It doesn’t take a lot of digging to get to the root of Nyjer Morgan as a baseball player. The Yokohama BayStars outfielder practices hard, plays hard and, as a point of pride, keeps things refreshingly simple.
Morgan is also usually the person having the most fun on the field. He flashes his trademark “T” sign when he makes plays, both large and small, and will go through various routines — from T signs to Hulk Hogan-esque flexing — with his teammates after playing defense.
“He’s an interesting guy,” said BayStars captain Takehiro Ishikawa. “He always has something positive to say. Even when we’re going through a losing streak, he always remains positive.”
It’s hardly surprising that the 33-year-old is in good spirits these days. Entering Sunday’s game, Morgan was hitting .306 with nine home runs and 42 RBIs in 83 contests. This comes after bouncing back from a rough start to his first year in Japan.
“It was just timing,” Morgan said. “And I didn’t understand any of the pitchers, and I didn’t understand the Nippon way. Being with Rami-chan (NPB veteran Alex Ramirez) helped me out. I can’t say enough great things about that man.”
Ramirez’s advice helped get Morgan through a tough first month that saw the outfieder hit .250 with no home runs or RBIs.
Morgan was eventually sent to the farm team, where he worked on his timing and tried to get used to the way Japanese teams operate. After going 2-for-4 Saturday, Morgan was hitting .333, with nine home runs and 42 RBIs since rejoining the top team May 1.
“It was a learning curve,” he said. “It was just one of those things where you couldn’t put your head down. You always had to stay focused.”
Morgan’s kept his spirits up even when things have looked bleak, and it’s that demeanor that’s made him one of the team’s most popular personalties — well, that and his dancing, preening alter ego, dubbed Tony Plush. Morgan was known for his fun ways in the U.S. and found an even more willing audience among Japanese fans.
“That’s the entertainer,” Morgan said. “I’ve always told people that we play on the biggest stage. In baseball, everybody’s watching you. When you’re batting, everybody is watching you and when you make a play everybody is watching you. I figured, we’re entertainers, we play on a big stage, and every entertainer has a stage name. My stage name is Tony Plush.”
Morgan was on baseball’s most talked-about stage prior to coming to Japan. Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2002, he spent six seasons in the majors with the Pirates, Washington Nationals and Milwaukee Brewers. He hit .280 with 11 home runs, 130 RBIs, 117 stolen bases and a 7.2 WAR in MLB.
The Brewers sent Morgan outright to Class AAA Nashville on Nov. 1, 2012, but he signed with the BayStars in January.
“Coming here was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said. “I already played in the States. I got my six years in the big leagues. It was one of those things where it was time to move on. I like seeing new things and attacking a new way of learning. I’m all about learning and seeing another part of the world.”
Morgan’s MLB tenure coincided with league’s recent performance-enhancing drug scandals, which he feels harmed the game.
“It sucks,” Morgan said. “Because it’s a black cloud that tarnishes the game. Me being in the game, I understand why people try to go out there and use it. Some guys want to fulfill their dreams by getting to the big leagues, others want to try to stay on the field. It’s sucks you have to go about it that way.”
He was teammates with Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun in 2011 and 2012, and was around when Braun won the ’11 NL MVP Award then tested positive for PEDs that winter. Braun successfully appealed that result, winning on a technicality over concerns about how the sample was handled, and publicly proclaimed his innocence at a now-infamous 25-minute news conference.
Braun escaped punishment in 2012, but was but was suspended for 65 games this year in connection with the Biogenesis drug scandal, a ban that will last the remainder of the regular season.
“I was disappointed,” Morgan said of Braun’s PED connection. “He’s a good friend of mine, and I was there when he did his speech. He kind of lied to everybody. It’s one of those things where hopefully he can move on, move past it and show the people that he’s still a heck of a ballplayer.”
After a bumpy landing, Morgan seems to have adapted to Japan.
“You can see it,” said BayStars infielder Tony Blanco. “He’s hitting .300, he can hit for some power, and he’s an RBI guy. He’s been good.”
The next step for the exuberant outfielder is to help end the BayStars’ long string of futility. Yokohama has finished last in the CL in nine of the past 11 years and hasn’t had a season above .500 since 2001.
As always, Morgan is upbeat.
“There’s a team here,” he said. “We just have to stay within ourselves and keep fighting all the way. We’ve got 40-something games left, and a lot of things can happen in that amount of games. You just have to go about your business and just keep focused and stay positive and everybody has to contribute any little way they can, from pitching to defense to hitting.”