This story appears in FCA Magazine’s July/August 2017 issue. Subscribe today!
For two weeks in October 2015, Daniel Murphy made
the mind-boggling physics of hitting a baseball seem elementary.
For the majority of his life, Murphy had been at his most comfortable with a bat in his hands. But, in that short spurt, he was on an orbital level while leading the New York Mets to the World Series. Murphy homered in a record six consecutive playoff games against the Los Angeles Dodgers and then the Chicago Cubs. He batted a ridiculous .556 in the National League Championship Series, mastering a task that has produced far more failure than success for everyone who has ever stepped into a batter’s box.
“The more notoriety I got, I tried to push in closer to Jesus,” Murphy says. “I didn’t want to take that glory for myself. It was a really, really sweet time in our lives.”
What followed was the complete opposite.
For one week on the sport’s biggest stage, Murphy’s ease at the plate evaporated. He went hitless in three of the five World Series games, hitting .150 (3 for 20) overall as the Mets fell to the Kansas City Royals. He drove in zero runs. He struck out seven times. And he made two costly errors in the field.
“Being on top of the mountain and then being at the bottom of the barrel … just felt like a perfect picture of God’s grace and love in our lives,” Murphy says. “Jesus didn’t love me any less when I made those errors in the World Series than He did when I was hitting those home runs in the NLCS.
“If anything, He loved me more. He’s like, ‘I think you can handle this; and on my strength, we’re going to grow from this, we’re going to be stronger, and I’m going to refine your heart.’ I’ve been able to use that three-week period as a testimony.”
Certainly, Murphy’s postseason highs and lows of 2015 illustrate the confounding complexities of baseball—or any sport, for that matter. His overall perspective and outlook was more in tune than his near-perfect swing. And as skilled as he continues to be at his craft, the fullness of his story is one of personal revival that replaced the idol of baseball with an ever-richer journey with Christ.
• • •
Murphy was raised to hit a baseball. Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, he and his brother, Jonathan, and sister, Tricia, all spent their early years at Smitty’s Learning Center. The local daycare facility was run by a couple who had several sons of their own, and the husband had a small field and batting cage.
Daniel was there a lot.
“As long as you would throw the baseball to him,” his father, Tom Murphy, says, “he would swing the bat all day long.”
Jonathan, five years younger, tagged along wherever baseball took Daniel. That started at Smitty’s batting cage and continued to neighborhood games, where the Murphy boys were almost always on the same team. Jonathan was also ever present while Daniel was a standout at Englewood High School, where he regularly faced off against Wolfson High and a pair of future major leaguers—Billy Butler and Eric Hurley.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Man, if I could ever be as good as those guys, that would be unbelievable,’” says Jonathan, who served on FCA staff for a couple years and has run FCA hitting camps in the Jacksonville area with Daniel. “I always looked up to Daniel and how he went about his business. He always played hard, he was passionate, and he always wanted to win.”
About the same time, a local church’s music minister and his wife befriended and mentored the Murphy family. Daniel’s mom, Sharon, soon made sure church was at least a Sunday staple. The midweek program even sometimes superseded baseball.
Even though the lessons stuck with Daniel, a deep connection didn’t completely take root in his heart and soul.
“We grew up going to church,” he says. “At a very young age and even through middle school, high school and college, I knew the head answers of what Jesus had done for me personally. At the same time, I thought full surrender to Jesus meant giving up things in my life that I didn’t want to give up.
“I just didn’t want to give up control of my life.”
His path in baseball remained something Daniel felt he could dictate on his own. As a freshman at Jacksonville University, having entered college with a sophisticated grasp on hitting, he stepped right into the third spot in the lineup. He drove the ball from gap to gap—a full-field understanding most college kids struggle to master.
“He was ahead of the game,” former Jacksonville coach Terry Alexander says. “It was more of a professional approach.”
Two years later, as a junior in 2006, Daniel batted .398 and was named the Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Year. The Dolphins made the NCAA Tournament, and Daniel was taken by the Mets in the 13th round of the MLB Draft.
