watched Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders excel as two-sport Major League athletes in the late ’80s and early’90s. Morgan dreamed he would be the next one–an All-Star on the ice and the diamond.

Nyjer Photo 4.jpgHe always dreamed big. He had to. He is generously listed at 6-feet-0 and might be 175-pounds soaking wet, that isn’t the ideal height and weight for a forward on the ice rink.

By the age of 16, hockey was his primary focus and he left his home in California to play junior hockey in Canada. Baseball wasn’t on the backburner but it wasn’t getting as much heat. (Morgan was drafted out of high school at Enderby, B.C. by the Rockies with the 1,260th pick but he never signed.) He jumped around a few hockey teams and eventually landed a spot as a forward with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League, a major junior hockey team. As it would turn out, he played just seven games with the Pats. Soon after his stint with the Pats, Morgan found out he was going to be a father. In the fall of 2000, he retired the skates and started school. The rest is history.

Tony Pluch Cover.jpgTo read “Meet Tony Plush” pick up the latest issue of Inside Pitch at Nationals Park during this homestand against the Marlins and Diamondbacks. Click HERE to purchase tickets.

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