There has to be a wager involved with this, somehow. Why else would a major league player attempt to go from zero-to-Alex Rodriguez in a bizarre and misguided weeklong quest to become baseball’s Most Hated Player?
World, meet Nyjer Morgan. You might not have known him in mid-August, but you certainly do now.
Over the last seven days, he’s gotten into it with fans, his own manager and various members of the opposition, both as the player delivering punishment and the one receiving it.
Had he paid a lick of attention to baseball’s unwritten rules along the way, virtually all of it could have been avoided.
He’s in today’s news for yesterday’s fight, but Morgan’s slide began on Aug. 25, when he threw a ball into the stands in Philadelphia. Some say he threw it to the fans, some say he threw it at the fans. Morgan claims it was a big misunderstanding (a tack corroborated by at least one member of the crowd), but the league quickly levied a suspension for his actions, which is currently under appeal. (The piece of Code he ignored: Never engage with hecklers. It rarely ends well.)
On Aug. 27, Morgan got picked off base in the eighth inning of a close game against St. Louis, which proved particularly costly when the batter, Willie Harris, subsequently hit a home run. The Nationals lost, 4-2. Morgan was confronted after the game by Nationals manager Jim Riggleman, and dropped from leadoff to eighth in the batting order.
His response: The following day, he attempted to level Cardinals catcher Bryan Anderson in a play at the plate, despite the fact that Anderson had his back to the play and was moving in the opposite direction. Morgan was so focused on his target that he veered away from the plate to make contact, and in fact never scored. (Code: Run into catchers only when a slide would lead to a likely out. Even more importantly, never let personal vendettas get in the way of your team’s success.)
Riggleman was angry enough about it to call his player out in public, after apologizing to both Anderson and Tony La Russa. Morgan, he said, as reported by Nationals Daily News, did an “unprofessional thing,” and, indicating that lessons would be learned, “you’ll never see it again” from him. (The manager wasn’t quite accurate on this point.)
Riggleman then benched Morgan for the series finale, under the auspices that he had become too prominent a target to safely take the field.
On Aug. 30, Morgan responded to Riggleman. “I guess he perceived it as some nasty play with the intentions of trying to hurt somebody before coming to me and asking me about the situation, which was very unacceptable,” he told the Washington Post. “But on my half, I’m not going to go ahead and throw fuel on the fire. I’m going to try to be as professional as I can about the situation.”
It’s frequently the case, of course, that when players feel the need to proclaim the fact that they’re being “professional,” they’re actually anything but. (Code violation: Never call out your manager in public.)
In fact, Morgan cited the unwritten rules in his own defense, saying that Riggleman “just basically did a cardinal sin. You don’t blast your player in the papers.” (This is true, unless the player’s behavior has deteriorated to the point where the manager feels he has few other options. )
It didn’t take long for Morgan to stir further controversy. In the 10th inning of a scoreless game on Aug. 31, he ran into Marlins catcher Brett Hayes with enough force to place him on the disabled list for the remainder of the season with an injured shoulder. While Morgan didn’t go out of his way to reach his target this time, consensus held that he would have been safe—with the winning run, no less—had he slid. (See previous Code citation about running into catchers. The Marlins won it with a run in the bottom of the frame.)
When he took the field for the bottom of the inning, Morgan again got into it with fans, this time being caught on tape cussing them out. (See previous unwritten-rule citation regarding fan interactions.)
Any one of these things can constitute a distraction in the clubhouse. The sum of them, especially coming as they did in the span of a week, reads like the linescore of a borderline sociopath.
Which brings us to yesterday’s firestorm.
Morgan was hit in the fourth inning by Marlins starter Chris Volstad—clear retaliation for his treatment of Hayes the day before. Not content to let it end there, Morgan subsequently stole second and third on the next two pitches, while his team trailed by 11 runs in the fourth inning.
This is a clear violation of the unwritten rules, although under ordinary circumstances, a player’s own teammates care more about him staying put in that type of situation than does the opposition. Morgan’s steals, however, were an unequivocal message to the Marlins, conveying that he neither appreciated their treatment of him, nor respected their right to do what they did. (Code: If you send a message to the other team, expect one in return.)
“That was garbage,” he told reporters after the game. “That’s just bad baseball. It’s only the fourth inning. If they’re going to hold me on, I’m going to roll out. The circumstances were kind of out of whack, but the game was too early. It was only the fourth inning. If it happened again, I’d do it again. It’s one of those things where I’m a hard-nosed player. I’m grimey. And I just wanted to go out there and try to protect myself. I didn’t want to get outside the box. There’s bit a little bit of controversy surrounding the kid lately. But it’s just one of things.”
