For all but the last month of his decade in the Mets organization, Daniel Murphy was a productive and mostly unexceptional player. Then came the greatest month of his career—a month that would be the best in practically anybody else's career—as he helped the Mets get to the World Series. For two weeks, even Babe Ruth wasn't a peer.
This was just a start to a tumultuous three months. Then came free agency. And then the birth of his second child. And then he signed with the Washington Nationals. And now here is, on the East Coast of Florida, back at the Mets' spring training home, Tradition Field, hugging his former teammates and razzing one of the team's PR officials. "Should I go talk to the sponsors out there?" Murphy asked. Sometimes everything can just seem so circular.
A few days earlier, Murphy had stood at his locker at Space Coast Stadium and considered how much his life had changed since the start of his romp through the playoffs and then after signing a three-year, $37.5 million contract, becoming the Nationals' premier offseason acquisition. Washington will attempt to rebound from a star-crossed and controversy-stained 2015 season with Murphy in the middle of their refurbished lineup.
Still, Murphy objects to being touted as one of the team's stars. "Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Jayson Werth, and Anthony Rendon—yeah, I'll come down 10th or 11th on that list," he told VICE Sports. "That's fine with me."
There is at least a logic to this, unlike his spectacular October when he compiled an astounding 1.850 OPS in the National League Championship Series against the Cubs after having compiled a 1.143 OPS in the Division Series against the Dodgers. The run was largely without equal in postseason history. Murphy hit a home run in a record six consecutive playoff games and seven in total. He homered off Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta—the top three finishers in the National League Cy Young voting—and Jon Lester.
Murphy still struggles to explain that superhuman stretch. To that point, he had been an All-Star once and had built a reputation as a line-drive hitter, not a slugger. Murphy could give his wife no rationale for the run when he returned home to Jacksonville after the postseason. He stammers and trips over his words trying to form an explanation, even now.
Dusty Baker watched in awe from the TBS stage in Chicago for the final two games of the NLCS against the Cubs. The new Nationals manager believed no one could have actually gotten Murphy out in the midst of that stretch. "He was unbelievable," Baker said. "I was like 'Nah, he can't do it again' and pow. I thought it was one of the most awesome feats I'd ever seen. I'm hoping he duplicates it with us. This guy works hard and he wants it. He wants it for us."
Then came the downfall. In the World Series, Murphy's bat cooled, with just three hits in 25 plate appearances. In Game 4, with the Mets leading 3-2 in the eighth, Murphy tried to scoop up a harmless ground ball that ended up trickling under his glove. The Royals eventually won the World Series in five games, partying at Citi Field as a coda.
Murphy says he did not agonize about the error during the whole offseason, believing that would be "selfish to my family." Instead, he says, the lament was gone by the next afternoon. During chapel prior to Game 5, the chaplain asked each player to acknowledge something they were thankful for during the year. Murphy, a devout Christian, had one thought as he sat alongside teammates he knew he might not play with again.
"I was thankful that Game 4 showed me that Jesus' love is not dependent on my current circumstances," Murphy said. "He loves me as much after Game 4 when I missed that ball [as] he did when I was hitting home runs in the NLDS and the NLCS. I really wish I would have caught it, but I didn't. It didn't really faze me too much."
Still, Murphy's boffo October changed the course of his offseason. The Mets, while initially unreceptive to bringing him back when he hit free agency, tagged him with a qualifying offer. He said taking the $15.8 million one-year contract was a "consideration," but he ultimately turned it down.
"With the understanding at the time, with the information that we had—just because we declined the qualifying offer did not eliminate the New York Mets as an option to be able to play with," he said. "They end up pivoting very quickly to Ben Zobrist and then Neil Walker and then signed Asdrubal Cabrera. Once those moves happened, it wasn't a fit. It wasn't anything malicious that they set out to do, but there wasn't anywhere for me to play."
This began what Murphy now categorizes as a "stressful" offseason. When he entered free agency, Murphy had built a sort-of map of the offseason in his head, and planned on signing much earlier than he did. He believed that offers would arrive around the winter meetings, and the plan was that he would sign shortly afterward. Instead, the process lasted about 10 days longer than that. They wound up being extremely eventful days—in the midst of that period, on December 4, Murphy and his wife had a daughter, Quinn. On December 22, the New York Post, citing anonymous sources, reported that Murphy had been holding out hope that he could go back to the Mets before the window definitively closed on him; Murphy still takes issue with that report. "Did I have any quotes in that story?" Murphy says now. "Okay."
Two days later, on Christmas Eve, he agreed to a deal with the Nationals. He had put the team on a short list of potential destinations at the beginning of free agency and, just a little behind schedule, he had landed there. Zimmerman was the first player to reach out. He offered to have his real estate agent help Murphy find a new home around Washington D.C. That was the final acknowledgement that he had changed sides in the National League East rivalry.
The most decisive sign of Murphy's new status came at the beginning of January. For years he and his brother had held a hitting clinic in their native Jacksonville. "It's free, so we get to talk about whatever we want," he offered. "So we talk about Jesus. If you don't like it, just don't come back on Day 2."
Each year about 50-60 attendees showed up. This time, that number was nearly doubled. Even Murphy was surprised. This—more than the contract, more than his raised profile in the sport, more than his new franchise—signaled to Murphy that things had changed decisively for him since last fall. The challenge, now, is carrying last October's lessons into the next act of his career.
"The thing I learned the most was enjoy the moments, positive or negative," Murphy said. "Baseball, it's such a humbling game—as you saw in Games 4 and 5...Eventually you're going to mess up. It's the nature of the beast. It's such an imperfect game."