Sunday, May 3, 2009

My Love Affair with Nyjer Morgan

Driving home from dinner on Saturday night, I turned the radio on to the Pirates game. In the bottom of the 8th, my Buccos were up by three runs over the Reds. Freddie Sanchez was at bat with one out and speedy lead off man, Nyjer Morgan, at 1st base. The Cincinnatis were so disturbed by Morgan's presence on the basepaths that the pitcher kept throwing over to 1st base and the catcher threw down to 1st at least twice. And then, just what the Reds dreaded happening happened: a wild pitch rolled behind the plate. Morgan was already on his way to 2nd base and as the ball rolled back to the backstop, Morgan flew past 2nd, motoring towards 3rd, just getting a hand onto the bag before the throw from catcher, Ramon Hernandez, came in.

When Sanchez flied out to left field a few pitches later, Morgan was able to score from 3rd base on the sacrifice fly, putting the Pirates ahead by four runs. It was a run generated entirely by Morgan's aggressiveness on the basepaths. He so discombobulated the pitcher and catcher that they were both more concerned with his stealing second than they were with the job at hand, which is to say, getting pitches over the plate against Sanchez. So Morgan first caused the wild pitch and then made the Reds pay for it by hustling unexpectedly to 3rd base.

All of which supports my assertion that this kid is going to be a superstar. I haven't looked at his stats and I don't need to, because every time I turn on a Pirates game, he's getting a lead off hit, or stealing a base, or taking off after a fly ball and making a great catch. Dare I say it, he's got star quality. I can't take my eyes off him. I've never believed in love at first sight, but just a month into baseball season, I'm head over heals in love with Nyjer Morgan.

I know I love Morgan for his speed because I always favor speedy athletes, but I also love Morgan because he looks like he stepped out of a work of literature.

Having nearly exhausted the literary cannon in college and my mid-20's, I'm bored by the bounty of good, but not great contemporary fiction. These days, more often than not, I turn to non-fiction writers like David Halberstam and Doris Kearns Goodwin for reading material. Still, I cut my teeth on fiction and on the rare occasion that I find a work of fiction which really stomach punches me with powerful story-telling, I'm as excited as A Rod at the HGH store, which is just how I felt when I picked up Dennis Lehane's novel, "The Given Day." The book takes a page turning plot, terrific pacing, and palpable, breathing fictional characters and folds them into the sharp, accurate historical context of Boston circa 1918 during an influenza outbreak, the rise of Bolshevism, and the police strike.

When an author succeeds, as Lehane did, I find myself so swept up in the book that I know the characters. I can see the view from their windows and the streets where they walk daily; I can taste the foods they eat, smell the odors that linger in the hallways of their their apartment buildings and feel the dampness of one of their rainy morning walks.

Though the central hero of "The Given Day" is a police officer named Danny Coughlin, the most compelling character is Luther Laurence, a black baseball player whose own life-story arc lands him in Boston, where he packs away his baseball glove for work as a houseman. As written by Lehane, Luther is a swift, daring ballplayer, a player who takes risks on the baseball diamond, like going from 1st to 3rd on a routine wild pitch. Then too, Luther is a man who takes risks away from the ballfield, some of them stupid, some of them courageous, all of the exquisitely human. With every page, Luther took up a more permanent residence in my chest cavity. What I really wanted was to meet Luther on the street and pass the time of day. I wanted him to be, if not my friend, at least my neighbor and acquiaintance. But first and foremost, I wanted to watch Luther Laurence play ball.

So when I turned on a Pittsburgh Pirates game and saw Nyjer Morgan, the living, breathing embodiment of Luther Laurence, playing left field, it hit me like a Mariano Rivera fastball to the temple. Perhaps I'm overestimating the greatness that may be Nyjer Morgan. Or perhaps not. Maybe he really is Luther Laurence, or maybe he's just Nyjer Morgan. But still, I can't take my eyes off of him.