- Associated Press - Thursday, September 2, 2010

Good weather, cheap tickets, convenient parking and even bobblehead giveaway nights can’t spark much interest in a meaningless September game between the Nationals and Marlins, two teams whose payrolls tipped off their lowly intentions to fans even before the season began.

But Nyjer Morgan can.

Washington’s feisty, 30-year-old center fielder put baseball back on sportstalk’s front burner for at least a day, but not the way Bud Selig envisioned. Then again, it’s not as though the commissioner didn’t see this coming. Either way, he’s the one responsible for sorting it out.

Morgan has been on baseball’s version of a crime spree the last two weeks. Already appealing a seven-game suspension for firing a baseball at fans in the stands Aug. 21 in Philadelphia, he nearly set off a brawl with a cheap shot Saturday on Cards catcher Bryan Anderson, then doubled down by starting a melee Wednesday with the Marlins.

“He was playing his game,” said Florida manager Edwin Rodriguez, who joined his Washington counterpart, Jim Riggleman, and four others in getting ejected before the night was through. “We were playing ours.”

Morgan’s “game” previously meant channeling his intensity and considerable talents into putting up respectable numbers at the plate for the Nationals, and the hapless Pirates before that. But as his production dipped, Morgan increasingly veered off in the direction of provocation. Along the way, he crossed a line between fierce and dangerous.

The bench-clearing brawl that began in the top of the sixth had actually been simmering since the night before. That’s when Morgan barreled into Marlins’ catcher Brad Hayes on a play at the plate _ he probably could have beaten the tag with a slide _ separating Hayes’ shoulder and knocking him out for the remainder of the year.

As payback, Marlins pitcher Chris Volstad plunked Morgan in the fourth. He promptly stole second and third, despite the fact that his team was 11 runs down at the time, ruffling the Marlins’ scales one more time. In the sixth, presumably for the sin of showing him up, Volstad threw behind Morgan, who responded by rushing the mound and _as the kids like to say _ it was on, baby!

“Once is good enough,” Morgan said about the Marlins’ retribution, “but twice, no, it’s time to go.”

Baseball has a code of unwritten rules to cover such situations, and most of the time they’re understood well enough to keep the peace. Morgan’s uncalled-for elbow on St. Louis’ catcher, for example, got him in almost as much trouble with his own manager as it did with the Cardinals. Riggleman called it “unprofessional” and sat him down for a game.

But there was no consensus on where the blame for the Florida fight belonged, although everyone agreed that Morgan was at the center of events and _ some surprise _ proud of it. When teammates finally dragged him out from underneath the pileup, Morgan fired both hands into the air, beat his chest and walked off like he was Stone Cold Steve Austin.

A call to Major League Baseball seeking comment Thursday afternoon was not returned, but it’s unlikely a lack of evidence is keeping Selig from rendering punishment.

Morgan’s file down at headquarters is already bulging. All that remains is for the commissioner to decide how many more games to tack onto the seven already handed Morgan _ the recommendation here is at least 10 _ plus whether fines and suspensions are warranted for the other participants.

Frankly, it’s surprising that late-season brawls between teams going nowhere aren’t more common. Perennial bottom-feeders like the Nationals practically breed malcontents because the promise of rebuilding stretches on from year after year and never gets fulfilled.

Whether it was stress, frustration or something else altogether that pushed Morgan from being a tough competitor into a marginally dirty one, only he knows. But if Selig wants to do some lasting good for baseball _ beyond meting out an appropriate sentence to Morgan _ he’ll take into account the recent grumbling set off by the release of teams’ financial statements illustrating how little a few of those franchises are interested in winning.

Because while we’re on the subject of unwritten rules, if he’s going to whack players for trying too hard, he might want to consider doing the same for franchises that don’t try hard enough.


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org

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