On September 1, 2010, Chris Volstad of the Florida Marlins threw a pitch behind Nyjer Morgan of the Washington Nationals, causing Morgan to charge at Volstad and incite a bench-clearing brawl. While relatively little fighting took place, the motivations behind the conflict are fascinating to me.
History and Background Info
Nyjer Morgan arrived in Washington late in the 2009 season in a trade for chronically under-performing Lastings Milledge. He made an immediate impact by showing good defensive skills and above-average hitting for your typical center-fielder. And then there was his speed. Morgan possesses speed superior to most in Major League Baseball, and he has the stolen base stats to prove it. Many Nationals fans saw him as a fresh, young face around which to build the team in the future.
Baseball is not a forgiving sport, however. As lauded as he was at the end of 2009, his performance in 2010 was equally panned – an almost .200 point drop-off in OPS will do that to a guy. Nearing the end of a frustrating season – in terms of both team and individual success – Morgan appeared to be fraying at the edges. He got into a shouting match with fans in Philadelphia, the aftermath of which was a fan being struck in the head by a ball he flung into the stands. MLB handed him a seven-game suspension for this action, which he immediately appealed. To Morgan's credit, the fan who was hit has claimed to hold no ill will toward Morgan.
While appealing his suspension, Morgan was at the center of another attention-grabbing incident, this time versus the Cardinals. Late in the game, Willie Harris of the Nationals stroked a bases-clearing double to break the game open. Morgan was at first and motored around the bases to seemingly score on the play, except he missed home plate and was called out when one of his teammates touched him in the act of directing him back to the plate. The slow-motion replay of the play indicates that Morgan was more interested in hitting catcher Bryan Anderson than he was in touching home to score a run. Morgan defended his actions at the time by saying that he was unsure of where the ball was, but the catcher was blocking the plate, indicating the play was coming home, so he decided to concentrate on dislodging the ball.
As seen in the replay, however, the play had been cut off at first base, and Anderson was stepping away from the plate, conceding it to Morgan, when he was pushed. The replay also makes it quite clear that Morgan was pushing Anderson – his arms fly up in an obvious shoving motion. The push surprised Anderson, dislodged his mitt, and sent him staggering toward the dugout. The Cardinals were livid that a player would disregard home plate in favor of landing a blow on a catcher who was conceding it. Nationals' manager Jim Riggleman appeared to agree with their assessment, commenting to the press that the play was unprofessional and benching Morgan for the next game.
Three days later, Morgan again made contact with a catcher while missing home plate, this time in Florida versus the Marlins. The game situation was decidedly different, however. While Morgan missed scoring the Nationals' 12th run in the late innings versus St. Louis (the Cardinals had 5 runs), this time he failed to score the go-ahead run in the 10th inning. Once again, it appeared that Morgan was concentrating more on colliding with the catcher than on scoring the first run of the game in extra innings. The play did come home this time, and catcher Brett Hayes applied the tag and held onto the ball. And then crumbled to the ground in obvious pain – Morgan's blow had separated his shoulder.
Analyzing the play showed similarities to the play versus the Cardinals: Morgan could have taken a different action, avoided contact, and still scored. Morgan's defense was also the same: that the catcher was standing in a way that indicated a collision to dislodge the ball was his only chance to score. Unfortunately, Brett Hayes' discomfort extended beyond a couple of awkward steps toward a dugout – he would be unable to play again for at least 10 days.
The Marlins scored in the bottom of the 10th inning to win the game 1-0.
The baseball press was buzzing with the news that Morgan had done it again, missing an easy chance at home plate in order to land a blow on a catcher. During the game the next day, players and coaches on both sides expected the Marlins to retaliate in the name of their fallen comrade, and it did happen, but not immediately.
Nothing happened to Morgan in his first two at-bats, and he made an out both times. By the time he came up a third time, it was the 4th, and the Nationals trailed 14-3. With the game result seemingly decided, Marlins pitcher Chris Volstad enacted revenge for Hayes by delivering a pitch to Morgan's belt. It was an obvious and professional purpose pitch. Morgan dropped his bat and trotted to 1st base, seemingly accepting his punishment. Morgan then proceeded to do what he does so well – he stole 2nd base on the first pitch to the next batter and stole 3rd base 2 pitches later. He would score on a sacrifice fly to cut the Nationals' deficit to 10 runs.
