Thursday, October 13, 2011
WALLA WALLA - When the Atlanta Braves squandered their big September lead and relinquished the National League Wild Card to the onrushing St. Louis Cardinals, it was a big disappointment to many baseball fans hereabouts.
With the Seattle Mariners finishing dead last in the American League West and missing the playoffs for a 10th straight year, the Braves were a viable fall-back option. After all, 2003 Wa-Hi grad Eric O'Flaherty was an integral part of a very good Atlanta's bullpen and reason enough to root for the Braves.
O'Flaherty, by the way, enjoyed the best season of his six-year major league career in 2011.
The 26-year-old lefty, who was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the sixth round of the 2003 June draft, posted a 2-4 record with a ridiculous 0.98 earned run average and a 1.086 WHIP. And he struck out 67 batters in 73 2/3 innings pitched, an average of 8.2 batters per nine innings.
Those are numbers that solidify O'Flaherty's spot on the Braves' roster and suggest another big pay raise in 2012. Last year, in his first year of arbitration eligibility, O'Flaherty signed an $895,000 one-year deal that doubled his 2010 salary.
So, when the Braves were eliminated on the final day of the regular season, the playoffs got a lot less interesting for many area fans who were looking for a good reason to stay tuned.
But guess what? Walla Walla still has a connection.
His name is Nyger Morgan. He plays center field for the National League Central champion Milwaukee Brewers. And if nothing else, Morgan makes life interesting for everyone who enters his orbit.
Morgan, a California native, spent two years in Walla Walla as a member of the Walla Walla Community College baseball team. He was recruited by then-WWCC coach Chad Miltenberger, who discovered him in Canada where he had migrated as a 16-year-old to play junior hockey.
Because he was so far behind academically when he arrived on the WWCC campus, Morgan didn't see the field on game days during his freshman year in the spring of 2001. But as a sophomore in 2002, he batted well over .300 and displayed the kind of speed on the bases and in the outfield that caught the attention of big league scouts.
Warriors assistant coach J.C. Biagi, who is also the manager of the Walla Walla Sweets during the summer, was one of Morgan's teammates at WWCC. And J.C. has nothing but fond memories of the colorful Brewers outfielder.
"He rolled into town the third week of September like everyone else, and he came with a hockey bag stuffed with his clothing and little else, ready to play baseball," Biagi recollected. "I guess he was a little bit of a nomad because he had left his home in San Francisco when he was 16 years old to play hockey in Alberta.
"Then when his hockey career ended, he played some baseball up there. Chad saw him play and asked him to come play here in Walla Walla.
"Being on his own in Canada since he was 16, it was tough being responsible for his education," Biagi continued. "So Nyger wasn't eligible to play that first year. But I remember it well right around Christmas in '01, right before everyone was going home for the break, he got his eligibility and was so elated. Everyone was really excited because we all knew what he was capable of."
Biagi, who later played two seasons at Centenary College in Shreveport, La., also remembers the day Kevin Clouser, a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates, approached Morgan at a WWCC practice.
"Kevin was also a former Warrior, and he was the area head scout the Pirates," Biagi remembered. "He was around for a couple of days and there were a couple of us Milt brought over to speak to him. And he and Nyger talked at length, and that kind of did it.
"Nyger was drafted by the Pirates in the 33rd round. And I remember the day he signed. It was only a couple of thousand bucks, but he was so elated that someone would pay him to play baseball. And the next thing you know he's headed for Bradenton, Fla., where it all got going."
Current WWCC head coach Dave Meliah was playing in the Texas Rangers farm system during Morgan's two seasons in Walla Walla. But Meliah helped out as a Warriors assistant coach during the fall and winter, and he saw a lot of potential in Morgan's skill set.
"He was raw, but he was very talented," Meliah said. "You could tell he hadn't played much baseball lately, but he had quick hands and a good swing and he was very fast. His speed was different from every other guy on the team.
"And he was also very competitive," Meliah added. "Competitive on the field, and off the field he had a funny personality. He was kind of a goof-ball who always had a big smile on his face."
Meliah, who made it as far as triple-A but never got the chance to experience the big league life, isn't surprised to see Morgan in the playoffs in a Brewers uniform.
"He had the talent," Meliah said. "I remember telling him at one point, ‘Hey, you've got a chance here. You've just got to keep working hard and listening to the coaches.'
"Just about every guy who is drafted has that talent. It's just a matter of who's going to get the lucky breaks and be in the right place at the right time."
Morgan made his big league debut with the Pirates in 2007. During his third season in Pittsburgh, he was traded to the Washington Nationals. A year later, the Nationals traded him to the Brewers.
After hitting a career-high .307 with 42 stolen bases in 2009, he slipped to .253 and 34 steals in 2010. But he rebounded in his first season in Milwaukee with a .304 average, 13 steals in only 17 attempts and a career-best four home runs as he split time in center field with another speed merchant, Carlos Gomez.
The highlight of Morgan's career so far may have come in the 10th inning of Game 5 of the National League Division Series when he delivered the game-winning hit as the Brewers eliminated the Arizona Diamondbacks and advanced to the NL Championship Series, which continues tonight in St. Louis with the Cardinals up 2-1.
But despite his five-year .288 batting average, 105 stolen bases and numerous fence-bashing catches in the outfield, Morgan has developed something of a lightning-rod reputation. His fiery personality has initiated bench-clearing brawls and led to fines and a suspension. He's also had an ongoing feud with Cardinals ace pitcher Chris Carpenter, and he even tossed down the gauntlet in front of St. Louis icon Albert Pujols.
It's much adieu about nothing as far as Biagi and Meliah are concerned.
"I think that's all overblown," Meliah said. "He's not a troublemaker, he's just competitive. He was a hockey player, and he has a hockey player mentality. Hockey players are different. They will fight for what they think is right.
"I saw nothing but a good teammate. A guy everybody liked, and I'm guessing that J.C. would tell you the same thing."
"Being characterized as a troublemaker is all part of the deal as far as I'm concerned," Biagi said of his former teammate and friend with whom he has remained in contact. "Because that in large part is why he is doing what he is doing at the highest level.
"He is a former hockey player. And people cringing at the idea of physically going at it, that to him is just part of what you do, part of growing up, part of life. Hitting and getting hit is no different to him than hitting a baseball."
And it's the single most important reason why Morgan is capable of coming through in the clutch as did in last week's division series-clinching victory.
"Nyger is fearless and truly enjoys being up there in a big spot," Biagi said. "I am happy for him. It's a pretty cool deal.
"He has that special edge. When you are not scared of another man, I'll be damned if you are scared of a five-ounce baseball."
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