NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Friday, October 23, 2015, 1:03 AM
Daniel Murphy, with his son, Noah, after Game 4 on Wednesday, can look back on a life full of baseball… and look forward to a pretty big free agent contract this winter.
Eighteen years after one of the most famous hits in baseball history – when a gimpy Kirk Gibson clubbed a home run off Oakland closer Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series – one of Jacksonville University’s star sluggers pulled off a similar feat on one good leg in a clutch postseason performance.
In an Atlantic Sun Conference playoff game against Campbell, the Jacksonville Dolphins were down by a run late in the game, and had runners at first and third. Terry Alexander, Jacksonville’s then head coach, says his slugger, Daniel Murphy, had a meniscus tear and had been rehabbing the right knee that season.
“The doctor said (Murphy) could do whatever he could do. He just couldn’t run. He could hardly walk,” Alexander says. “We were down by one run, and I put him up to bat. We needed a fly ball to tie it. The first swing that (Murphy) took, he hit it off the top of the fence. Guy from first scores and we win the game. All Murph could do was get to first base. He limped down to first.”
Tim Montez, Jacksonville’s current head coach who was an assistant coach during that 2006 season, says the sequence “was like a Kirk Gibson moment. Daniel could barely move, and he smoked one into the gap.”
While Murphy’s blast didn’t clear the outfield wall like Gibson’s shot off Eck in that Dodgers’ ‘88 Series victory, it was a harbinger of Murphy’s future playoff heroics. Nearly a decade later, the Mets’ scruffy second baseman has owned the 2015 MLB postseason and put up historic numbers – even before the first pitch has been thrown in the World Series, where the Mets will represent the National League.
Murphy with his Englewood High School baseball teammates.
But if it seems like an unlikely performance for the newly crowned MVP of the 2015 National League Championship Series, where Murphy morphed into Babe Ruth and crushed four of a record six home runs in six consecutive playoff games, those who coached Murphy or played alongside him prior to his being drafted by the Mets in 2006 say the 30-year-old Jacksonville native has earned every accolade and reward he has collected in his first big-league postseason. Through injuries and setbacks, after Division I baseball programs snubbed him out of high school and after some frustrating seasons with the Mets, Murphy has finally come full circle from his Englewood High School and Jacksonville University baseball roots.
“I’m very proud of him. He’s had one of best postseasons of anybody in history,” Alexander says of his former baseball pupil. “It’s not just having a good game, it’s being phenomenal. It couldn’t happen to a better guy and a better family. They’re such good people. Murph’s that guy that just keeps working at his craft. He always has a burning desire to get better.”
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Lee Geiger was already several years into his baseball coaching stint at Englewood High in Jacksonville when, he says, a junior high coach alerted him of a budding slugger.
“He says, ‘I’ve got a guy that can hit. Doesn’t run real well, but he can hit. His name is Daniel Murphy,’” says Geiger, recalling the conversation from circa 1999. “Sure enough, Murph comes in as a freshman and hits over .500 (for the junior varsity Rams squad).”
Geiger, 45, remembers Murphy as a “pudgy” freshman who would sit with Geiger and another teacher, Mitch Owens, at lunch during that 1999-2000 school year, not afraid to handle a conversation with his teachers but shy enough during the awkward teenage years to sit separately from his peers. Geiger says that Murphy “got more confidence” during his sophomore year, and by his junior year he was hitting the weight room, maturing as a player and pulling balls into right field. Owens, who taught Murphy high school economics, says Murphy was always a “‘Yes sir, no ma’am’ type of kid” who steadily gained confidence leading up to his senior year.
In Englewood yearbook photos, there is one from Murphy’s senior year that shows him with a wide grin, classmate Whitney Price riding piggyback. Both were voted “Wittiest” by their high school peers.
Murphy’s graduation photo and a baby photo run adjacent to one another in another senior yearbook image, with the teenage Murphy sporting a serious demeanor while wearing his cap and gown. Underneath his name is the quote: “Only one life to live it will soon pass, but what’s done for Jesus Christ will last.” Murphy has maintained strong Christian beliefs throughout his life.
As a member of the Englewood Rams baseball team, Geiger says Murphy played second base his sophomore and junior years, then switched to shortstop his senior year. Murphy was one of several good Rams hitters, according to Geiger, but Murphy separated himself from the pack with his productivity.
“He was our most consistent hitter,” says Geiger. “In a clutch situation, we wanted Murph up.”