When Morgan next came up to bat in the 6th inning, Volstad immediately delivered another purpose pitch, this time throwing behind Morgan. Home plate umpire Marvin Hudson ejected Volstad, but Morgan responded by flinging his bat away and charging the mound, swinging a fist toward Volstad's face as he neared him. Marlins 1B Gaby Sanchez came running in and clothes-lined Morgan, sending him to the ground. Nationals third-base coach Pat Listach charged and pinned Volstad to the ground while a dog-pile formed on Morgan. The benches cleared and players were restrained to prevent any further altercation. Morgan arose from the bottom of the pile with a torn shirt. He then yelled at and gestured toward the Marlins fans as he exited the field, having also been ejected from the game. See it here.
Major League Baseball took the following punitive actions against these individuals for their part in the melee:
|WAS||Nyjer Morgan||CF||8 game suspension|
|FLA||Chris Volstad||P||6 game suspension|
|FLA||Alex Sanabia||P||5 game suspension|
|FLA||Gaby Sanchez||1B||3 game suspension|
|WAS||Pat Listach||Coach||3 game suspension|
|WAS||Doug Slaten||P||3 game suspension|
|WAS||Jim Riggleman||Manager||2 game suspension|
|FLA||Edwin Rodriguez||Manager||1 game suspension and fined|
Riggleman's extended suspension was due to remarks made to the press regarding the incident.
With the facts laid out above, I would like to examine the motivations of the various participants more closely, as they relate directly to baseball's fascinating set of unwritten rules. While entire books have been written about The Code (most recently, these two), I will concentrate only on those parts that relate to the Nationals-Marlins game. I will do so by constructing a sort of "karmic ledger" for each of the participants, tracking the "Karma Score" (KS) of each throughout the narrative.
While I, as an outside observer, cannot claim to know everything that was going through everybody's heads, I think I can construct a reasonable approximation based on actions taken by and quotations from each of the involved individuals.
Nyjer Morgan and the Nationals
Morgan's actions in the week before the fight can be chalked up to frustration with his performance in the 2010 season. His numbers were down, and he knew he was not contributing. His frustration grew when his manager acknowledged his lack of performance by moving him out of the lead-off spot coveted by every baseball speedster. Resentment and heckling by the notoriously unfriendly fans in Philadelphia contributed to his flinging a ball into the stands, resulting in his first suspension.
While Morgan appealed the suspension, it added to his frustration, painting him as a weak-willed troublemaker as well as a poor contributor. So Morgan took a lesson from his background as a hockey player. In hockey, if a player isn't performing up to expectations and he is being seen as less than a man, he can always start a fight. His first attempt to do this was with Bryan Anderson of the Cardinals – he obviously wanted to get a good shot in on him. When even that backfired (by his failure to score and the poor press in the aftermath), Morgan felt even more need to prove himself.
So he took the next opportunity he was handed. With Hayes blocking the plate, Morgan felt he had a free chance to put a check on his opponent and gain accolades from his teammates and fans. I do not believe that Morgan was trying to seriously injure Hayes; he just wanted Hayes to remember him the next morning. What followed made him look even worse – unnecessarily injuring an opponent is one of the largest violations of The Code there is – and the injury threatened the remainder of Hayes' season, as everyone found out the next day.
At that point, Morgan knew he was in for some retribution from the Marlins (Karma Score -10). The nature of these things is that retaliation is dealt at the discretion of the opponent, so he could have no way of knowing when it was coming. During the game, he saw two of his teammates plunked. Although there was no way to know if this was in retaliation for his actions, it still seemed to settle the score slightly (KS -6). When he stepped up for his 3rd plate appearance and was hit by the first pitch, he saw it as piling on, but not completely unexpected (KS +2). He rapidly stole 2nd and 3rd, and that was his small measure of revenge for getting hit (KS 0). He knew quite well that he was incensing the Marlins, but thought it justifiable.
When he came up the next time and Volstad threw behind him, he was livid at such an overtly belligerent act – the debt had been paid, after all. So he responded the only way that honor would dictate and charged the mound.
Side note about The Code: Throwing behind a man is as nakedly aggressive an action as anyone can take on a baseball diamond. Former pitcher Rob Dibble (in a foreword to Ross Bernstein's "The Code: Baseball's Unwritten Rules and Its Ignore-At-Your-Own-Risk Code of Conduct") gives an explanation:
"[Norm Charlton] would throw behind guys, which really made them nuts. I mean, if you ever wanted to see a guy crap himself, throw a 95-MPH fastball behind his ass. He doesn't know what to do. […] The ball comes at you so fast and guys know that if they move back, which is their initial instinct, that they could be dead."
