Nyjer Morgan: 'I'm still the same person'
Days removed from the controversial week that capped his difficult season, Nyjer Morgan has a new way to view his year.
"I'm getting tested," Morgan said. "Can I handle it, or am I going to break?"
Morgan veered away from controversy and returned to simply baseball this weekend in Pittsburgh, where he went 3 for 12 with two walks, one sensational diving catch and one caught stealing, which upped his league-leading total to 16. He joked with former teammates and he blended in, a refreshing change from a week in which he became one of the central figures in the sport.
Morgan received widespread national attention for a well-documented, ugly spate of incidents that concluded with bench-clearing brawl and an eight-game suspension, which he is currently appealing, heaped on to an earlier seven-game suspension for interaction with fans in Philadelphia, which he is also appealing. Morgan has pleaded innocence in all cases and, today, he defended his battered reputation.
He maintained that while his play regressed, he is the same person as he was last year. He bristled at the growing perception around baseball that he is changed. Last week bruised Morgan's reputation, which before today's game he offered his take on.
"It's just frustrating when people perceive you the wrong way when you play the game hard," Morgan said. "I guess it's basically what we signed up for. I think it's like a good buzz. All buzz is good buzz, in my eyes. I'm still the same person. It doesn't change me. This year is just one of those years, you know? Things just happen for a reason. It's just going to make me a better player and a better person, too."
When Morgan came to bat today, his first plate appearance at Nationals Park since the brawl, he received a mixed reaction, mostly cheers.
Even before last week, Morgan's season had been rough owing strictly to performance. As Morgan's batting average on balls in play dropped harshly this season, he became one of the least productive offensive players in baseball this year. He is hitting .257 with a .317 on-base percentage and a .318 slugging percentage, along with leading the league in caught stealing and pickoffs.
The only time Morgan experienced a season like this one, he said, came in 2004, when he played for Class A Hickory in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. Morgan hit .255 with 120 strikeouts.
"I wish I doing the things I was doing last year, definitely not getting caught so many times," Morgan said. "My defense in the first half was a little shaky, but things slowly progressed. It's just one of those years, man. You've just got to chalk it up. You've got to try to finish it up strong and hopefully get ready to go for next year.
"I think I'm handling it pretty good. I wish my numbers were Nyjer Morgan numbers, but all the great players have their down years. That's where you've got to learn and definitely don't let it dwell. Because if you let it dwell, that's when everything starts really going downhill."
With next year in mind, Morgan said he might play winter ball in the Dominican Republic this offseason - or he might not. "It just depends on how much cash they break me off," Morgan said. "That's going to be the main factor. I might go out there just to have to fun. Or I might just chill out and get away from this."
Nationals officials can handle Morgan's drop in production. Based on statistical analysis, they believe his defense has returned to the elite level he played at last season and that his offensive decline is not permanent. But they have told him, in no uncertain terms, that they will not tolerate any more interactions with fans, which is what the league was mot alarmed about in suspending him.
Morgan has played every game since his latest suspension. Manager Jim Riggleman is hopeful - and Morgan is confident - that the league might drop the first suspension altogether. Morgan's hearing for both appeals is Friday.
"He's a catalyst in our lineup, and he's our centerfielder," Riggleman said. "We're going to play him unless we get told otherwise, that he can't play. What we're hoping is that situation from Philadelphia comes out to be that it didn't even happen. That would knock off a substantial part of the suspension. The situation in Florida, we hope it gets reduced and he would be back in there sooner than later. Until then, he's going to play."
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