The top-selling T-shirt inside Milwaukee’s Miller Park doesn’t carry the name of Prince Fielder, whose 38 home runs were second in the National League, or Ryan Braun, whose .332 batting average trailed only Jose Reyes of the New York Mets.
Fans of the National League Central Division-champion Brewers, who are one win shy of their first championship series since 1982, this season declared their preference for “Tony Plush,” a brash-talking persona that 31-year-old right fielder Nyjer Morgan assumes during media interviews. While Plush is make-believe, the revenue, buzz and sponsor validation derived from the character are real, says Rick Schlesinger, the team’s chief operating officer.
“He’s certainly moved the needle,” Schlesinger said in a telephone interview, declining to give specific sales or revenue figures for the merchandise.
Retail has three functions, he said: revenue, brand enhancement and fan connectivity. “Nyjer has helped all three,” Schlesinger said.
The Brewers offer three styles of $30 Morgan/Plush T-Shirts. There is a Morgan shirt with his No. 2 on the back; a similar Plush model, and a gold shirt emblazoned with the words “Gotta Go,” which is how Plush likes to end interviews. Plush is outselling Fielder and Braun by a three-to-one margin.
“We’re basically on the stage out there,” Morgan, whose Brewers have a 2-0 lead over the Diamondbacks entering today’s Game 3 in Arizona, told reporters. “All entertainers have a name. And for me it’s Tony Plush.”
The alter ego urges young fans to work on what he calls their Plushdamentals -- the art of bunting, throwing to the right base and “playing in a fundamentally sound manner with just the right amount of panache.”
Sales of the Plush T-shirt equaled the volume done in 2007 with Braun, who that season won Rookie of the Year, and Fielder, who hit 50 home runs, Schlesinger said, adding that the Brewers re-ordered multiple times this season.
Michael Johnson, a spokesman for VF Corp.’s Majestic brand, which supplies the Brewers, declined to comment. Major League Baseball hasn’t compiled its list of best-selling jerseys for this season, spokesman Matt Bourne said.
“We certainly didn’t anticipate this kind of demand,” Schlesinger said. Nor, Schlesinger noted, did the baseball folks anticipate this kind of production from Morgan, who hit .304 during the regular season, 16 points better than his career average with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals.
Thanks to Morgan, a former hockey player, fans in Milwaukee are grinning, even when the team is losing, said Brewers owner Mark Attanasio, who co-ran TWC Group Inc.’s leveraged finance group that separated from the firm last year.
Attanasio recalled being approached by a fan during Milwaukee’s Sept. 15 game against the Colorado Rockies, who were ahead 6-1 at the time. The deficit wasn’t enough to keep the customer from stopping the owner to say how much he enjoyed watching Morgan play.
Morgan, Attanasio said, runs hard to first base no matter the score or situation.
“I would focus on Nyjer’s competitiveness and spirit,” Attanasio said when asked what makes Morgan so appealing to fans.
The Brewers last month were showcased by Sports Illustrated, which for the first time since 1987 featured Milwaukee players exclusively on the cover. The picture showed Morgan, Braun and Fielder with the accompanying text: “Living the High Life, How T-Plush and Two Wallbanging MVP Candidates are Mixing a Strange Brew in Milwaukee.”
Morgan, whose Plush persona caused friction with some former teammates and club executives, said Braun and Fielder understand his desire to enjoy the game.
Baseball or Hockey
“They trust me to go out there and have fun, but still be under control,” Morgan said. A San Francisco native, he gave up baseball as a teenager to pursue hockey. He played for the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League, a major junior team in Canada. He eventually signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2002 as a 33rd-round draft choice, and played his first game in the big leagues five years later.
Schlesinger said he received calls from several MillerCoors LLC executives saying how pleased they were with the attention, particularly the SI cover, because it played off of the company’s High Life tag line.
“It helps to validate their decision to partner with us,” Schlesinger said.
Plush Rally Towel
Demand for all things Plush has prompted the Brewers to take an unprecedented measure. The club in August staged “Tony Plush Rally Towel” night, marking the first time they’d produced a towel for a specific player, Schlesinger said. He laughed when reminded that Plush isn’t a player.
“OK, first towel night for an alter ego,” he said. A Tony Plush bobblehead is being planned, he said.
Morgan makes $400,000 a year, compared with Fielder’s $15 million and Braun’s $4.29 million. Morgan stands to make money from the popularity of his Plush character, which the player trademarked in August.
While baseball’s official licensees can make and sell Morgan and Plush products, non-license holders would have to pay the player for the right.
Morgan in the next few weeks will announce The Plush Foundation, which the player will use to donate an undisclosed amount to charities, said his marketing agent, Larry Goldman. The player will also sell Plush merchandise on his Web site.
“Nyjer is the guy who gets timely hits and plays great defense,” Schlesinger said. “Tony is the character, the enthusiasm. It elevates player to phenomenon.”