Geiger says Murphy even faced none other than Zack Greinke, the Dodgers ace, during both players’ high school days, when Greinke was a star pitcher for Apopka High School in Orange County, Fla. “Murph got the only hit off Greinke one game, and after that Greinke struck out the next 10 and we lost 2-0,” says Geiger. Murphy would get revenge over Greinke more than a decade later, swatting the go-ahead solo homer off the Dodgers right-hander in the Game 5 NLDS clincher, which the Mets won, 3-2, on Oct. 15.
For all the talk about Murphy’s sweet swing during nine games this postseason, Geiger says the lefty hitter’s mechanics have not changed much all these years later.
“When you’ve got a guy that can hit, you don’t want to mess with him much,” says Geiger, who now coaches girls soccer and flag football. “(Murphy) just always could hit, had great hand-eye contact. My job is not to mess it up. To me, sometimes guys try to tinker with their swing and it makes it worse. If a guy can hit, let him be.”
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After Murphy’s stellar four-year baseball career at Englewood, Geiger says the college athletic scholarship offers didn’t exactly rain down on Murphy.
“He had one offer, Jacksonville University. That was it,” Geiger says. “When we were going through the process, I talked with Clemson, Georgia, a bunch of schools, and everyone said, ‘He’s a second-tier player for us’.”
Murphy (front left) and his JV baseball team at Englewood.
Murphy took the scholarship and never looked back, making an immediate impression during his first Dolphins team meeting in the spring of 2004, according to Alexander. It’s a story that has become Murphy lore over the years.
“When the freshmen came in and everybody was introducing themselves, saying where they were from and what their position was, Murph goes, ‘Hi, I’m Daniel Murphy from Englewood High School and I hit third,’” says Alexander. “He didn’t say, ‘I play third.’ Everybody laughed. Of course it became true, and he hit third for everybody forever.”
Alexander had the luxury of batting Murphy third in the lineup and one-fifth of Gronk Nation in the cleanup spot. Gordie Gronkowski Jr., the older brother of Patriots Pro Bowl tight end Rob and the eldest of the five Gronkowski boys, was Murphy’s Dolphins teammate for three seasons. Gronkowski played first base, across the diamond from Murphy at third. It was Alexander’s modern-day, Ruth-and-Gehrig one-two punch, even though the 6-7, 265-pound Gronkowski hit from the right side of the plate.
Alexander says that Rob Gronkowski even served as a Dolphins bat boy on a few occasions.
Gordie, who was drafted by the Angels the same year Murphy was drafted by the Mets (2006), says it feels like yesterday that he and Murphy were tearing up Atlantic Sun Conference pitching.
“Over the years, (Murphy) got married, had a kid. It’s different than what I do with my family and my four younger brothers who are all playing sports,” says Gordie, who now runs the retail stores for his family’s fitness company and the recently launched Gronkfitnessproducts.com company arm. “We kind of lost contact a little bit in that way. But as far as catching up right where we left off, every time we see each other at the Jacksonville (University) alumni games and charity events each year, nothing’s changed. Still feels like we’re in college, lining up three-, four-hole, and he’s playing third base and I’m playing first. It’s crazy, because it’s been a long time.”
Gordie Gronkowski, 32, was a senior that spring of 2006 and slugged 10 homers while batting .358. But Gronkowski says he is still in awe of Murphy’s ’06 season (Murphy’s junior year), when he had near Ted Williams-like numbers, finishing with a .398 batting average after briefly flirting with .400 earlier in the season. And yes, Gronkowski still remembers the epic Murphy showcase during that playoff game against Campbell.
“It was crazy. We couldn’t play (Murphy) because he couldn’t move in the field. It’s his junior year. It’s tough on him too, because he had such a great season,” says Gronkowski. “His on-base percentage was absolutely outrageous, too. It was probably close to .500 (actually .470). He comes off the bench limping, can’t even move, gets up there like nothing’s wrong and absolutely laces a double off the wall. Pretty much has to walk to first base, so he gets a single but it ended up being the game-winning run that scored. They pitched to him, figured if he can hit it anywhere, shallow outfield, or anywhere in the infield, they had an opportunity to get him out. At the time, you’re probably going with your odds.”
Daniel Murphy and Gordie Gronkowski Jr. are from Jacksonville University, and should be credited, “Jacksonville University Athletics”.
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Murphy was not opposed to a little good-natured ribbing of his teammates either. Montez, the Dolphins’ assistant coach in ’06 (Montez’s first season at Jacksonville), says he played the role of “enforcer” with players – making sure they were on time, finishing drills and keeping pace with the baseball schedule.
