Before a recent game, Nyjer Morgan spotted a reporter he had known since his days playing in the short-season New York-Penn League and broke into a big grin.
"Big John Studd!" the outfielder exclaimed, before putting a big bear hug on the scribe in the middle of the Brewers' clubhouse.
Now, my name is John, and I am a big fellow. I've never been a professional wrestler, though, and I'll let other decide if I'm a stud. However, it isn't every day that a ballplayer gives a big squeeze to a reporter, and Morgan's teammates seemed equally amused and befuddled by the action.
It's an example of what makes Morgan as hard to decipher as any player in baseball. Those who love him say he is a great teammate and one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. Those who hate him claim he might be the dirtiest player in the major leagues, and isn't always such a great teammate.
So, who exactly is the real Nyjer Morgan? He just smiled when asked that question.
"I'm not going there, no, no, no, no," he said. "You know me. You answer that question. You write that story."
Morgan's Brewers teammates are still in the process of getting to know him after he was acquired in a trade from the Nationals during the last week of spring training. However, his first impression has been a good one: he has hit .454/.444/.727, albeit in the small sample of 27 plate appearances, and charmed his new teammates.
"He's a good dude," Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder said. "We have a really good clubhouse. We have guys who really like each other and get along. He has fit right in with us. He's always happy, always in a good mood. Everyone here likes him."
That apparently wasn't the case with the Nationals. At the time of the trade, they said the deal was made to clear a spot in the starting lineup for Rick Ankiel. Morgan had a poor 2010, as his TAv was a paltry .235 in 577 plate appearances and he contributed just 0.9 WARP. However, it would be a reach to find anyone in baseball—including Dayton Moore—who thinks Ankiel is still an everyday player, let alone a center fielder.
In fact, the Nationals are now looking to trade for a center fielder less than a month into the season, which makes the Morgan trade all the more curious on the surface. Below the surface, there was trouble brewing in the Nationals' clubhouse this spring. Jayson Werth was signed to a seven-year, $126 million contract as a free agent over the winter to not only play right field but become the team leader.
Werth, a no-nonsense type, didn't like Morgan from the outset. Morgan's outgoing style clashed with what Werth had become used to in the buttoned-down Phillies clubhouse during the previous four seasons.
The tension finally boiled over during the Grapefruit League season when Morgan did not run the prescribed number of wind sprints after coming out of a game. Werth confronted Morgan about it in the clubhouse, and a shouting match ensued.
Morgan believes that his angering Werth led the Nationals to trade him, but declined the chance to elaborate on the incident. "There's no point in rehashing anything," he said. "I've moved on. I’m with the Brewers now. I'm with a good club, playing with a bunch of good guys who get along. This is the first time in my career that I've been on a team that has a legitimate chance to do some things, and I'm very excited about that."
Morgan's playing time has been limited with the Brewers. He has primarily played right field, where the Brewers have been using Morgan, Mark Kotsay, and Erick Almonte to fill in while Corey Hurt (oblique) has been on the disabled list. However, the move to acquire Morgan seemed most motivated to give the Brewers insurance in the event that the inconsistent Carlos Gomez is unable to handle being the regular center fielder.
First-year manager Ron Roenicke wants the Brewers to be a more aggressive team on the bases, after two seasons playing a station-to-station type game under Ken Macha. Roenicke believes Morgan can be a big part of that style, whether starting or coming off the bench.
"He's got outstanding speed and he knows how to use it on the bases," Roenicke said. "He's a real threat every time he gets on to make something happen. He brought everything to us so far, though. He's played great defense and he's been getting big hits for us. He's going to help us in a lot of ways."
It is on the bases where Morgan has primarily developed his reputation for being a dirty player. He plowed over catchers Bryan Anderson of the Cardinals and Brett Hayes of the Marlins in the span of five days late last season. Nationals manager Jim Riggleman called the August 28 incident with Anderson "unprofessional" after Morgan left Hayes with a separated shoulder.
Morgan, who spent four years as a junior hockey player in western Canada before switching to baseball, does not apologize for his style, saying, "I play the game hard and that's never going to change." In fact, Morgan plowed over Pirates catcher Ryan Doumit, a former teammate, in a game last week, knocking the ball out of his mitt and scoring a run. The play left Morgan with a deep thigh bruise and his close friend, Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen, looking on with mixed emotions.
"The thing about Nyjer is, if he's on your team, then you love him, but it you're playing against him, you hate him," McCutchen said with a smile.
Rumors and Rumblings: There is growing speculation that Major League Baseball might next take over control of the Mets just as they have the Dodgers. Like Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, Mets owner Fred Wilpon is also having financial difficulties. … Sources close to Manny Ramirez, who retired from the Rays two weeks ago after being suspended by Major League Baseball for a second time after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug, say that the outfielder is considering making a comeback next season. However, it is hard to fathom any team extending even a non-roster invitation to a 39-year-old with 150 days' worth of drug suspensions on his resume. … While Twins officials have privately discussed eventually moving Joe Mauer to another position, likely a corner outfield spot, the four-time All-Star catcher is vehemently opposed to the idea. … Because it's never too early to look ahead to the trading deadline, Mets shortstop Jose Reyes is already lining up as the most attractive July trading chip. Said one front office type, "If [Mets GM] Sandy Alderson plays his cards right, and I'm sure he will, the Mets could get a pretty good haul."
The Pirates are trying to trade for infielder Brandon Wood, who was designated for assignment by the Angels earlier this week, with the plan of having him replace shortstop Ronny Cedeno. … The Braves' once-slim chance of trading Kenshin Kawakami have become miniscule now that the veteran right-hander has gone on the disabled list at Double-A Mississippi with a strained shoulder. … The Blue Jays optioned left-hander Brett Cecil to Triple-A Las Vegas to help him regain the three mph he has lost on his fastball this season. … Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (abdominal) is eligible to be activated from the disabled list Wednesday, but it appears he will be out longer than that. Meanwhile, right-hander Chien-Ming Wang (shoulder) has started pitching in extended spring training games but won't be ready to return to the major leagues until at least mid-June. … Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy (oblique) is scheduled to resume baseball activities this weekend but probably won't be activated from the DL for two weeks.
Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun: "He's been as good as I've ever seen him. He's completely locked in. He just won't give in and swing at a bad pitch. He'll either wait for his pitch and crush it or take the walk and let the pitcher deal with Prince [Fielder]."
Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman: "You really have to like this kid. He doesn't have the home run power you normally look for in the first baseman, but he's going to be good for 40 doubles a year and always challenge to hit .300. He's also a good defensive first baseman. He could be a Mark Grace-type player."
Rangers right-hander Colby Lewis: "He looks like he has the hangover effect from pitching deep into the postseason last year. His fastball velocity is down, his breaking pitches aren't as sharp, and his overall command isn't as good."
Twins reliever Joe Nathan: "If I were the Twins, I'd make up an injury for him, put him on the disabled list, and let him work out his problems in the minor leagues for a few weeks. He's just not ready to pitch in the big leagues right now, even if you just use him in blowouts."
Giants catcher Buster Posey: "As good as he was last year, he's even better this year, all across the board. He's really starting to show his athleticism on the bases and behind the plate, and he is flashing the type of power that makes me think he could blossom into a 25-homer-a-year hitter."