Itâ€™s not all an act: Tony Plush can play, too
PHOENIX — Forget the colorful personalities. Tony Plush, Tony Gumbel, Tony Hush — forget all of them.
There's something very important people need to know about Nyjer Morgan:
He's a pretty darn good baseball player.
Morgan, the Milwaukee Brewers' always-entertaining outfielder, drew a cult following last season when he and his alter ego, the gentlemanly Tony Plush, helped lead the Brewers to a 96-66 record, the National League Central championship and within two victories of the World Series.
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke took an instant shine to Morgan and even found amusement, like most people, in Morgan's zany antics — provided, of course, he didn't cross the line, which happened a handful of times during the season. But from a strictly baseball perspective, Roenicke is one of Morgan's biggest fans.
"Offensively, he's a nice spark plug," Roenicke said. "He doesn't get too caught up in pressure situations. He's going to give you a good at-bat. He's a nice guy to move runners over when we need to. I want him to swing the bat; he'll swing the bat to get them over. He gets big hits. He had a nice offensive year last year."
Morgan, now 31 and entering his sixth big-league season, hit .304 with 20 doubles and 37 RBI in 119 games during 2011.
Those numbers were a drastic improvement from a forgettable 2010 season in which he hit .253 in 136 games with the Washington Nationals. That output made him expendable at the end of spring training last year, and Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, looking to provide insurance behind incumbent center fielder Carlos Gomez, acquired Morgan for a minor leaguer and cash.
Melvin was banking that Morgan's 2010 numbers were an aberration. Morgan broke into the major leagues in 2007 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, batting .299 (32-for-107) in 28 games. A year later, he appeared in 58 games and hit .294, which earned him a chance to be the Pirates' regular center fielder in 2009.
He played in 71 games for Pittsburgh that season, hitting .277, and was dealt to Washington at the trade deadline. Morgan went on a tear with the Nationals, hitting .351 in 49 games.
"There were some learning years in there, but I can play," Morgan said. "People always doubted me. All those years, they were learning years. I was just getting better every year. It was just a progression. I wasn't a first-rounder. I had to build my way up. I was raw, and I'm glad. Some people, they peak out. But I was so raw, and I feel like I keep getting better and better each year."
Morgan was a 33rd-round selection (973rd overall) in the 2002 draft. And even at that spot, he was considered something of a long shot.
"Listen, I wasn't gifted with all the greatest tools like some players," Morgan said. "Basically, it's all been hard work through the years, trying to understand myself and trying to take the most from my instructors."
Coaching has made a difference in Morgan's game, especially since he landed in Milwaukee. Last season, he worked closely with hitting coach Dale Sveum, now the Chicago Cubs' manager, and Morgan loves the Brewers' staff.
"They understand that I'm a player," he said. "Most of these guys (in Milwaukee) are former players. They're not the Ivy League, book-smart type of guys that are just happy to be a big-league coach. They understand the game, the players and the personalities. They understand the grind. For those men, understanding me and my personality, that says a lot."
Morgan knows that his, uh, lighter side is what gets the most attention but, if the team isn't winning, that trait must be more subdued — in his own special way.
"I've always been like this," Morgan said. "I've always been fun and bubbly. You have to have some fun. You're with these guys eight months of year, so you have to keep it loose. For me, coming in and having a joyous attitude helps to making a wonderful workplace."
Milwaukee proved to be the perfect match for Morgan, both the showman and the baseball player. It's easy to forget that his side-splitting postgame interviews usually followed a stellar performance or a game-winning hit.
Take Game 5 of the NL Division Series, when Morgan's one-out grounder up the middle in the 10th inning put the Brewers in the NLCS. It's in those situations that the blend of personality and talent shine brightest.
"I've never been in a locker room full of guys that have fun but are ready to work, compete and win," Morgan said. "When you have a coaching staff that understands you don't have to be so damn tight, that's what makes us go out there and have fun playing, too."
In 2012, Morgan is hoping to keep contributing and improving — especially against left-handed pitching. He struggled against lefties a year ago, batting just .209 (9-for-43) and prompting Roenicke to employ a platoon situation with Gomez (.278 vs. lefties in 2011).
But even when discussing his struggles, Morgan finds a way to blend sincerity and honesty with a little humor.
"I like my approach (this spring)," Morgan said. "I want to show the organization and all of MLB that I'm not going to be a chump when it comes to lefties. Everybody knows when it comes to lefties, that's Plush's kryptonite. As long as I can hone in on my skills, maybe I can bust out and hit .220." And then he laughed.
More than anything, Morgan said he wants to be recognized as a man who enjoys playing baseball, as somebody who goes out and works hard every day.
"My father always told me that when you're not working hard, somebody else is working harder," Morgan said. "It's why I always start my offseason workout plan two weeks after the season ends. A lot of people don't know that. They think it's all fun and games, but it's really not.
"I take pride in this game. I love playing baseball. It's a wonderful game. Coming out and playing hard, both for the fans and for my teammates. If that one person has never seen a game before, they're going to say, 'Man, that kid can play.' And that's what will hypnotize you to loving the game of baseball."