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Morgan's popularity is growing in Milwaukee

Morgan's popularity is growing in Milwaukee

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Morgan's popularity is growing in Milwaukee
MILWAUKEE -- Catcher Jonathan Lucroy jogs toward the television in the clubhouse, turns up the volume and takes a seat on the leather couch. Before he knows it, those at their lockers put their cell phones and iPads away, take a seat next to him and instantly there's laughter.

"Tony Gumbel?" asks Japanese reliever Takashi Saito. "New character?"

There's nothing to do but burst into laughter as the players watch the most recent Nyjer Morgan postgame interview on MLB Network. Going by his on-field alter ego of Tony Plush, the Brewers center fielder unleashes another comical interview that draws national attention.

Morgan has become a fan favorite during his first season in Milwaukee, and this time it's his play that's earning him just as much attention as his so-called "gentleman's name."

"I guess Beyonce has her Sasha Fierce, and so he's got his thing, his Tony Plush," said veteran Jerry Hairston Jr., whose locker was next to Morgan's when both were in Spring Training with the Washington Nationals earlier this year. "And so far it's worked."

Morgan said he's having more fun than ever this season, and it shows. Lost in between pretending to shoot arrows onto the field from the dugout and his contagious laugh is a player who has been providing the Brewers with a spark. Morgan is batting .328, has turned in several clutch at-bats to set up Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, and has held his own in center field.

More important, for the first time in his career he is with a club that's in a pennant race.

"Last year I did the same things but I was on a losing ballclub, so I guess the things I was doing weren't up to par," he said. "When you lose 100 games back-to-back years you have to do something, man."

After spending the past four seasons trying to create his own fun with the Pirates and Nationals, the 31-year-old gets giddy just talking about being with the National League Central-leading Brewers.

"I've had my ups and I've had my downs in this game," said Morgan, a Pirates 33rd-round Draft pick in 2002. "I've been buried, chewed up and spit out, and I know how to handle it. But that's what's going to make you a better person and a better player. Just being able to handle all the people's opinions and not paying attention to it, and just understanding yourself. I mean, shoot, I know I'm not crazy. I just have fun."

Morgan came to Milwaukee, in a trade at the end of Spring Training, with something to prove. He thought that fans misunderstood Plush, who steps on the field with the belief that his 6-foot, 175-pound frame bulks up to that of a macho 6-foot-4, 220-pound entertainer who plays with reckless abandon. It was the same mindset that Morgan had when he was a hockey player and manned left and right wings from the ages of 7-20. There's still no taking that aggressiveness out of him as he pounds his chest just reminiscing about his hockey career.

There were the doubters who criticized his dedication to the game, called him crazy and didn't think he'd find a club that could handle his "easy breezy" fun-loving approach.

"What are you supposed to be, a choir boy out there?" he said. "This is me, man, I don't know how to sugarcoat it."

In a day and age in which players' personalities are less evident, Morgan said that there's no reason for baseball to "be like Wonder Bread."

Milwaukee has so far made plenty of room for Morgan, Plush, T Dot, @TheRealTPlush and the player who runs out to center field. The names are plenty and his words are witty, but the combination has been perfect.

"I knew he was going to be good defensively," manager Ron Roenicke said. "Offensively I knew he was going to be a scrappy player. But, no, I didn't expect him to be doing what he's doing."

The emergence of Morgan has been a pleasant surprise for the Brewers, especially after they placed center fielder Carlos Gomez on the disabled list two weeks ago when he sustained a broken collarbone. Morgan spent time on the disabled list at the beginning of the season, but has been thriving since regaining his health.

"All of my haters out there that hated on me tough last year, I just wanted to kind of tell them to shut up and basically just do it with my stick," he said. "Now I'm doing it with my stick and I just want to continue it. Eventually they're going to give me the love that I need, and you know I gotta get that respect."

His teammates say that he knows when to flip the switch and be serious, and that off the field he's pretty much the same character. He doesn't need energy drinks to bring his boundless enthusiasm; in fact, just the thought of Plush with caffeine draws laughs.

His high energy level and knack for clutch hits has fans obsessed with him, as they're laughing right along with Plush's sayings, antics and Twitter episodes.

"It's like this whole city's crazy, and he kind of is, too, so it just fits," said one of 200-plus fans who recently waited outside for more than an hour in 90-degree heat to get Morgan's autograph.

In the Brewers' team store, the demand for Morgan's apparel is so high that T. Plush merchandise is flying off the shelves. Milwaukee released an exclusive black T-shirt that has "T. Plush" in a graffitied font and his number 2 on the back. Keeping the shirt in stock has been a challenge, senior director of merchandise branding Jill Aronoff said. "The people just love it," Aronoff added.

Many Brewers fans say that they enjoy seeing a player who is flamboyant and who shows personality on the field, yet has the play to back it up. The feeling is mutual in the clubhouse, where Morgan's teammates will often stop what they're doing just to listen in on one of his humorous interviews.

"I've been around him for about five months and I've never seen him change," Gomez said. "Any time you wake up or come in and you're in a bad mood, and you see a guy like that, you forget all about it. It's just fun."

The excitement carries over to the broadcast booth, from where legendary Brewers broadcaster Bob Uecker can't say enough good things about what Morgan brings to the club. Praising Morgan's lack of fear, Uecker said that it's easy to see why people gravitate toward a player who has no problem running into a catcher to score or crashing into a wall to make a catch.

The broadcaster enjoys the banter that he and Morgan share off the field. It started in an empty clubhouse in Chicago, where a few repeated whispers of "Bob" had the announcer wondering where the sound was coming from. Uecker kept hearing his name and after walking through the clubhouse, he eventually realized that it was coming from Morgan's locker. He looked inside and found the player hiding behind all of his clothing with a huge grin on his face.

It was just Plush being Plush.

"He does it all the time now," Uecker said. "Under chairs here, under the couch, he hides and as soon as I walk in the clubhouse he starts that 'Bob' stuff. And I do a voice with him, too. I pretend that I'm a radio guy and I won't leave him alone if he starts it. He's a good guy. He's an energy producer and you like to have those guys."

Teammates are pushing to try to get him a reality show, and Morgan insists that his personality isn't an act. Plush, Morgan or whoever it really is is just having a good time. Regardless of what opposing fans and teams think of him, as long as the Brewers are OK with what he's doing on the field and in the clubhouse, Morgan and Plush will continue to entertain.

"The guys embrace it," he said. "That's what's cool about it. They understand that even though I do joke around, I'm serious. I come to work prepared mentally and am physically ready to go, ready to win, ready to compete. And I just leave it all out on the field."

Audrey Snyder is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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