Last season, Nyjer Morgan suffered one of the most protracted on-field meltdowns in recent baseball history, shifting his public perception from that of a garrulous, personable guy to somebody in genuine need of psychiatric help over the course of about two very rough weeks.
He’s learning this spring that repercussions can carry, and that a little reputation can take a player a long way. Sometimes in the wrong direction.
Monday, the Washington outfielder ran into Albert Pujols while trying to beat out a fifth-inning bunt against the Cardinals. It was hardly his fault that the throw from Cardinals catcher Gerald Laird tailed into him, forcing Pujols into contact, but the lasting image was of the all-everything first baseman trying to shake his wrist loose after the play, sufficiently dinged to elicit a visit by a trainer. (Pujols stayed in the game.)
Morgan’s true problem on the day, if it was really his problem at all, came from Tony La Russa.
It dates back to last August, when Morgan went out of his way to run into Cardinals catcher Bryan Anderson (one of the earlier incidents in the aforementioned meltdown).
In a way, La Russa is a bit like Gaylord Perry. Perry played up his reputation as a greaseballer, fidgeting and wiping all over his body before each pitch, with the understanding that getting hitters to think he was loading up a baseball was nearly as valuable as actually doing so.
Similarly, La Russa revels in his reputation as a staunch defender of baseball decency, someone who will unflinchingly order his pitchers to retaliate in the name of on-field justice. Whether or not he actually does it is almost beside the point; whenever a Cardinals pitcher drills an opponent in any circumstance that can be even loosely construed as retaliatory, questions immediately emerge as to La Russa’s intentions. And any energy the other team expends stewing about the St. Louis manager is energy they’re not focusing on the game before them.
Which is a long way of saying that when Chris Carpenter hit Laynce Nix later in the frame, La Russa was quickly fingered as a prime source of inspiration.
Washington starter Livan Hernandez wasted no time settling the score, drilling Colby Rasmus in the bottom of the inning. La Russa, reported Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post, “seemed to be glaring at the Nats’ dugout as Rasmus made his way to first.”
(Swayed perhaps by the low-key vibe of spring training, Hernandez violated a key unwritten rule in admitting the intent of his pitch to reporters after the game. Expect retribution of the official variety—suspension and/or fine—soon.)
Because La Russa is in charge of the Cardinals (or so we suspect, as far as this particular incident is concerned), St. Louis reliever Miguel Batista hit Ian Desmond in the back two innings later. (Batista actually retired Morgan before drilling Desmond, perhaps indicating that La Russa’s book on Morgan is finally closed.)
This was the tipping point.
Desmond had words, first for catcher Tony Cruz, then, upon reaching first, for Batista. Benches emptied, led by none other than Morgan (who was restrained by Nationals coach Trent Jewett). Nationals manager Jim Riggleman had to be held back when he approached La Russa with malice. Ultimately, no punches were thrown.
“There was no question in my mind that Batista was going to hit somebody,” said Riggleman after the game, in an AP report.
In a fascinating subplot that plays right into La Russa’s intrigue, Kilgore posited that Batista, on the bubble for a roster spot, “may have made the team” with his actions.
Apparently more savvy about this sort of thing than Livan Hernandez, both La Russa and Carpenter denied intent after the game.
“It’s the same story—it happens to us, it happens to them,” said La Russa after the game, in a very La Russa-like this-stuff-has-been-around-forever denial. “You get hit, you think it’s intentional. They hit you, it was accidental. It’s been 100 years of this stuff. It’s not going to go any farther. That’s it.”
One more unwritten rule was violated during the scrum, when it was pointed out that Carpenter—already in the clubhouse when the benches cleared—did not join his teammates on the field. He was in the process of talking to Brian Feldman from KMOV in St. Louis when the incident went down. Feldman reported the following:
Mar. 21, 3:18 p.m. -Was in the clubhouse talking to Carpenter when the benches cleared on the field. Batista was thrown out of the game for hitting a Nationals player…says he was told they believed he did it on purpose. It’s unclear whether he did or not.
Mar. 21, 3:20 p.m. -That beaning from Batista was in retaliation to Rasmus getting hit earlier. Apparently Tony was not happy at all when that happened. So its possible he told Batista to do it…but that’s anyone’s guess.
For his part, Carpenter claimed that once he understood the severity of the situation (including, according to the AP, hearing that “Washington players and coaches blamed him for igniting the fireworks and were questioning why he wasn’t on the field”), he beelined to the dugout.
“The most idiotic thing was that it was a spring training game. It was stupid,” he said. “If they think it’s my fault, I’ll go out there. I didn’t hit Laynce Nix on purpose.”
The quote of the day came from Desmond, who was a teammate of Batista in Washington last season.
“Yeah, it was intentional, but I mean Miggy throws like Miss Iowa,” he said with a laugh—a not-so-subtle reference to the flap Batista stirred last year with comments about the Hawkeye state’s beauty queen. “We were really trying to keep the fans around. Once (Albert) Pujols came out of the game and (Chris) Carpenter came out of the game we knew they were going to leave so we decided to add a little entertainment.”
The true entertainment value will be calculated next time these teams meet, on April 19.