Being Tony Plush
Finding redemption through Nyjer Morgan's gentleman alter ego.
The Milwaukee Brewers' trade for Nyjer Morgan this March was the kind of move that moves no one. Morgan had been a decent player in Pittsburgh and Washington, but he was mostly known for his bizarre and petulant on-field behavior— throwing a ball at a fan, instigating a brawl, and other assorted jackassery. What didn't make the wire was that this deal was a two-for-one. Along with Nyjer Morgan, the Brewers were acquiring the outfielder's alter ego, Tony Plush. According to a story in the Washington Post, this was Morgan's "gentleman's name." I didn't know what this meant exactly, and I couldn't decide whether this guy was a free spirit or just insane. Could anyone possibly be that much of a dick?
In the succeeding weeks, I spent hours searching for Plush intel. I was consumed by baseball thoughts in a way I hadn't been since I was 10, a time when mastering Ben Oglivie's batting stance qualified as an afternoon well spent. After finding mostly dead ends, I decided to explore my preoccupation in the only place that made sense. On the day of the Brewers' home opener, I pulled a headshot off Google Images and wrote a bio for @Tony_Plush: "The gentleman alter ego of the Milwaukee Brewers' Nyjer Morgan." I didn't open this Twitter account to jock-sniff or to fool anyone into thinking I was Morgan. It was merely a new way to waste time.
As Plush, I tweeted at my friends. I commented on the game. I boasted and bragged: The Braves are scared to hit it at me. Plush is both a gentleman and a vacuum. In the sixth inning, I checked the feed. I had retweets and messages from writers in the press box. I puffed my feathers and cock-strutted around the room. I became bolder, tweeting back and correcting the usage of Morgan's name: I prefer "Tony Plush." Thank you for your support.
That night, my pulse thumped. I started thinking about how to take a bicycle pump to Tony Plush's withered husk. I'd intended the account to be a one-game thing, but it couldn't end now, not with this momentum. Plush needed rules. He would speak only in third-person, and never use contractions. He would be a literate and worldly dandy. His syntactic quirks would lean towards the ornate. And he'd love baseball so much it would make his knees weak. He'd be Henry James toting a Louisville Slugger. I also tagged one tweet with the word #Plushdamentals. This would soon become Plush's magical incantation: a mantra soaked in linseed oil, carefully tucked under the mattress each night, and pulled out the next day.
In the following days, Tony Plush tweeted in-game one-liners about running fast and hitting stand-up triples. Morgan wasn't playing all that much, so Plush also wrote about being a stranger in a strange land—how he used his off-days to locate a snooker club, iron his pocket squares, and figure out ways to get Brewers manager Ron Roenicke to pencil him into the lineup.
Buzz around the account grew, as did the fans' ardor for Morgan himself. Wisconsinites adore athletes with blue in their collar. Get dirty, barrel-roll a few catchers, and you will be loved. After a week, Tony Plush had more than 1,000 followers. ESPN.com's Jayson Stark started including Plush's tweets in his column. A graphic artist from Milwaukee contacted me and asked if I'd be interested in selling Plushdamentals T-shirts.
As Tony Plush became increasingly renowned, my own writing career foundered. I spent my days depressed about my book proposal, which was sitting on some desk in New York, buzzards wheeling, waiting for another red X. Having moved to Minnesota the previous fall after 38 years in Wisconsin, I had to deal with my disappointment alone. Each day's Brewers game offered a reprieve, a chance to write for an enthusiastic audience that I feared would never care about the words I put under my own name.
Inevitably, I poured more and more of my energy into Tony Plush. Soon, he'd stretched beyond 140-character bursts about bunts and stolen bases into narratives featuring "Coach Roenicke," "G.M. Melvin," and "Owner Attanasio." I knew little about any of them, save for that Ron Roenicke was a rookie manager, oft besweatered general manager Doug Melvin was from Canada and had a glorious mustache, and Mark Attanasio was rich enough to throw away $20 bills once they got wrinkled. Plush's exchanges with them were wistful and arcane. I tried to imagine what life might be like if Plush actually existed. And as time went on, he almost did.
Tony Plush and G.M. Melvin were boarding the plane to go to Pittsburgh. G.M. Melvin said, "Tony, I'm glad you don't play for Pitt anymore."
G.M. Melvin smoothed his sweater and went on: "I wish I'd traded for you years ago. You're great; you're even better than poutine."
"No hard feelings, G.M. Melvin," Plush said. "You did the best you could under the circumstances. But I'm here now."
G.M. Melvin stood on the tarmac, staring off, distant. Clouds scudded above. Plush thought he saw G.M. Melvin's eyes welling with tears.
Plush knew he had to break the silence. "Someday, Plush will grow a mustache just like yours. It's the most rakish in all of baseball."
G.M. Melvin set his hand on Plush's shoulder. "Thank you," he said. "Thank you." Then, in a flash of argyle, G.M. Melvin was gone.