That’s one way to look at it. Another way is that “the kid” essentially gave the Marlins little choice but to reinforce their point. Which they did, when Volstad threw a pitch behind him two innings later.
“I think that’s the only reason we tried to go after him a second time,” said Marlins third baseman Wes Helms in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “Since he stole the bases, I think it pumped us up a little more and got to Volstad a little bit. . . . I cannot stand when a guy shows somebody up or show the integrity of the game up to the fans or whatever. There’s just no place in baseball for that. In my opinion, you’re going to get what’s coming to you if you do that. Tonight, it was time we had to show him we weren’t going to put up with the way he was treating us, but also with the way he was trying to take bases down 10 runs. After he got hit, you know why he did it. . . . I can’t really say anything good about a guy that doesn’t play the game the right way and doesn’t play for the integrity of the game.”
It’s not like Morgan needed to further prove a willingness to put his personal agenda ahead of the integrity of the game, but he did. After Volstad’s pitch sailed behind him, Morgan charged the mound, and a rarity in baseball occurred—a fight that involved actual fighting.
The Marlins—particularly first baseman Gaby Sanchez—couldn’t wait to get their hands on Morgan, and players quickly piled up near the mound. (Watch it here.)
Other accounts offer copious details of the fight. One pertinent example doesn’t even involve Morgan, but third base coach Pat Listach, who was among the first people in the scrum. Baseball’s Code mandates that fighting is left to the players, with coaches and managers serving to fill the role of peacemakers. That was clearly not Listach’s intent, and he may well be disciplined by the league for his actions.
Should Morgan be given any sort of pass in this situation, it’s for the fact that his response to being drilled—the stealing of back-to-back bases—fell within the boundaries of reason; as he said, it was only the fourth inning and the Marlins were holding him on, which is frequently taken as a tacit green light for eager baserunners.
Also, even more importantly, the Marlins took their shot earlier in the game. Between Morgan’s steals and the injury to his catcher, Volstad can hardly be blamed for wanting to get in another blow—but Morgan’s assumption that it was one too many is not unreasonable. In the middle of the fight, Riggleman could be seen mouthing the words “one time” to Florida manager Edwin Rodriguez, indicating the number of retaliatory attempts to which he felt the Marlins were entitled. (“We decide when we run,” said Riggleman in the Sun-Sentinel. “The Florida Marlins will not decide when we run.”)
“I understand they had to get me back a little bit,” said Morgan in the Post. “It’s part of the game. . . . I guess they took it the wrong way. He hit me the first time, so be it. But he hit two other of our guys?” (Volstad did indeed hit three batters on the day.) “Alright, cool. But then he whips another one behind me, we got to go. I’m just sticking up for myself and just defending my teammates. I’m just going out there and doing what I have to do.”
Doing what he had to do, of course, is up for interpretation. Saying that there’s a case to be made for Morgan’s viewpoint on the incidents leading up to the fight does nothing to discourage the sentiment that the guy has been wildly, unassailably, dangerously out of line for the better part of a week.
Guys like Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez can flaunt the unwritten rules at their discretion; their jobs are safe, so long as they continue to produce.
When it’s a leadoff hitter with a .317 OBP, who led the league in being caught stealing last year and is on the way to doing it again, the margins are considerably tighter.
Watch out, Nyjer Morgan. There aren’t many people in your corner right about now.
Update: Gaby Sanchez now says that the Marlins were not “really holding (Morgan) on,” prior to his fourth-inning stolen bases. For what it’s worth.
Update (9-03-10): MLB has ruled. Morgan will be suspended for eight games, in addition to the seven that had already been handed out (which is currently under appeal). Also suspended were, from the Marlins, Volstad (six games), pitcher Alex Sanabia (who must have done some heavy and unnecessary hitting in the scrum, for five), Sanchez (three), Edwin Rodriguez (one). Pitcher Jose Veras was fined.
Suspended from the Nationals were pitcher Doug Slaten (probably for furthering tensions by hitting Sanchez in response to the first baseman’s clothesline tackle of Morgan to begin the fight) and Listach (three games each), and Jim Riggleman (two games). Riggleman and Listach also were fined.
Update (9-16-10): Morgan’s suspension was reduced to eight games.