• • •
Daniel’s rise through the Mets farm system was swift. Transitioning to a wood bat humbles many high school and college stars who thrive with the more forgiving metal bat, but that adjustment was a comparative blip for Daniel. He first reached the majors in 2008 and stayed there in 2009.
Daniel’s work at the plate masked the fact that he never had a fixed spot in the field. The Mets tried him in left field, then first base, but neither was a great fit, and in many ways Daniel was positionally “homeless.”
All the while, though, he kept hitting—until he didn’t have two good legs to stand on. Knee trouble had dogged Daniel toward the end of his college career, and it cropped up again with the Mets. He lost the entire 2010 season because of two separate knee injuries.
Rehabilitation and a successful return in 2011 cloaked a deep personal restlessness within Daniel. He was batting .320 in early August when a left knee sprain ended his season. Two months later, he and his then-girlfriend, Tori, broke up.
“I just had this emptiness about me that I thought it would be so much more,” he says.
Daniel found himself home in Jacksonville, looking for answers. He ended up sitting down with his mother.
“I confessed all these things going on in my life—selfishness and pride, just an illusion of control that I had in my life,” Daniel says. “She said, ‘I love you and your brother and your sister so much. But when I think about how much God loves you, I can’t even comprehend it.’”
The physical wherewithal to squarely hit a baseball time and time again had never been in question, but his baseball future was at that point. The facts of the Bible were known, but the heart of the message wasn’t-—yet.
“Sometimes we have a tendency to forget His grace and His love and His mercy,” Murphy says. “I had not focused on that in a long time. I got on my knees and, by the grace of God, surrendered my life to Him. ‘I don’t know where You want to take me,’ I said, ‘but I know that Your ways for me have to be better than the choices I’ve made in my own life that have gotten me in this situation.’”
Newly surrendered, Daniel prayed that God would restore his relationship with Tori, who had her own spiritual breakthrough a couple months later. By January 2012, the two were engaged, and they got married later that year.
“If I were to write out the perfect plan it never would have worked out like this—ever,” Daniel says. “God put things in my life with my family that just tried to strip away the massive idol that is baseball as I mold, hopefully, into a gracious and serving husband and father.”
• • •
Life off the field was in order. Life on the field also moved towards more stability as Daniel, finally, had a full-time position he could call his own. He was the Mets’ everyday starting second baseman in 2012 and began to emerge as one of the best offensive players at that position.
But playing in the crucible of the country’s largest media market didn’t come without its trials. “Not enough power,” some bemoaned. “Defensive liability,” others lamented. And then, in 2014, sports talk radio lit up when Daniel announced he would miss the Mets’ season opener because Tori was set to deliver their first child, Noah.
“Sometimes we have a tendency to forget His grace and His love and His mercy... I got on my knees and, by the grace of God, surrendered my life to Him."
“She wanted me to be there, and I wanted to be there,” he says. “That was a decision that we made as a family.”
The Mets had already arrived in New York for the opener when Daniel received word that Tori had gone into labor. She held out for nearly 15 hours while Daniel hopped late-night flights so they could be together when Noah arrived. And arrive he did, at 12:02 p.m. on a Monday afternoon, about an hour before the first pitch of the Mets’ season.
Daniel soon returned to the team and had a strong 2014 season, batting near .300 for much of the year and earning his team’s only All-Star nod. However, he slumped in September, when the Mets were out of playoff contention for the eighth straight year.
A fresh start was needed, even with something Daniel had always been able to control so well.
He had spent more than a quarter-century honing his swing, using a grinding work ethic blended with tremendous precision, elite hand-eye coordination and uncanny ability to find that spinning leather ball with astounding frequency. That same swing, crafted over so many years, had made him a high school star, a conference player of the year in college, and a fast-track riser through the minor leagues and up to the majors.
But a new hitting coach, Kevin Long, arrived at Mets spring training in 2015. Long’s track record included maximizing the left-handed swings of Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson during his time with the New York Yankees.