As I used Plush's ever-growing follower count to validate my own self-worth, I started talking about things that interested me. Whatever I was reading, watching, or listening to—Geddy Lee, Cormac McCarthy, De Occulta Philosophia—got filtered through Plush's bullhorn. I took Plush, Coach Roenicke, and G.M. Melvin on a 33-tweet, all-day trip to the Wisconsin Dells—the place I'd spent four months researching the book no one wanted to buy. Plush's fans loved it and his follower count swelled. At the same time, @Jason_Albert was stalled out at under 200 followers.
Buried deep in the closet at my mother's house, there's a photo from my first Brewers game. The brim on my cap is falling over my eyes. My knees are too big for my legs, spindles that don't appear sturdy enough to hold my 70-pound frame. A glove is tucked under my arm. My grandpa is standing next to me with his ever-present can of Miller High Life clamped in his fist. The edges of the picture can't hold my stupid-happy grin.
As Plush, I felt like this Jason. "Plushdamentals" had even become part of the Brewers' lexicon. It was a catch-all term used for wins and great plays and anything Morgan did on the field. Fans latched onto it. To have some effect—any effect—on Brewers culture was as exciting as the memories of that first game, or the three paltry trips the Brewers have made to the postseason.
Then, on May 17, Nyjer Morgan joined Twitter as @TheRealTPlush.
Watz good Plush Nation,we will take da private off so I can finally get to tha world of Plusha Maniacs!!!!Stay tuned....
Almost immediately, the angry tweets began to roll in. Some followers—those who weren't in on the joke—were upset at being "tricked." They had no use for my Plush anymore. Now they could interact with Nyjer Morgan, the real Tony Plush. With sagging shoulders, I retweeted his welcome message. I was finished.
After stewing for a couple of hours, resentment crept in and replaced the dejection. Morgan's Plush was a pretender, a fraud. Tony Plush would never change his S's to Z's. This was another Plush altogether, one who did not live up the gentlemanly standards I'd so carefully laid out. Not to mention, in the Internet's land grab, I'd staked my claim first. I'd invested far too many hours. Where was his chivalry?
I frantically started Googling wormholes and alternate universes, then sent out a series of tweets explaining how it was entirely reasonable to have a world where two Tony Plushes coexisted. Soon after, someone tweeted at Morgan asking for clarification. His reply: "The person who has been doing da tweetz is brillant and I got nothing but love for him!" Morgan had waved his scepter. I pumped my fist.
It was in the afterglow of Morgan's validation that I realized the true problem. It didn't scare me to lose the Plush I'd created; rather, I was afraid of losing my alter ego. Through a strange mix of serendipity, timing, and hard work, I'd built a captive audience. More than that, a captive audience that couldn't harm me. If someone called me/Plush an idiot—and they did—what did I care? I was one alter ego removed, wrapped in a cloak of anonymity. (Not to mention, most of the bile came from Cubs fans.)
Some writers claim they write not because they want to, but because they have to. There's something inside them that needs to get out, and it's the process that's important. Book sales and page views are only a pleasant bonus. And to that I say, bullshit. I didn't care that @Tony_Plush was riding the wave of excitement induced by one of the Brewers' rare competitive teams. I didn't care that I got lucky in choosing to start a fake account for a player who was having a great season. And I certainly didn't care that a healthy chunk of the love I was transferring to myself came from people sending it out to a baseball player they could only get close to through Twitter.
No, all I cared about was being the only puppeteer in town. And the bottom of the marquee is a lonely place.
As I write this, in early August, @Tony_Plush has 6,779 followers and @TheRealTPlush has 21,363. Both of us are still tweeting, though now I'm content to stand at Morgan's knee. The jealousy is gone. I simply poke out my head once or twice a week and tell another story.
Though Morgan's written words turned out to be not quite what I'd imagined, his persona feels genuine. He thanks the Milwaukee fans repeatedly for being so supportive. When followers send him messages, he replies himself, never through handlers. When paste-eaters scream at him for not getting a hit during every at-bat, he responds with respect and tells them it's a hard game and that he's trying as best he can. When he asks his Twitter followers what he should do on an off-day, and someone tells him he should go fly a kite, he does. Then he sends them pictures of himself, flying a damn kite on the shores of Lake Michigan.
As a result, @Tony_Plush doesn't resonate as much as he once did, for me or for anyone else. Scrolling through his recorded history, it's hard to imagine anyone ever cared at all. Still, I'll always remember that intoxication I felt back in April, when Tony Plush set out to teach Coach Roenicke tai chi. And I feel a tremendous amount of joy when I queue up the post-game interview where Morgan first used the word "Plushdamentals"—giggling, jumping out of his skin, and speaking in a language that we created together.
No matter how the Brewers' season ends and no matter what happens with my unsold book, I'll remember 2011 as the year I co-wrote a fairy tale with a slap-hitting outfielder. Here's the latest chapter: Once upon a time, a lifelong Brewers fan was sitting alone in St. Paul, Minn. He decided to send Nyjer Morgan a T-shirt. When Morgan received it, he wrote right back.
Watz good pimpn jus wanna thank u for tha shirt playa! Where can I send u a autograph bat? Holla wheneva playa! Keep up tha work