Can I play, can I play? Oh, Mom, Dad, please, can I keep playing some more?
Isn’t that how Daniel Murphy, on a baseball field, seems to you?
“Yes, that’s probably pretty much right,” Daniel Murphy says of himself.
That notion of a 32-year-old child at play — tough play, diligent play, studious play, yet always so much ridiculous fun — is the proper, joyous image of Murphy, hitting .343, second in the majors to Washington Nationals teammate Ryan Zimmerman, just as he hit .347 last year, an eyelash from the National League batting title.
It is also the metaphor for “Murph,” who connects with fans so innately that he is second in voting for the NL all-star team behind only teammate Bryce Harper, even though Murphy never promotes himself — or even speaks about himself. That is the baseball jubilation, which drips from his Irish beard, as he greets every Nat who homers with a double high-five and a loud “Fwahhh!” Even as Murphy himself is on pace for 29 homers and 111 RBI, a strong encore from his totals of 25 and 104 in 2016.
Yes, Murphy is doing it again, not roughly, but almost precisely duplicating the shock 2016 season in which he went from respected journeyman to MVP runner-up.
“Murph loves this game more than anybody I’ve ever seen. He eats, breathes and sleeps baseball,” Nats pitcher Tanner Roark said. “He works and studies and knows himself. He’s not an ‘I’ guy. He’s here for the team. He’s a leader. We all see it. He wants to be the best, the very best, even though he doesn’t act like it.”
That “please, please, more, more” is the sound that plays on infinite loop in the heads of those who see Murphy, in his 12th pro year, as he lusts after every minute on the field or in the batting cage as if he were still 10 years old and Game No. 74 of 162 was a sugar-rush snow cone or a thrill ride on the Wheel of Death.
“Everything he does is goofy. Just being around him is funny. When he makes a mistake, he’s mad. But he’ll make faces, he’s good at making fun of himself,” said shortstop Trea Turner, his double-play partner. “He’s different. He’s not like anybody else. That’s hard to find nowadays. Murph is an original.”
Who else takes extra hitting after a game when he’s already had three knocks? “We’ll talk it out,” said hitting coach Rick Schu, who sometime flips dozens of balls as Murphy battles to erase an imperfection only an obsessive hitting savant senses.
“The game’s over. We’re on the bus. But Murphy’s still talking about everything that happened. Guy’ll be, ‘The game’s over. We’re going to dinner,’ ” reliever Matt Albers said. “Baseball’s a business to a lot of guys. But that’s not Murph. He’s about the team, the game. I wish they made more players like that.”
In pregame, he focuses on the ball, the stitches, in every fielding drill so he will focus better on the ball, the stitches, when it is pitched to him. Over and over, new day, fresh eyes, more baseball. Why can’t it last a thousand years?
“Not everyone enjoys this profession as much as you would expect. He does,” bench star Adam Lind said. “He enjoys competition and team camaraderie. Anybody hits a home run, he’s always at the back of the line with his hands up, saying, ‘Give it to me!’ ‘I’m gonna give it to you, Murph!’ You want 25 guys like that.”
Most of all, Murphy is that rare, utterly un-self-conscious player who shows every emotion — not on some sleeve but right smack on his face — hiding nothing from fans, mocking himself, rejoicing with his team, whether he is making one of his cockamamie errors or hitting the 100th homer of his career as he did on Friday night.
“If he leaves a runner on base, he doesn’t come back with ‘the face.’ He’s cheering for the next guy, ‘Pick me up. Let’s go.’ Most of us get frustrated. He’s like, ‘It’s over. Continue. I’m ready,’ ” backup catcher Jose Lobaton said. “To him, every pitch is focus. Every inning he is pushing, pushing.”
Lobaton paused at the thought of the unfairness of talent. “But if you try to copy him, it doesn’t work,” he said with a laugh. “I listen to him. But it’s not the same. It seems like it’s easy for him to hit the ball. It’s not. He makes hitting look easy.