Bringing It Home Devotional: Spiritual Student
All his life, Daniel Murphy has honed his skill at the plate. Since he was a little kid, he’s stepped into the batting cage or batter’s box every chance he could get. Read more
“Daniel believed in Long as a coach and believed in himself that now was the time to tweak his swing a little bit,” Alexander says. “And, because he’s obsessed with doing things right and having knowledge about the swing, he understood everything he needed to do. It was just a matter of repetition and having somebody to mentor him along the way.”
The results weren’t immediate. They weren’t particularly eye-popping, either.
That was when Daniel put himself into the Major League record books as the first player to hit a home run in six consecutive postseason games. Even more impressive was that his almost unfathomable stretch came against some of the best pitchers of this generation. Against the Dodgers and Cubs, he homered twice off Clayton Kershaw and once each off Zack Greinke, Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Fernando Rodney. Those six pitchers have combined for five Cy Young Awards.
“My wife didn’t grow up with baseball like we did,” Jonathan says. “So when he kept hitting them, she was just like, ‘Is this normal? What’s going on?’ I said, ‘No, this is not normal! This never happens!’ It was pretty wild for everyone, Daniel included. I don’t think he really knew what was going on either.”
The same fan base that had bemoaned Daniel’s shortcomings was in a fever pitch, calling for the Mets to sign him to a long-term deal.
But that didn’t happen.
• • •
Some pundits panned Daniel’s 2015 postseason brilliance as the exception, which could have been what the Mets thought as well. The organization that had drafted, groomed and then benefited from Daniel offered a contract worth more than $18 million, but it was only for one year.
But Dusty Baker, a former manager turned TV analyst turned back to manager, saw enough in the swing tweaks to believe Daniel’s newfound power could be sustained. Baker was hired to manage the Washington Nationals in November 2015, and a month later Daniel inked a three-year, $37.5-million deal.
Baker’s confidence was rewarded.
Last season, Daniel shattered career highs with a .347 batting average, 47 doubles, 25 home runs and 104 RBI. He finished second in National League MVP voting. Already somewhat immune to striking out, he refined his game even more in that area and has struck out in less than 9 percent of his plate appearances since the start of the 2016 season.
The opportunities for Daniel to be a leader with the Nationals are far from limited to his hitting expertise. In the clubhouse, he’s one locker removed from catcher Matt Wieters and just a short walk from outfielder Chris Heisey and infielder Stephen Drew. Those players are integrally involved in cultivating a Christ-centered culture within the team.
“It helps us see the Truth a little clearer, not having to fight through it yourself,” Wieters says. “We all need someone to say when we’re not living biblically. Murph is so good, and those guys are so good at keeping that in focus.”
When the team is on a homestand, Daniel and Tori help lead a Bible study for the team’s couples. It’s rooted in a profound lesson that Daniel learned from the Mets chaplain, Cali Magallenes.
“He told me, ‘There will be two people waiting for you when you get done with the game of baseball,’” Daniel says. “‘One of them I know will be there, and that’ll be Jesus. And the other one will be your wife. The relationship you have with her will be a direct result of the investment you’ve made in her over the course of these years.’”
On road trips, Daniel’s room is most often the setting for the Christians on the team to gather and encourage one another in their walk. They worked through the Sermon on the Mount during the 2016 season.
“There’s so much isolation in baseball. I say baseball, but there’s so much isolation everywhere,” Daniel says. “That’s totally the enemy; he wants to isolate us.”
The Nationals were a playoff team in 2016, and at the time of this writing seemed poised for a return trip to the postseason this fall. But the narrative of a baseball season inevitably has potholes along the way, magnifying the need for Daniel and his teammates to lean in together.
“Our faith should be in control of our whole life, and we believe in a sovereign God,” Wieters says, “so why should we separate that from the sports world? We rest on Jesus. I didn’t realize early in my career how much of a safe haven it could be to pour into something off the field.”
Moreover, it serves as a good time to remind each other that their performance, no matter how big it might appear on the scoreboard when they walk to the plate, does not define them.
