GOODYEAR, Ariz. — For the first time this spring a wide grin came across Nyjer Morgan’s face. All the work put in to get back to the majors has paid off.
Morgan came to the Indians’ spring training camp as a non-roster invitee. Many didn’t give him much of a shot of making the team due to a crowded outfield. But with Michael Bourn headed to the disabled list, a solid spring and a different approach, Morgan showed that he could be known more as a ballplayer than his off-field antics.
"I wanted to show who Nyjer Morgan is — a hard-working individual who loves coming to the ballpark and competing and loves being with his boys," Morgan said after learning that he made the club.
Morgan’s problem was that he was known more for his alter ego — Tony Plush. The fun-loving Mr. Plush had become a detriment to Morgan’s career.
Morgan was first called up by Pittsburgh in 2007 but wore out his welcome by June of 2009 when he was traded to Washington. There were more clashes, this time with the Nationals before he was dealt to the Brewers in 2011. That season though, Morgan and Plush were able to thrive together as he hit .304 and the Brewers made the playoffs. The following year he struggled, batting .239 and wasn’t put on the offseason roster.
Last year Morgan was with Yokohama of the Japanese Central League. Plush was big in Japan but when Morgan started off slow, he was sent to Japan’s equivalent of the minor leagues. He would return and end up batting .294 with a career-high 11 homers.
Morgan said his goal coming into Indians camp was that he "wanted to leave the malarkey behind me. Basically show the new me, the new veteran. Not Tony Plush."
Even if he thought he didn’t at times. Morgan expressed to manager Terry Francona and general manager Chris Antonetti a couple days ago that he thought people still might not be seeing that Morgan was going about things in a respectful way.
"He was concerned about the external, what Nyjer and Tony Plush was," Antonetti said. "We told him that we love you the way that are you now. That was the message today — be that same guy. Go about your business the same way and maintain the same energy level."
After having a calf strain midway through camp, Morgan has played well over the past week. In Monday’s 8-3 win over the Reds, he was 1 for 4 with a double. With his speed, the 33-year-old might be an option as the Tribe’s leadoff hitter during Bourn’s absence, but Morgan has been batting near the bottom of the order in most of his spring games.
Bourn will miss at least the first four games of the season after straining his left hamstring during a March 16 game against the Giants. The move to the disabled list will be backdated to March 21.
Whatever the Indians ask of Morgan during Bourn’s absence, he is determined to go about it the same way he has throughout spring training. Morgan has a solid 280 average with 117 steals in 583 career games.
"I just have to stick to the normal grind," Morgan said. "In the past I would put a lot on myself and not understand the game or who I was as a person and a ballplayer. Now I understand who I am and what I’m capable of doing."
As for Plush, Morgan said that he made the club, too, but doesn’t know when he will make an appearance. It might have taken awhile, but the veteran seems to have figured out the balancing act between work and fun.
"I talked to a wise person who told me to understand when to bring him out and not let Tony Plush overtake Nyjer Morgan," he said. "I know when to bring him out. I’ll keep him in the closet a little bit longer."