VIERA, Fla. - It's difficult to pinpoint exactly where the relationship between the Nationals and Nyjer Morgan went sour. In some ways, it's unclear how rough things actually were. General manager Mike Rizzo, manager Jim Riggleman and third base coach Bo Porter all had good things to say about Morgan after the news he was traded to Milwaukee, and Morgan exchanged hugs and handshakes with a half-dozen teammates before walking out of Space Coast Stadium with two clubhouse attendants, declining to talk to reporters and saying only, "I've got to pack up the house."
Still, it seemed like something was slightly off in this house, the relationship between Morgan and the Nationals' decision-makers just askew enough to be only perceptible from close range. In all the things team officials said about Morgan this morning, one comment from Riggleman left a faint hint of where a rift might have been.
"Sometimes, it's just the slightest little thing will happen that changes somebody's feelings or perception about what's going on," Riggleman said.
Morgan was electric in 2009, hitting .351 in 49 games, but said early this spring he was concerned about his contract in 2010, despite the fact he was still a pre-arbitration player. The Nationals had introduced competition for the center field job in 2011, signing Rick Ankiel and playing Roger Bernadina there on occasion. They hadn't named anyone the starter at the position yet when Morgan said on Friday he thought "this place just isn't for me" and wondered aloud whether he was a fit with the Nationals in comments Riggleman called "disappointing."
My educated guess after covering Morgan for a year and half is that for him, perception may have been reality. It seemed at times like he needed to know the Nationals had his back, possibly in more obvious ways than they showed it. Teammates backed him after he slammed his glove last May against the Orioles, turning a would-be triple into an inside-the-park homer when he thought Adam Jones' ball had left the park. They did so again last August and September when he had a pair of home-plate collisions with catchers against St. Louis and Florida, and when he charged the mound after Chris Volstad threw at him last Sept. 1, players and coaches rushed to his aid; third base coach Pat Listach was one of the first Nationals people into the pile, and Riggleman - who'd traded barbs with Morgan in the press earlier in the week - got suspended after arguing nose-to-nose with Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez at the end of the fight.
Yet Morgan wondered aloud at times if he was needed, or wanted, in Washington. Only he knows whether that clouded his play with the Nationals, but this much seems true: However both sides got to this point, a fresh start was the one way to fix it.
He'll get that opportunity in Milwaukee, trying to carve out playing time in an outfield where Carlos Gomez looks likely to start in center field (the Brewers still aren't sold on Gomez, and they traded a potential replacement, speedy Lorenzo Cain, to Kansas City to land Zack Greinke). Still, general manager Doug Melvin told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he views Morgan as more than a fourth outfielder, even adding some support for the way Morgan plays the game.
"I think he's a player with a lot of fire in him and a lot of energy. He's not the only guy we have with fire and emotions. You don't want him to be disruptive on your team. We made some calls and people came back and said he's a good guy," Melvin said. "He's a (former) hockey player. They play with emotion. He might have learned from what happened last year. He's not a bad guy."
Porter said he could see Morgan turning a corner this spring, especially with regard to how he steals bases.
"He just gave me a big hug and said, 'I want to thank you for everything,' " Porter said. "I think he's now understanding that it's more than just about the speed. It's so many other variables that go into stealing bases and running bases. ... We talked more about different moves and pitchers. We started to dig deep into counts - what's a good count to run, why is this a good count to run, based on the hitter, the inning, the number of outs, the particular pitcher. I told him, 'The more information you have from a baserunning standpoint, the more aggressive you can be.' "
Rizzo praised Morgan's presence in the clubhouse this morning, and said he was comfortable with the outfielder's relationship with Riggleman. And Riggleman said today that after he called Morgan's collision with Cardinals catcher Bryan Anderson "unprofessional" last August, the two men patched things up.
Even in that response, though, that hint of a disconnect still existed.
"Sometimes, things are perceived as one (thing), and it's not the reality of what's really happened," Riggleman said. "One person perceives something, and I think Nyjer made a couple comments based on something he felt that was not what had happened. We talked about it later, and it was a clean slate. We moved on. He basically had a clean slate coming in this spring, and he was a model citizen."
Be that as it may, though, sometimes even model citizens need a new place to live.