“We used to have Friday morning workouts at 6 a.m.,” says Montez. “It was kind of a team-bonding workout. It was going to be the last workout of the morning, and I asked Terry (Alexander), ‘What if we pranked the team, and we have breakfast in the locker room?’ I called Daniel into the office, and told him to wait in the parking lot, and arrive late. Well, he comes running out on the field, like he’s been at a party, and I unload on him. I make the team run to the outfield wall, while I’m yelling at Daniel, ‘How can you let your teammates down?’ Because they all looked up to him as a responsible leader. After a few wall and backs, I said, ‘Let’s go for breakfast in the locker room.’We had bacon, pancakes, OJ, everything. The whole team went nuts.”
Alexander, 60, says that Gordie and Murphy both “had that sense of being a pro, trying to outwork everybody, showing intensity, staying up and never getting down. They did a real good job together.”
Murphy celebrates as his Mets win Game 4 of the NLCS to move on to the World Series.
While Gronkowski played a couple of years in the Angels’ farm system and a few more in several independent leagues, Murphy rose through the Mets’ minor-league ranks, making his major league debut Aug. 2, 2008, when he went 1-for-4 against Houston.
Murphy has had some interesting Met adventures, including an ill-fated stint in left field in 2009 where he committed three errors. He had 10 errors while playing first in place of the injured Carlos Delgado that season. A year later, he sprained his right knee ligament in spring training, and watched Ike Davis take over first while Murphy rehabbed in Port St. Lucie. But Murphy, who didn’t settle into a steady position until 2012 when he became the regular second baseman, never gave up hope. He told the Daily News that May that he was only happy for Davis.
“I’m glad (Davis) is doing well. I’m frustrated that I can’t be there to help, but I’m glad he’s playing well,” Murphy said then. “I’m glad the team’s playing well. I can’t control that other stuff. I can just try to get healthy. When I get back, I know they’ll send me wherever they think is going to help not only myself but the organization in the best way. If that happens to be Triple-A to get ready, then that’s what I’ll do. I’ll go up there and play. But right now, I just want to be healthy.”
Throughout the years after he was drafted, Murphy has never forgotten his Jacksonville roots, and continues to return to Englewood and JU to do charitable events, meet up with old teachers and friends.
He works out at the university in the offseason, and spends time with up-and-coming Dolphins baseball players. He also continues to participate in JU alumni games with Gronkowski, and he and Gordie and Rob Gronkowski have lent their efforts to school fund-raisers with huge results.
“I’m so proud of the work Daniel has done,” says Jacksonville University president, Tim Cost, a JU alum and a former executive with PepsiCo. and Kodak, among other companies. “To hear him now, he represents himself so well for his family, his team, this university. He’s a high character guy, and his selfless personality is so genuine.”
Cost says that it was Murphy’s idea to construct an indoor/outdoor pavilion adjacent to the Dolphins’ baseball field so players could always have the opportunity to hone their hitting skills or work on fielding. Murphy donated his own money for the construction of the C. Peter Cost Pavilion and Murphy’s 20-foot tall likeness graces the outdoor wall.
“When he comes back after (the World Series), we’ll have a welcome-back celebration so many people can thank him properly for what he has meant to the JU community,” says Cost, who is a former Dolphins pitcher and the only JU baseball player to record a no-hitter in the school’s history.
Cost, like Alexander or Geiger or Gordie Gronkowski or Owens, has received a cavalcade of texts every time Murphy steps up to the plate during the Mets’ 2015 playoff run. No one can quite comprehend Murphy’s eye-popping stats, or how he has humbled one Cy Young winner or ace after another, from Clayton Kershaw to Greinke to Jon Lester to Jake Arrieta.
“Would it happen to have anything to do with Roy Hobbs?” Alexander asks, comparing Murphy to the fictional slugger Robert Redford played in “The Natural.”
“If you watch and you look at Murph’s swing, it’s really solid. He’s got a solid base, staying behind the ball. He’s become a very advanced, professional hitter,” says Alexander.
“Biggest thing with Murph is his resilience,” says Gronkowski. “He’s been through a couple crazy injuries where he could have given in, let it get to him, or mentally lost faith in the game. He’s a baseball guy. He just loves baseball so much, and he just stayed strong no matter what. He got better from it. That can catch up with some people mentally. Now, to be on top of the world, it’s cool. I’m pumped up for him. It’s fun watching him, especially when you have six bombs in six games in the MLB playoffs. That’s history.”