“This is a season that Christ has us in, and I want to build relationships and hopefully show people that I’m far from perfect,” Daniel says, “but I know where there’s hope and where there’s joy and where there’s peace. Because I’ve tasted it, and I want to point them in that direction.”
Getting To Know Daniel Murphy
Daniel and Tori Murphy were married Dec. 1, 2012. Their son, Noah, was born March 31, 2014, and daughter, Quinn, was born Dec. 4, 2015. They’re expecting their third child later this year.
After the upbeat “I’m Shipping up to Boston” by the Dropkick Murphys, Daniel is ushered to the plate by “The River” by Jordan Feliz and “The Way” by Jeremy Camp.
“I usually like to put in at least two [songs] where it says Jesus, just because God can mean so many different things,” he says.
Speaking Out on Societal Issues:
“I try to approach them with a gracious heart, prayerfully asking Jesus to speak through me,” Daniel says. “Let these be Your words, because my words are going to fall well short.”
Daniel and Jonathan Murphy have run a hitting camp each of the past few winters in the Jacksonville area. And each year, those camps involve Daniel sharing his testimony. The brothers also use a host of FCA resources to hand out to the campers.
“That’s God’s gift to us, to be passionate about wanting to hit a baseball,” Jonathan says. “It’s definitely a different gift than a lot of other people have, but it’s something that we love, and we’re able to use that gift. Daniel’s so good about using that gift to serve others.”
Bringing It Home Devotional: Spiritual Student
By Sarah Rennicke
“For wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will fill you with joy.” – Proverbs 2:10
All his life, Daniel Murphy has honed his skill at the plate. Since he was a little kid, he’s stepped into the batting cage or batter’s box every chance he could get. Yes, there was natural ability, but he refused to skate through simply on that alone. Murphy put in hours and years of study, development and instruction. When unforeseen injuries or growth opportunities presented themselves, he readjusted by seeking wisdom from a greater coach: Christ.
Instead of zeroing in on imperfections and being hounded by a few misplays, Murphy enrolled in the academy of God and became a spiritual student, specializing in freedom and peace.
“Sometimes we have a tendency to forget His grace and love and mercy,” he said.
In these gentle reminders of God’s abounding gifts, Murphy dug his spiritual cleats into the dirt and went to bat for deeper faith, uncovering new mercies along the way.
Oftentimes, the most surprising answers are excavated when head knowledge translates to the heart.
Just because we’ve done something one way for a long time doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve got it mastered. Our God is constantly creating, restoring and making things new. His Word stands true and timeless, but there is always room to cultivate our faith in new and vibrant ways when we become spiritual students. We study and assess, tweak as needed and open ourselves to honest feedback. Spiritual understanding paves the way to richer realizations and greater truths to help us navigate the world around us.
But for all our studying, faith is best developed through participation. God invites us to connect with Him in deeper, relational ways. We can try all we want to have every answer, but we’ll never get there, and there’s even greater understanding in surrender to the tutelage of Christ.
An intellectual heart is constantly crafting honest prayer, Scripture meditation, and listening for God’s voice. And the fruit of this study brings about a peace that surpasses understanding.
Living out our faith with a humble heart brings room for greater belief, where we lift our eyes to God in expectation for what He will reveal, bursting at the seams to share what we’ve experienced.
Eager hearts point to excitement, which Murphy likes to share in this season of life.
“I want to build relationships and hopefully show people that I’m far from perfect,” he said, “but I know where there’s hope, and where there’s joy, and where there’s peace.”
• Have you been tempted to get lazy in practice for your sport, as well as in your spiritual life?
• When have you relied on head instead of heart knowledge? How can you make an adjustment to add both to your relationship with God?
• How do you believe God wants you to respond to His invitation to know Him more today?
Father, I confess I often put too much focus on head knowledge, and I miss gleaning wisdom from You in my everyday life. Help me realign my heart to hear from You and give You more of my time and a desire to better love You. Amen.
Photos courtesy of the Washington Nationals