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Wild year has taken Daniel Murphy from White House to All-Star Game

Daniel Murphy is known best as a hitter, but he's worked hard to improve his defense, especially at turning the double play. Photo: Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Daniel Murphy is known best as a hitter, but he's worked hard to improve his defense, especially at turning the double play.

NEW YORK -- On the afternoon of July 6, a Sunday 10 days before the 2014 Major League All- Star Game, Daniel Murphy, a 29-year-old second baseman who makes his living hitting line drives, was at his locker in the Mets clubhouse. The team had just beaten the Rangers, 8-4, and Murphy had doubled in a run. Now an attendant was telling him that manager Terry Collins wanted to see him. “The only other time I ever got called into his office was after I didn't run out a pop-up,” says Murphy. He has played 722 games for the Mets, his entire big league career. “So I started going back through the game, worried, 'Did I not run something out?' But I knew I had.”

Mets general manager Sandy Alderson was also in Collins’s office when Murphy got there -- the GM later said that Murphy came in looking worried, as if he thought that he had been traded -- but instead of a talking-to, Murphy got some very good news. He had been selected as a reserve for the All-Star Game, the only player on the decidedly unspectacular Mets to make it.

Murphy is one of 26 first-time All-Stars named to this year’s game, a group that includes folks like White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, who has already hit 29 home runs this season; Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, who has a .916 OPS and who could throw out a runner at third base from the upper deck; and Reds righty Johnny Cueto, who, like Puig, has a splendid hairdo along with the National League’s lowest ERA. Still, it is quite possible that no player is having a more rewarding or interesting year than Daniel Murphy.

It was Murphy, you’ll remember, who missed the Mets' first two games this season so that he could be with his wife, Victoria, at the birth of their first child. While his teammates and coaches understood this completely, and despite the fact that he was placed on MLB's paternity leave list, a couple of New York radio hosts scolded Murphy, bellowing that he should have stayed with the team. Elsewhere, Murphy’s choice was swiftly and fiercely defended from all levels of the chattering class. With one snip of an umbilical cord he had emerged as an accidental representative for father’s rights. Two months later, in early June, he was invited to talk at a families’ forum at the White House, for criminy’s sake, and there he said: “Long after they tell me I’m not good enough to play professional baseball anymore, I’ll be a father. And I’ll be a husband.”

Murphy is certainly good enough to play professional baseball today -- he is third in the National League with 113 hits, while his .342 on base percentage and .756 OPS this season slot right in with his career numbers. He is a tough out and his offensive ability, along with the fact that he is no threat to start accumulating Gold Glove Awards, explains why the Mets have so often asked him to change positions as a way to keep him in the lineup. He spent significant time at leftfield, third base and first base in his first three major league seasons before becoming New York's starting second baseman for good in 2012. (Once, years ago, Murphy was asked where he thought was his best spot in the field. He replied: “Well, I can really hit.”)

“When you tell Daniel Murphy you need him to switch positions, his response is to go and grab a new glove,” says Collins. “He doesn't ask why.”

Murphy began learning second base in earnest in the spring of 2012 under the tutelage of Mets instructor Tim Teufel, who played that position for most of his 11 major league seasons, six of which were spent with New York. They spent most of that early spring season on Field 3 in Port St. Lucie -- a practice diamond consisting of an infield with a fence behind it and no outfield. Teufel and other coaches rapped ground balls at infielders including Murphy, whose primary challenge was to work on turning the double play as the pivot man. The previous season he had been badly injured at second base, suffering a season-ending ACL tear in a collision with the BravesJose Constanza, and it would have made sense if he were a little gun shy. Turning the double play as a second basemen is one of the few situations in a game where the runner is behind you; you can really get hurt. Save for the now outlawed blocking of home plate by a catcher, it is probably the most dangerous play on the field.

“He worked on that above and beyond -- first one there each day getting after it,” says Teufel. “One morning we’d been out early and then we had a second session with other players at 11:30 a.m. After that I went inside for lunch and when I came out I heard the pitching machine going. I went to see who was hitting, but no one was; Murphy was standing there with his glove on, fielding balls from the machine, working on the glove-to-hand transfer you need to make in the double play. He’d had the idea to set up the machine and pitch after pitch kept coming in, and he kept doing that transfer over and over. That told you how serious he is.”

Murphy will never be Bill Mazeroski, nor even Brandon Phillips. He has limited range and at times, it seems, balls hit high in the air make him nervous. (A remnant, perhaps of his unhappy experiences with fly balls as a leftfielder back in 2009.) But Murphy fields second base quite adequately these days, no question. And although this statistic is more about opportunity and incidence than any particular skill set, it is certainly worth noting that Murphy has turned more double plays in 2014 -- and by a very wide margin --  than any other second baseman in the National League.

*****

Noah Murphy, Daniel and Victoria’s little boy, is three and half months old now, and Murphy has embraced the lessons of fatherhood. Victoria, he says, has for years helped him remember that baseball is “what I do but not who I am.” And Noah, who will cry loudly for food with equal indifference to whether Murphy has gotten a game-winning hit or gone 0-for-4, “forces me not be selfish in dwelling on what happened in my own life.”

Other things have been in the wind lately, namely that with New York teetering between contention and continued rebuilding Murphy could be traded. Rationally a trade may make sense, depending on the deal of course, but even the idea of losing Murphy upsets many Mets fans. Despite his limitations (not a lot of power, less than outstanding speed, the occasional absurd if oddly endearing base running gaffes) he is an honorable Met: very hard working, solid in the clutch and with a dependable stroke. Those things may or not mean much to a dispassionate front office but they surely mean something to a fan base that has had few heroes in recent years. Murphy says he does not think about being traded. He is under club control for next year -- and eligible for arbitration this offseason -- and he says that he loves being a Met.

On July 12, a Saturday, four days before the 2014 All-Star game in Minnesota, Murphy was in the tunnel off the home team dugout at Citi Field before a game against the Marlins. New York would beat Miami 5-4 and Murphy would make a leaping defensive play to nip an eighth inning rally. Now he was saying that he regarded the All-Star selection “as another true blessing in my life.” He used the words “honored” and “humbled” to describe how he felt. He spoke about the opportunity to be in the National League dugout alongside so many franchise players -- Kershaw, McCutchen, Tulowitzki -- and about the chance to be part of honoring the Cooperstown-bound Derek Jeter.

But what Murphy was really excited about was that Victoria and Noah would be with him in Minneapolis, just as they had been with him at the White House in June. “And,” he said, growing animated, “I found out we are going to be able to take a photo down on the field, the three of us together.” Of the many important moments he was hoping to experience in Minneapolis, Murphy said, that was the one that mattered to him most.

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