Nyjer Morgan makes me uncomfortable. Well, that’s not exactly right. Everyone else’s reactions to Nyjer Morgan make me uncomfortable.
Morgan is many things. A fast, above average fielder who makes some great plays, but also occasionally bungles a tough play spectacularly, magically transforming, say, a double into a triple. He’s a contact hitter with smart location, so he gets a lot more extra base hits than you’d expect. He’s usually a good baserunner, but he gets caught stealing far too often. It hasn’t been much of a factor this year, though, so it’s perhaps excusable.
More prominently, and perhaps more importantly, Morgan is a loud, odd, unpredictable athlete in a sport that doesn’t generally cotton to the loud, odd and unpredictable (who aren’t closing pitchers.) I was surprised when I first learned that he’s 31, because he has the misdirected, nervous energy of someone much younger. He does goofy stuff a lot, and it’s mostly harmless and funny, and it seems like the team is feeding off of the loose, goofy vibe he gives off.
Then, once in a while, Morgan’s temper flares, benches clear, and the media fires off a dozen pieces scolding him for his immaturity, or his unprofessionalism, or whatever. The real Morgan has emerged, everyone agrees. Because Nyjer Morgan is just a festering ball of rage with a thin, silly veneer, and it’s impossible for a person to be inconsistent or complicated. (Insert Walt Whitman reference here.)
This strikes me as incredibly condescending, unfair, and possibly more than a little racist. I know, I know, cheap racism shot… and hard to prove, so I won’t dwell on it long.
But the subtext of these criticisms of Morgan –as, perhaps, with past criticisms of Barry Bonds, Milton Bradley, Curt Flood, etc.– is that he can’t control himself, that he’s just bad at heart. Bonds and Flood were selfish, and Bradley was crazy. It’s so easy, it seems, to reduce a human being to a single characteristic.
Wednesday’s incident, as with past Morgan mini-scandals, has already been framed as crazy Nyjer being crazy. He called Chris Carpenter mean things, threw a tobacco wad at him, and Saint Pujols rightly scolded him.
Never mind that Chris Carpenter is a known whiner/jerk, and that Morgan says Carpenter was the first to flap his jaw (why would we believe him?) Or that Albert Pujols confronted Morgan before anything violent had actually happened, which is really weird and paternalistic.
Please forget that Volstad had already plunked Morgan once before Plush charged the mound in the sort-of-infamous Nats/Marlins brawl of 2010. Or that the brawl-triggering pitch literally went behind him. Or that two of his teammates had been plunked already. He isn’t thinking when he overreacts, or making a choice to defend himself and his team, he’s just reverting back to his natural, violent mean.
If this sounds familiar, it might be because we were forced into a similarly dumb conversation about Prince Fielder only a season ago. And while Fielder’s apparently able to manage his temper these days –or maybe, as he says, it’s gone away with age– there is still a subtle hint of patronization when the topic of his free agency comes up. Fielder couldn’t possibly be the one pushing for the oversized contract: it’s Scott Boras calling the shots, dictating terms and deciding Fielder’s future.
Please feel free to contrast this with the reaction to Ryan Braun’s extension, through which he will be guaranteed nearly Jeterian sums when he is old enough to run for president. I like the extension, but a selfless act it is not.
It seems more fair, although a little speculative, to assume that Fielder grew up in an unnecessarily precarious financial situation because of his father’s gambling habits, so he wants to provide for his family to the best of his ability. Or maybe he just wants to be paid what he feels he’s worth. But no, it’s Scott Boras leading the weak-willed, helpless but otherwise fully-grown man astray.
We should apply the same Occam’s Razor rational to Morgan. Maybe he just really likes attention. Maybe he’s excited to be on a good baseball team for a change, but that doesn’t change his visceral reaction to being –according to Morgan– aggressively, verbally disrespected by a known goon.
And maybe Morgan’s antics –Tony Plush/Tombstone, mound charging, cryptic hand gestures – are primarily for the benefit of his teammates. It seems like everybody on the Crew is on board to varying degrees. I have to wonder if having a guy like Morgan around, who can voice both the team’s exuberance and frustration with equal flair, helps transform a good, small market team into one of the scarier units in baseball.
Morgan is a huge influence on the Brewers, maybe a vital one, and how often is that said about a mostly platooned center fielder? Due in part to his presence, they’ve developed something of an “us vs. them” swagger that I haven’t seen in a Wisconsin professional sports team since, well, ever. They seem to be playing to impress each other, and for the joy of it, and to prove they should not be underestimated. All good reasons, and not often found together.
Sure, it pisses off boring, craggy teams like the Cardinals, but the more coherent this team feels, and the louder they are, the more confident I am they’ll make some noise in the playoffs.