Chris Volstad and the Marlins
In mid-August, the Marlins' hopes for the postseason were still alive, but fading, when they got the news that their starting catcher Ronny Paulino was to be suspended 50 games for violating MLB's drug policy. Paulino's numbers weren't terrific, but he was still the backstop for the majority of the season. With his suspension on August 20th, the Marlins promoted Brett Hayes to starter, and called up minor-leaguer Brad Davis to back him up.
On August 31st, the Marlins were 7.5 games out of the Wild Card spot, but still fighting. That night, they were involved in a tight battle with the Nationals, a pitchers duel that remained scoreless through 9 innings. When speedy Nyjer Morgan walked with one out, they knew they had to keep a close eye on him – he could be in scoring position in a flash. Distracted by Morgan's presence at 1st, closer Clay Hensley unleashed a wild pitch, and Morgan easily took 2nd. Rattled, Hensley walked Alberto Gonzalez to put men at 1st and 2nd with one out.
The next batter, Adam Kennedy, tapped a 2-2 pitch slowly to 2B Emilio Bonifacio. He flipped to SS Hanley Ramirez to start the inning-ending double-play when someone yelled at Ramirez to check Morgan, who was charging around 3rd. Realizing that he wasn't going to throw Kennedy out at 1st, Ramirez triple-clutched and finally threw to Hayes, who held on to record the inning-ending out on Morgan.
The next day, the news came back – Morgan's hit, which replays showed to be unnecessary, had sidelined Hayes indefinitely. This punk, with his recent checkered history, had just cost them their 2nd starting catcher in less than a month. They would now be forced to start a guy who had been in AAA not two weeks before. Morgan was definitely going to wear one (Karma Score +10).
Because they could take their time to sweat Morgan, the Marlins didn't retaliate immediately. Instead, Volstad kept the Nationals down for a few innings while the Marlins piled on the runs. A couple of hit batsmen in the early innings could be construed as honest mistakes – both times were in one-out, one-on situations, after all. And besides, this was turning into a laugher. Up by 11 in the 4th, Volstad saw no reason not to remind Morgan that they still had business together.
My interpretation of the Marlins' thinking: "Nice and easy, right where it isn't going to hurt too much – see? No need to make a fuss. Don't get cute, and we're all cool." (KS +2)
"You're running? On the first pitch? On our third-string catcher? Who doesn't have a hope in hell of throwing you out? I dunno...maybe if we had our second-string catcher in there, he coulda got you, but we don't. Gee, wonder why that is? Oh, because of you! That's right!" (KS +7)
"Running again? Really? You're going down..." (KS +12)
Side note on The Code: A "blow-out" in baseball is defined differently by different generations of ballplayers, but none of them would characterize an 11-run game as anything else. Stealing in a blow-out is frowned upon. If you are the team with the lead, it's seen as piling on, meaning you have no respect for the competition. If you are the trailing team, it's seen as putting players in unnecessary jeopardy (stealing can be dangerous) and needlessly prolonging the misery.
The discrepancies in perception are telling in this case. Tensions were obviously high going into the game, but the Nationals saw a couple of hit batsman and decided that the Marlins' ire was somewhat sated. Even then, hitting Morgan was seen as acceptable because he was the one with whom they were really mad. In their eyes, things were over, or pretty close to it. Morgan's stolen bases were not that big a deal because, hey, a couple of other guys got plunked, and he does steal bases, y'know.
The Marlins, on the other hand, were really only out for Morgan. They saw the earlier hit batsmen not as casualties but as honest mistakes. It was obvious (to the Marlins) that neither the Nats' catcher nor their 3rd baseman were involved in Morgan's idiocy, so why should the Nats think that they were after the entire team?
The truth of the matter, of course, lies somewhere between these two views. The Code is about respect: respect for the game, respect for one's teammates, and respect for one's opponents. Nyjer Morgan violated The Code in a truly egregious way, but he did so as a representative of the Washington Nationals. The Marlins violated the Code in their own way: By their insistence on harassing Morgan, they disrespected the rest of the Nationals by making the assumption that they wouldn't stick up for their teammate.