“We just say, ‘Murph is Murph.’ ”
Murph is the man who finally, delightedly, fretfully finds himself at one with the game he has adored since he was 5. He can hardly believe it.
That “Mom, Dad, please, let me play more” image of himself, what reaction does it bring to mind for Murphy?
“I don’t know how much more they’ll let me keep doing it,” Murphy says as he, yes, heads into the underground batting cage hours before game time.
That is all you will hear from Murphy. You must ask teammates to describe him, because Daniel, as if he were in a lion’s den of danger from hubris, will not talk about himself, ever, certainly not in any way that contains praise. This is a delightful anomaly to teammates: a player who will only talk about them. As well as a frustration to those who cover him. But it adds to a baseball-monk mystique.
Murphy is almost as obsessive about deflecting attention as he is about playing baseball. He makes criminals in witness protection look forthcoming. But to him, deeply religious in the old-time ways, the crime he is protecting himself from is pride.
The last thing Murphy wants to know is how fabulous he has become. In his last 245 games, including four postseason series, how good has he been? Consider three Hall of Famers: Wade Boggs’s career slash line was .328/.415/.443 with an adjusted OPS+ of 131 and an average of eight homers and 67 RBI for every 162 games he played. Rod Carew was .328/.393/.429, and an OPS+ of 131 with six homers and 67 RBI per 162 games. Tony Gwynn was .338/.388/.459, an OPS+ of 132 and nine homers, 76 RBI per 162.
In Washington, Murphy’s slash line is .346/.393/.591 with an OPS+ (perhaps the best comparison stat) of 154 with 30 homers and 120 RBI per 162 games. In 19 postseason games, he’s even better: .351/.430/.662. Last October, he hit .434.
“That’s incredible,” Max Scherzer said, “almost hard to believe.”
Unfortunately for Murphy, that Cooperstown trio strung together 15 or more years of such production, 10 times what Murphy’s done. Could Murphy keep such excellence going for years, since Gwynn won batting titles at ages 34 through 37? Murphy leans back, as if slapped, and says, as though defending the honor of a friend he has never met, “Gwynn was probably the best pure hitter of all time.”
He doesn’t need to add, “I’m just Murphy,” because he wears it all the time.
Of course Murphy, who was a nice, solid 1.9-WAR player in his six full years as a Met, should not be compared to Hall of Famers. But what is appropriate?
“I don’t put that ‘great’ out there lightly. I needed to see it again [this season] from Murph,” Scherzer said Friday. “I’ve said the greatest hitters I’ve played with were Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. Murph’s right there with Martinez now . . . Watch out, Victor!”
That’s saner, but still staggering. But from 25 to 35, Martinez hit .307, drove in 100 runs five times and had his best year at 35.
“Some hitters just keep learning. They figure it out between 30 and 35. The way Murph’s raking, he may play till he’s 40,” Schu said.
Whether Murphy will remain a Nat after next season is unknown. The sides haven’t talked contract extension. But the respect from the team’s side is off the chart.
From afar, what General Manager Mike Rizzo most admired in Murphy the Met was “the way he never gave away an at-bat — not after a rain-delay or 20 games in 20 days.” Once Murphy came to D.C., Rizzo asked for help. His Nats struck out much too much. How did Murphy strike out so seldom, sometimes ranking close to the hardest to fan in MLB?
“I expected some deep Murphy hitting analysis,” said Rizzo, since Murphy has figured out that the strike zone is “seven balls wide and 10 balls deep,” then analyzed how well he hit in each of those 70 spots.
Instead, Murphy said: “I don’t want to strike out. I’m not going to strike out.”
“With two strikes, it’s a battle of wills between him and the pitcher. That’s all,” Rizzo said. “The more I thought about it, that’s actually brilliant.”
Just like Murphy the past two years. And counting. But don’t ask him to agree.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.