There are lots of Nats’ fans who think that Nyjer Morgan has a screw loose — but his scrum in Miami last night (perhaps, as one reader writes, “he misses hockey”), makes for exciting baseball. And it shows that the Nats (first in war, first in peace and still last in the NL Least) have a bit of life left in them. Nats’ manager Jim Riggleman defended Morgan, particularly after the Marlins took umbrage with his decision to steal second and third with the Nats down ten runs — a no-no that’s considered a cheapy in baseball’s Book of Unwritten Rules. Of course, not everyone agrees with that, in part because no one has ever actually seen the book — but because the “rule” is a bunch of hooey. “My feeling has always been, if you hit somebody, you did what you set out to do,” Nats skipper Jim Riggleman said after the game. “If he decides to run on you, that’s his business. I have no problem with that at all. We decide when we run. The Florida Marlins don’t decide when we run. Nobody decides when we run.”
The Miami melee began after, having already been hit once (the result of Nyjer’s decking of the Marlins’ catcher on a play at the plate on Tuesday), Florida starter Chris Volstad threw behind the Nats’ center fielder. Morgan charged the mound and in the ensuing one-on-one (Morgan threw a roundhouse left at Volstad, as both benches emptied), Marlins’ first baseman Gaby Sanchez clothes-lined the Curacao native. “When I saw [Morgan] running out, obviously, he’s not coming out there to talk,” Volstad said. “I was just trying to defend myself and not get hurt. Gaby had my back. The whole team had my back. Everyone was there. It’s just part of the game.” The fight (and Morgan’s decking of Marlins catcher Brett Hayes), resulted in six ejections (Jim Riggleman and reliever Doug Slaten were ejected later in the game — after Slaten plunked cheap-shot artist Gaby Sanchez) and will likely result in suspensions and fines for those most involved.
The Marlins say the bad blood between the teams is now behind them (“I know it’s over for me,” Marlins third sacker Wes Helms said. “I hope it is for these other guys”), but there’s bound to be some lingering irritations — the Nats and Marlins play regularly as N.L. East rivals, and neither Morgan nor Sanchez are the forgive-and-forget types. In the wake of the dust-up, Nats’ commentators were quick to criticize Morgan. Mark Zuckerman said we all should have seen this coming, and described Morgan’s behavior over the last two weeks as “sad and predictable.” Ben Goessling, meanwhile, speculates that it’s all but inevitable that the Nats will part with Morgan. Goessling adds, correctly we think, that Morgan brings an energy to the game that the Nats need. FJB says that “Nyjer needs to go” while Dan Steinberg points out that one of Morgan’s less endearing traits is his tendency to jaw with fans.
All of that is undoubtedly true: Nyjer Morgan can’t be allowed to carry on a dialogue with fans and Riggleman was right to bench him for purposely and unnecessarily elbowing the Cards catcher here in D.C. last week. And despite Zuckerman’s correct judgment (that we should have seen this coming — and we did), there’s need for a little perspective: it’s not a given that Morgan’s collision with Hayes was intended to injure (it probably wasn’t) and Nyjer took his medicine when he was hit the first time by Volstad (he had it coming and he knew it — and trotted to first with nary a second thought). But a second attempt to plunk the plucky center fielder is over the line — as Jim Riggleman, holding a single digit and yelling “one time” at the Marlins manager — showed. And Gaby Sanchez’s clotheslining (which brought oohs and ahhs from the Marlins’ clubhouse) of Morgan is not a sign of Sanchez’s fighting prowess, it was a cheap and thuggish blindside shot. Doug Slaten figured that out, and responded. And rightly so.
Washingtonians have short memories. Last year nearly everyone (including MASN’s Bob Carpenter and his dearly departed sidekick) were telling us how crappy a player Alberto Gonzalez was — this year we can’t get enough of him. Austin Kearns was the fair-haired boy when he came here from hog heaven, but lost his fans when he snapped a tendon and tried to play through it. Remember? We couldn’t get enough of Nyjer last year, when he was the best Nats player in September and ignited a team that didn’t look like it cared. And while we can roll our eyes at Morgan’s “Tony Plush” put-on, he is (by all accounts) a tough team player who wants to win. Now we’re all calling for his head. And why? Because he did this last week what Pete Rose did his entire career. So — yeah — the Nats will part ways with Nyjer this winter, but they shouldn’t do it before then and they shouldn’t do it because he bangs into opponents while playing the game. They should do it for the right reason: because Roger Bernadina is a better hitter and a better fielder. Give me a break: teams don’t win because they are filled with good citizens, they win because they have good players.