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August 29, 2011
Naked golf, baby oil rubdowns, party rockin' in the house every night—Nyjer Morgan, T-Plush and the rest of Milwaukee's best team in nearly 30 years are taking their city for a ride
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August 29, 2011

Strange Brew (but It's Working)

Naked golf, baby oil rubdowns, party rockin' in the house every night—Nyjer Morgan, T-Plush and the rest of Milwaukee's best team in nearly 30 years are taking their city for a ride

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Nyjer Morgan stood in the middle of the clubhouse at Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix on the last day of spring training, his new jersey already damp with a nervous sweat, and searched for the words a roomful of strangers were waiting to hear. The Brewers had acquired Morgan two days earlier from Washington, where he was blackballed for reasons having more to do with his personality than his performance. Ron Roenicke, Milwaukee's rookie manager, thought it was important for Morgan to introduce himself to the entire team.

The other Brewers had introduced themselves early in camp, revealing little more than their names, hometowns and previous career stops. Morgan planned to be equally cautious, the respectful and deferential newcomer. But as he fidgeted, he thought about what the team's cornerstones, outfielder Ryan Braun and first baseman Prince Fielder, had told him when he walked through the door: "We want you to be yourself."

Morgan could be genuine or he could be polite, but he could not be both. He sweated some more. Finally, he flexed his arms in front of his chest, scrunched his face into an exaggerated scowl, and shouted the first words that came to mind: "What's up f------!" Some of his new teammates sat in confused silence. Others laughed awkwardly. They weren't sure whether to hug or pummel him. "Everybody kind of looked at each other," says John Axford. "It was like, 'Who is this?'"

Simple answer: Morgan is an irreverent 31-year-old centerfielder who spent eight unremarkable seasons in professional baseball, played for two major league teams that never finished better than 24 games under .500, and was traded to Milwaukee for a minor leaguer because outfielder Corey Hart was injured. But the Brewers have discovered over the past five months that there is nothing simple about the appeal of Nyjer Jamid Morgan, a man of many names and voices, poses and expressions, some explicit but every one of them entertaining.

"He has brought silliness back to baseball," says general manager Doug Melvin. Morgan has also helped bring joy back to Milwaukee, where the Brewers are heading for their first division title since their last World Series appearance in 1982, winning nearly three out of every four games at Miller Park. Through Sunday they led the Cardinals by 8½ games in the NL Central and had won 22 of their last 25 overall. The team has even taken on some of Morgan's identity: It's a high-stepping, head-bobbing, shoulder-shimmying juggernaut with an affection for baby oil, naked golf and on-field choreography that stretches baseball's rules of decorum. "We're coming at you like a SWAT team!" Morgan hollers, raising his hands and curling his fingers into claws. "Aaaah!"

In a sport populated by cardboard personalities, Morgan carries on conversations with fans both supportive and hostile, often between pitches. (Fan: "You're horses---." Morgan: "Thank you for supporting your local hero.") His least favorite time of the day is the end, when he retreats to his empty apartment 10 minutes from Miller Park. Last week he adopted a gray cat from a Milwaukee shelter to fill the void. (While he was submitting paperwork, a senior citizen told him, "You make me feel alive.") Morgan is calling the cat "Slick Willie." He calls starting pitcher Shaun Marcum "Meatball," reliever LaTroy Hawkins "Spatula," reliever Marco Estrada "Tha-tha." There is meaning behind all of the monikers, esoteric explanations that only Morgan fully understands.

Milwaukee has embraced his hyperactive imagination, not to mention his .311 batting average and affinity for wall-scaling catches. Morgan is the main surprise in a year that is unfolding exactly how the Brewers envisioned last winter, when they traded for starters Zack Greinke and Marcum, jacked their payroll to a franchise-record $90 million and geared up for a final go-round with Fielder, who will be a free agent after the season. Greinke is 12--4 with a 3.92 ERA, Marcum is 11--3 with a 3.40 ERA, and Fielder has only enhanced his market value with 28 home runs, 98 RBIs, the National League's second-best OPS (.977) and the best on-base percentage (.415) of his career. The league's best OPS belongs to Braun (.984), who has 24 homers and 26 stolen bases. It's everything the Brewers dreamed—except Morgan has made it way more fun.

Standing in centerfield, Morgan conjures up scenes of the Brewers winning the World Series, but before you dismiss him as a total whack job, listen to how many of his other bizarre visions came to life. Morgan was seven years old, watching the 1988 Winter Olympics on television, when he decided he wanted to be a hockey player. "I was an African-American kid in San Jose," Morgan says. "It was weird." (Keep in mind that this was three years before the NHL's San Jose Sharks were born.) He became a puck-rushing defenseman who dropped out of high school when he was 16, moved alone to Canada and played left wing on junior league teams from North Okanagan to Regina. His host families either loved him, because he livened up the dinner table, or hated him, because he tried to squire their daughters.

On a trip back home to the Bay Area in 1998, Morgan sat in the leftfield bleachers at Candlestick Park, three rows behind Barry Bonds, and decided to change sports. "Then I got this girl up in Canada pregnant," he says. "So I was like, Oh, s---, I better get serious." Morgan, who had been playing baseball since Little League, tore up Canadian summer leagues, earned his GED and a roster spot at Walla Walla Community College in Washington in 2001. He celebrated the birth of his daughter, Niah, that year but grew apart from her mother. Ever the ladies' man, Morgan learned about the Rat Pack and couldn't understand why he was not getting the same attention Sinatra did. He arrived at the conclusion that women in noisy clubs couldn't make out his first name. So he started calling himself Tony Plush, dressing in fedoras and Gucci sunglasses. His wingmen, childhood friends Matt McKoin and Alfredo Knowles, were Frankie Sleeze and James Dean. They spoke in a fast-paced and often unintelligible slang known as hyphy, which had been invented by Bay Area rappers. Their act worked. "It started out as a silly way to break the ice with girls and make them laugh," says McKoin. "But you could see Nyjer had more confidence when he was Tony."

Morgan took his new persona to the field. After two seasons at Walla Walla he was drafted in the 33rd round by the Pirates in 2002 and batted under .280 just once in his first seven pro seasons. He broke into the majors with Pittsburgh in '07, went to the Nationals in a midseason trade two years later and finished second in the NL with a combined 42 steals. Last season he stole 34, but he clashed with Washington manager Jim Riggleman, threw a ball into the stands that accidentally struck a fan, crashed into Marlins catcher Brett Hayes and the next day charged Florida pitcher Chris Volstad after the Marlins' righthander threw at him. His average fell to .253, and his only alter ego seemed to be Milton Bradley. "He needed Tony again," says Morgan's mother, Trina Perry. "And I think Milwaukee needed Tony too."

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