In the fickle world where professional baseball players trade, Nyjer Morgan has everything going against him. He’s 33 years old. He’s on a one-year deal with the Cleveland Indians, getting his opportunity thanks to a minor league deal, ultimately obtaining a spot on the big league roster solely due to an injury to the team’s every day center fielder. A season ago, he was taking left-handed cuts in Japan, but was sent to their equivalent of the minor leagues following a slow start. Domestically, he is known more for headline-producing antics and an alter ego named Tony Plush; both Morgan and Plush have worn out their welcome with several teams in Major League Baseball, including the one he helped lead to the playoffs in 2011. Nyjer Morgan may have very well been the 25th man to get his name carved into the team’s Opening Day roster, but here he stands, freshly showered following his team’s series opening win over the San Diego Padres, telling everyone within ear shot that he is as comfortable as he has been throughout his six years in the game.
That a player of Morgan’s age, track record and role on his given team can be even the least bit comfortable speaks volumes for the clubhouse that Cleveland has cultivated, embracing a broad range of personalities that has manifested itself into one of the game’s better stories. Coming into camp with the Tribe, Morgan told reporters that he wanted to “leave the malarkey behind him,” that the days of Tony Plush were simply a chapter in his autobiography that has since been closed, but he quickly found that, as a member of the Cleveland Indians, he could be himself—the hard-working, fun-loving outfielder who simply loves playing the game of baseball.
“He was concerned about the external—what Nyjer and Tony Plush was,” Tribe general manager Chris Antonetti said earlier this spring. “We told him that we love you the way that are you now—be that same guy. Go about your business the same way and maintain the same energy level.”
Just two weeks into the 2014 regular season, the player who was essentially ostracized from the game finds himself thriving at the top of the lineup of a team that won 92 games just a season ago. He’s there due an injury sustained by one of their prize free agent acquisitions, but has shown nary a sign of playing like a guy with the pressure of the world on his shoulders.
Thinking was, placing Morgan at the top of the team’s lineup would allow for a seamless transition to Bourn upon his return, that the rest of the Tribe’s roster could do their thing while they bought time with the eccentric veteran setting the table. Through his first six games, however, Morgan has been the ideal lead-off hitter, reaching base in every single contest, amassing an on-base percentage of .520 thanks to a batting average of .389 and his increased patience at the plate. Sure, his .438 batting average on balls in play (BABiP) may prove to be unsustainable compared to his career mark of .336, but other peripherals show that while his current levels shouldn’t be extrapolated over the course of 162 games, this version of Morgan—the one that the Indians embraced right out of the gate—could be in for a season that could be closer to 2011 than the one that saw him sent packing a year later.1
In addition to the work Morgan has put in when inside of the batter’s box, fans of the Cleveland Indians have been quick to embrace what he does outside of it, stepping to his right after each pitch, taking a full cut in effort to maintain his frame of mind. During the team’s win over the Padres, it was Morgan who, just a few days removed from the much-discussed Wrestlemania XXX, stepped to the plate with newly crowned champion Daniel Bryan’s theme music blaring throughout Progressive Field. Those on hand immediately responded with the infamous “YES!” chants, drawing a smile from the new lead-off hitter.
“[I’m a] little bit of a WWE fan so you know I had to come out to Daniel Bryan,” Morgan said. “I know he’s the ‘People’s Champ,’ so I like to call myself the ‘People’s Champ’ too.”
Here’s a player who could have easily been one of the first to be sent to Columbus when the team needed to make a roster move, standing outside of his locker, wearing an ear-to-ear grin, explaining that he was aware of the number of WWE fans who not-so-quietly call Cleveland home and that he yearns to be “the people’s champ.” For fans of the WWE, the corollary is too easy to pass up—Bryan is billed as the underdog star of sports entertainment, 5-foot-8-inch David in a world littered with Goliaths; the kid with the scraggly beard and unkempt hair forced in to a locker room full of products crafted for glistening and glamour. For Indians fans, as Morgan continues to grow more comfortable with his new team, he seems to thrive even more at the plate. In his five at-bats on Tuesday night, the veteran lefty tallied a season-high three hits (his third multi-hit game of the season), stealing a base, scoring a run and driving in two.
“We knew Bourny wasn’t going to play,” said manager Terry Francona of his lead-off spot following the game. “We thought in the short term, having [Morgan] lead off, with his energy and his ability to change the game with his legs, might pay off for us, and it has.”
This Cleveland Indians front office, as led by Antonetti and Francona, has made a habit out of turning players who were left behind into stories of survival and triumph. A season ago, Ryan Raburn was essentially left for dead by the Detroit Tigers, only to become one of the Tribe’s most productive players. Jason Giambi was interviewing for managerial jobs, all but hanging up his cleats and calling it a career; he would provide some much-needed leadership in the clubhouse, but also provide some of 2013’s most heroic moments. Both players turned their opportunities into contracts for the next season—in Raburn’s case, he inked a two-year deal. This time around, the Indians have provided fans with the same movie starring different actors: Morgan, David Murphy and closer John Axford, all of whom have been played integral roles in the team succeeding thus far.
The Tribe will undoubtedly have some decisions to make once Michael Bourn is healthy enough to play. Some feel that the two-time All-Star has already began the decline of his career arc, playing in just 130 games in 2013 and experiencing a 30-point drop in his on-base percentage. Conversely, there’s some danger in putting too much stock into small sample sizes as evidenced a season ago with then-Indians first baseman Mark Reynolds.2 For now, the Indians have not lost a step with the injury sustained to a player who was to be an integral part in their 2014 successes. For now, despite all of the cards that have been stacked against him, and all of the eight-balls that appear to be placed between he and his ultimate goal, just daring him to make the wrong move, Morgan seems to be indifferent to the fact that he wasn’t even supposed to be in this position at all.
“That’s the only way I know how to play is with energy,” Morgan said. “It feels good just being in this position. This is probably the most comfortable I’ve felt in my six years in the bigs.”
(Photos by Rob Tringali/Getty Images)
For those who are interested, Morgan’s line drive rate thus far is 25 percent, up five percent from 2012 and akin to that of 2011. His patience at the plate has been remarkable, if not a complete separation from the player he once was; his swinging rate is down to 34.5 percent, nearly a 12-point drop from 2012. His O-Swing rate (balls outside of the strike zone) is presently 21 percent, a 12.4-point drop from 2012. He’s only swinging at half of the strikes that have been thrown at him, but has made contact with every single one of the cuts he has made. [↩]
Still, to this day, I can’t say I’ve seen such a 180 from a player who started off so, so hot just completely forget how to swing a baseball bat mid-season. [↩]