Forget lefty-on-lefty matchups; there’s one battle a baseball player simply can not win: going nose to nose with any segment of the crowd, particularly on the road. One of the first things a player learns, even in the minors, is to avoid negative engagement at nearly any cost. Bleacher bums like nothing better than turning a minor on-field gesture into a mountain of grief.
This particular lesson continues to evade Nyjer Morgan.
On Friday night in San Francisco, Morgan made a series of running catches in the vast power alleys of AT&T Park to rob the Giants of several extra-base hits. With each grab, the jeering from the center-field bleachers got a little louder. Eventually, Morgan bit.
In the seventh inning, after ranging far to his right to track down a drive by Nate Schierholtz, Morgan ended up bouncing off the wall in left-center. As he jogged back to his position, he spun and made several gestures toward the bleachers widely perceived to be obscene. This served to inspire the crowd, which doubled down on whatever it had been yelling. Morgan spun to face them sporadically through the inning, gesturing all the while (though nothing any more conspicuous than arm waving, chest-thumping and head nodding).
He kept it up all the way to the dugout after the inning, bringing fans in different sections of the ballpark into the action. The act was blatant enough for umpire Joe West to have a word with Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke. (Watch it all here.)
These kinds of interactions can end up one of two ways. The first example is from Jose Canseco, who was greeted by Boston fans during the 1988 American League Championship Series with chants of “STER-oids, STER-oids.” Canseco, like Morgan, didn’t let it go. He pulled up his sleeve and showed his bicep to the crowd. Then he hit three home runs over the course of Oakland’s four-game sweep.
On the other side of the equation is David Wells. He tells the story himself, in his book, Perfect I’m Not. The scene: the bullpen in Cleveland, where Wells is warming up as a member of the Yankees, prior to a start.
“You’re an asshole, Wells! You suck! Fuck you!” they shout, hanging over the bullpen like a bunch of drunken, potbellied baboons wearing acid-washed jeans. Standard stuff, really. I barely even notice . . . until they shift gears. “Hey, Wells! Your mother’s a whore!” they shout from above, lauhing, and at that point I can’t help but shoot them a glare. Bad move. They’ve struck a nerve, and they know it. Now the jackasses take it up a notch, laying out a long, steady, completely obnoxious string of mom-centered insults, none of which I’ll reprint for you here. I’m dying to break a nose.
More dick-heads join the glee club. More insults get thrown, and by the time I’ve finished my warm-ups, I’m astonished to find that a bunch of little kids, just eight or nine years old, are now mimicking the older morons, reshouting every bit of filth the alpha mooks dish out. The “adults” all crack up at the sight. Welcome to Cleveland, ass-wipe capital of the USA.
It really bothers me. I know it shouldn’t., but it does. Insults aimed at me just roll off with no effect. It’s part of the territory. But here, today, with the rifle sights shifting to my mom, I’ve become furious to the point of distraction. Minutes later, hands still balled into tight, homicidal fists, my head still spinning, I sit in the Yankees’ dugout, stewing and staring, barely cracking a smile, even as my teammates are jumping all over a wild Chad Ogea and gifting me with a quick, 3-0, first-inning lead. In just a few moments, I’ll give most of that back.
Taking the mound to my usual chorus of boos, I’m now raging inside. Sweating, scowling, still looking to fracture a skull, I’m knocked off my game. I’m distracted. My mechanics are off. My delivery sucks, my fastball is up, and I pay for it all through the first. The assholes have won.
In Morgan’s defense, what was first taken to be an indecent gesture was actually a “T” symbol the outfielder made with his arms—something he does regularly to acknowledge his alter-ego, Tony Plush, or T-Plush.
He also flashed devil horns toward the bleachers, which happens to be the hand sign for two outs—which there were once he retired Schierholtz. He then flashed the sign toward the infield. Standard procedure.
“Just fans being fans, and me being an entertainer,” he told the San Jose Mercury News after the game.
Ultimately, Morgan is innocent of luridness and guilty of stupidity. His gestures, innocent though they may have been, were clearly intended to be provocative. Morgan should know better.
But he doesn’t. Last year, remember, Morgan was suspended for eight games and fined $15,000 after he cursed at Marlins fans in Florida, then initiated a fight with Marlins pitcher Chris Volstad. This came on the heels of a seven-game suspension (later waved) after he allegedly threw a ball at a fan in Philadelphia. (Morgan claimed he threw the ball to the fan.)
So never mind the fact that Morgan told MLB.com that he would alter his “T” sign to avoid future misunderstandings, saying that “we don’t want any controversial stories here.” The guy is a loose cannon, and likely always will be. On Friday, that personality trait guaranteed him that he will not play another grief-free game in San Francisco in the foreseeable future.
Only he can decide whether it was worth it on a personal level, but institutionally it’s clear. The Code says no.