Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Nyjer Morgan gestures toward fans after getting ejected.
The moment last week he was suspended seven games by Major League Baseball for throwing a ball into the stands in Philadelphia and striking a fan, Nyjer Morgan's fuse was lit. It slowly burned over the ensuing days, from his getting picked off with his team down four runs Friday to his demotion to the 8-hole and subsequent unnecessary clipping of Cardinals catcher Bryan Anderson Saturday to his benching by Jim Riggleman Sunday to his criticism of the manager for a lack of communication Monday to his controversial collision with Marlins catcher Brett Hayes last night.
By the time Morgan stepped to the plate in the top of the first tonight, you sensed the fuse was about to run out and explode. It didn't happen right then, though. And it didn't happen in the fourth inning, when Chris Volstad plunked Morgan in the side. Nyjer calmly trotted to first base without saying a word, prompting everyone to wonder whether disaster had been averted.
Of course, it hadn't. When Morgan subsequently stole both second and third bases, with his team trailing 14-3 in the fourth, the Marlins decided more action was necessary. So the next time he came to bat, Volstad fired a fastball behind his back. Morgan paused for a split second, then bolted for the mound.
"I thought it was over after [the first plunking]," Morgan said. "Once I saw the ball go behind me, it's time to go. Once is good enough. Twice, it's time to go."
So he went, and the ensuing brouhaha will show up on highlight reels for decades. Morgan took a swipe at Volstad. Then Gaby Sanchez took down Morgan with a vicious clothesline. Then Pat Listach took down Volstad in an attempt to smother the Marlins pitcher. Both benches emptied. Both bullpens emptied. Jerseys were pulled. Bodies were piled on top of each other. Peacemakers turned into combatants.
And then at the end of it all, Morgan walked back to the dugout, escorted by bullpen catcher Nilson Robledo, his jersey unbuttoned and untucked, his arms raised as though he was declaring victory, his mouth yapping at fans.
This will be the lasting image around baseball of Nyjer Morgan: disheveled, disruptive, disdainful.
"People are going to have their own opinions," Morgan said. "I know what kind of player I am. I'm going out there balls out. I'm not going to go out there and take anything for granted. I'm going to show that I'm a hard-nosed ballplayer, and that's the way it is."
That's the way it is with Nyjer. This is who he is, and it's difficult to see him suddenly changing his entire persona as a ballplayer.
The question now facing the Nationals is whether this player should be part of their future. And this isn't as clear-cut as it might look on the surface. It would be easy to look at the events of the last week (combined with Morgan's overall subpar play this season) and determine it's time to cut ties. But Nyjer continues to be supported inside the Nats' clubhouse, and that was clear tonight.
"He's definitely done some things over the past couple weeks that are a little questionable, I think," Ryan Zimmerman said. "We've all talked. Me and Pudge have talked to him. ... He obviously has to learn a little more about the game. But you can't take away from how hard he plays. That's what he does every day. It's not like he's changed over the last week or two. That's the attitude, the way he's played ever since he's been here. That's who he is."
The consensus among the Nationals is that Morgan's only real infraction in the last week was the incident with Anderson, the Cardinals catcher. They don't know what exactly happened in Philadelphia but they sincerely doubt Morgan's actions were malicious. They also believe his collision with Hayes last night (resulting in a separated shoulder for the Florida catcher) was clean.
And the Nats stood up for Morgan's two stolen bases tonight after the initial plunking, despite what any book on baseball etiquette might say.
"The Florida Marlins will not decide when we run. We will decide when we run," Riggleman said. "He felt that's the way I'm going to get my payback. Sometimes some guys get it in the form of going in hard at somebody at second base on a double play. I've seen that many times. But Nyjer took his revenge in the form of a stolen base. And I don't have any problem with it."
The Marlins obviously did.
"He gets under my skin," Wes Helms said. "I cannot stand when a guy shows somebody up. There's no place in baseball for that. You're going to get what's coming to you if you do that. Tonight, we had to show him that we weren't going to put up with the way he was treating us after last night, but also trying to take the bases being up 10 runs. After he got hit, you know it's out of spite. 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."
Fair or unfair, this is the reputation Nyjer Morgan is now establishing around baseball. It's a reputation that shouldn't sit well with Mike Rizzo, who has repeatedly talked about the importance of character and clubhouse chemistry when acquiring and removing players from his roster.
Trouble is, Rizzo has staked a decent amount of his own reputation on Morgan. The June 2009 trade that brought Morgan and Sean Burnett to Washington and sent Lastings Milledge and Joel Hanrahan to Pittsburgh represented Rizzo's first significant deal. And when Morgan immediately had a positive impact on the Nationals, Rizzo was hailed for pulling off a steal.
A removal of Morgan from the Nats roster would be akin to Rizzo admitting failure. It may yet happen, but it's not a move he's going to make on impulses. It's going to be a calculated decision.
In the end, Bob Watson may take care of all this for Rizzo. MLB's chief disciplinarian, Watson figures to come down hard on all brawl participants in the next day or two. Both managers (who were ejected) will get suspended, as will Volstad and Marlins reliever Jose Veras (who was ejected after getting into it with Steve McCatty during the melee). Doug Slaten will serve time after he intentionally plunked Sanchez later in the game. And Listach could face some punishment for his actions, even if his intentions were good and he was trying to prevent injuries instead of causing them.
But Watson's toughest decision may be what to do with Morgan, who already has a hearing scheduled for Tuesday in Washington to appeal his previous seven-game suspension. What happens when a guy appealing one suspension gets handed another? Can he appeal both simultaneously and thus be allowed to play Friday night in Pittsburgh? Something about that doesn't seem right.
Morgan shouldn't appeal whatever punishment Watson hands down for tonight's events. Accept it and serve your time, then make your case for a reduced sentence in the Philly case.
The best thing Morgan can do right now — for himself and for the Nationals — is to take a little time off. He's an emotional guy, and he's at his best when he plays with emotion. But he's got too much of it going on right now, and it has a significant negative effect on his game. Nyjer's not helping his team when he's on the field at the moment; he's hurting it.
There's a reason Riggleman dropped Morgan to the 8-hole last weekend. It's because he can damage his team less down there than he can at the top of the lineup. That alone should be evidence he needs some time off.
At season's end, Rizzo and Co. will have to decide whether Morgan figures into next year's plan or not. There's growing reason to believe he doesn't.
Either way, is there much left to be gained from watching him play the remainder of this season? It's tough to argue there is.
The story of Nyjer Morgan's 2010 season has already been written. It built up over the last five months, crescendoed over the last week and climaxed tonight in an unfortunate-but-predictable manner. At this point, it seems too late to re-write the final chapter and produce a happy ending.