Baseball is a team sport. But as the Kansas City Royals and New York Mets prepare to play Game 1 of the World Series tonight, there's a tremendous amount of focus on one player in particular.
And the spotlight is on New York second baseman Daniel Murphy for good reason.
Murphy, 30, who has played for the Mets his entire major league career, is on an unprecedented postseason hitting streak. Murphy has hit a home run in a record six straight games. He has seven homers overall in the playoffs and 11 runs batted in. His sustained performance at the plate is one of the reasons New York is back in the World Series for the first time since 2000.
Murphy hit a career high 14 home runs during the six-month-long regular season. Now he's hit seven in a 13-day stretch.
Has Murphy, whose walk-to-the-plate music is a nod to his heritage, been touched by a dose of Irish luck? Or perhaps some magic potion?
There's no evidence of either.
Instead, it appears Murphy is finally doing what many thought he always had the potential to do.
Hit a baseball powerfully.
"Since I've been here, I've seen this guy [Murphy] in batting practice hit balls as far as anybody, as consistently as anybody," the Mets' Kelly Johnson told the New York Times. "The power and the pop is there and I'm thinking, 'This guy's got a lot more power than people realize.' "
The Mets new batting coach, Kevin Long, set out at season's start to help Murphy unleash the power. Technical changes included getting Murphy to put his front foot that strides into the pitch down quicker and drop his hands lower.
And then, says Jeffrey Leonard, there's slicing the banana.
Former major leaguer Leonard is on the short list that Murphy now tops. In the 1987 National League Championship Series, Leonard, playing for the San Francisco Giants, hit home runs in four consecutive games. Leonard says all good hitters try to drive the bat through the hitting zone, keeping the head of the bat flat and on the same plane, or path, as the incoming pitch. He compares the action to slicing a banana in half, horizontally. In Murphy's case, Leonard says, it's like he's slicing two long bananas.
"His bat head is staying through that zone longer and sweet and he's just driving it, " Leonard says, "It's like, oh my God!!"
Leonard says coming into that 1987 NLCS, he'd been in a batting slump. But then, he says, something happened in the postseason — he knew how much more important the games were and he was able to flip a switch, mentally, and fully engage.
Leonard says he sees the same thing with Murphy.
"Every time they have a close up [of Murphy], he's having fun. He's engaging. He's involved in the game. He's playing at a higher level. To play at a higher level," Leonard says, "you have to go somewhere mentally. You have to play with a spirit of expectation and emotion. And it's infectious."
Indeed, Murphy has infected Mets fans with rare postseason joy and confidence. He's being lauded not just for his bat but for his loyalty to one team, his humility, his strong principles that prompted Murphy to take a few days off at the beginning of last season to spend time with his wife and newborn child.
For some of the faithful who proudly wear Mets orange and blue, however, cheering for Murphy right now is a bit more complicated.
Last spring, former major league player Billy Bean, who is gay, paid a visit to the Mets in his role as baseball's "inclusion ambassador." Murphy responded to a question about the visit, saying he "disagreed" with Bean's gay "lifestyle."
"Honestly, it was really hurtful," says Jon Raj, 46, a lifelong Mets fan who's a gay father of an 8-year-old boy. Raj — pronounced "Ray" — wrote an open letter to Murphy in the Huffington Post. In the letter, Raj praised Murphy for being "a great baseball player and a role model for [Raj's] son." But Raj also called Murphy's statement "offensive."
"First, I do not have a lifestyle. I didn't choose my sexuality the same way you didn't choose yours. Second, being gay is not what defines me, but rather it is just one important part of who I am. So when you say that you disagree with who I am, you are also disagreeing with my son and my family. We are not a lifestyle choice — we are a family."
Raj says 99 percent of the feedback from his letter was extremely positive, and that it helped open a dialogue about sports, homosexuality and inclusion that continues to this day.
Murphy did not respond to the letter directly, but Raj says that when he, his son and his mother made their annual trip to the Mets spring training facility in Port St. Lucie, Fla., the Mets invited him to talk to team officials.
"I really felt good about the conversations we had," Raj says. "I don't think it's their job or responsibility to convince their ballplayers or staff to change the way they think. But I definitely got the impression that we were like-minded and Billy Bean's presence and inclusion were important to the organization."
That all happened in the spring. Now it's late October and Murphy is back in the news for very different reasons. Raj says he's ecstatic to see the Mets doing well, and when Murphy goes to the plate, "I hope he does something good and hope he helps the team."
But Raj also admits to having mixed feelings.
"To be perfectly fair," he says "I wouldn't mind seeing another most valuable player step up in the World Series. As long as it's on the Mets!"
Murphy was MVP of the National League Championship Series in which New York swept the Chicago Cubs 4-0. He'll attract a lot of attention starting Tuesday night — as will a hard-throwing Mets starting pitching staff that's getting rave reviews for its dominating performances so far in the postseason.
On the other hand, Kansas City comes into the series with less flash but certainly a lot of respect. The Royals have fresh World Series experience, losing in a thrilling seven-game series last season to San Francisco. And many of the players are back — relief pitcher Wade Davis is one of the best closers in baseball. Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, American League Championship Series MVP Alcides Escobar anchor a lineup that has few if any weaknesses. Indeed, Kansas City is a versatile baseball team that can win with hitting, pitching, running the base paths and a defense that has committed only one error the entire postseason.
And baseball fans will soon find out whether the Royals' versatility includes figuring out a way to silence Daniel Murphy's bat — something that hasn't happened much during this postseason.