Baseball’s ‘Peculiar’ Pull Draws in a Former Star
CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. — Daniel Murphy looked out over the grass at Fairfield Properties Ballpark, where the Long Island Ducks were practicing under cloudy skies. “Baseball is a beautiful game,” he said, “and it makes people do peculiar things.”
Murphy would know. A three-time All-Star who played his last Major League Baseball game in 2020, he is attempting a comeback with the Ducks, whose 126-game season began on Friday with a road game in North Carolina. Murphy, along with some other long shots, intends to grind it out in the Atlantic League despite being 38 and having earned nearly $80 million in a 12-season major league career.
The goal, for Murphy and the other familiar names on the Ducks’ roster, is simple: Get back to the majors.
The Atlantic League, which has been active since 1998, is a place of optimism and experimentation. The teams are independently owned, but the league is a partner of M.L.B. and has often served as a testing ground for new methods and ideas, like bigger bases, a pitching rubber that was pushed back a foot and so-called robot umps — a version of M.L.B.’s proposed system of automating the calls of balls and strikes.
But at the heart of the league are its players, most of whom could not cut it at the major league level or never made it there in the first place. That is where Murphy stands out. At his peak, he was a star making more than $108,000 a game. In the Atlantic League, the maximum allowable salary is $3,000 a month. The league’s other players are dreaming of a career that Murphy already had.
A solid hitter and second baseman for the bulk of his tenure with the Mets, he had a breakout stretch in the team’s run to the 2015 World Series. Utilizing a dramatically reworked swing, he set a major league record by homering in six consecutive playoff games.
On the heels of his success, he signed a three-year, $37.5 million contract with the Washington Nationals and took his game to another level. As the face of baseball’s launch angle revolution, he made back-to-back All-Star Games, led the National League in doubles twice and finished second to Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs for the N.L.’s Most Valuable Player Award in 2016.
After a trade to the Cubs and two disappointing years with the Colorado Rockies, Murphy, at 35, suddenly faced the moment every athlete fears: The game no longer wanted him.
Murphy was known for prioritizing his family. His decision to take parental leave for the birth of one of his three children was criticized by fans but led to an invitation to the White House. So it was not surprising that his plans for retirement included taking college classes and spending more time with his two sons and his daughter. But baseball didn’t let go.
In his spare time, he found himself rewatching Ken Burns’s “Baseball,” a nine-part, 18-hour documentary on the history of America’s national pastime. Murphy saw the game with fresh eyes and wanted back in.
“I didn’t realize how cool our game was,” Murphy said at the Ducks’ Fan Fest on Saturday. He added, “I think when you’re in it, and you’re trying to be as productive as you can and as good a teammate as you can be, and a husband and a father, I underestimated just how cool our game was and how cool the guys were who played before me.”
In a league known for its innovations, Murphy’s comeback attempt has an experiment of his own, which was inspired by watching his children play baseball.
“I observed the way my children moved,” he said. “My swing wasn’t the same as theirs. They seemed to swing it with their whole body. I was probably a bit more of a hand swinger. It seemed to be similar to the way Ted Williams and Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth swung the bat. They looked like they played like children. So I’m going to try to play like a child.”
In bringing that new swing to the Ducks, Murphy chose a difficult path back to baseball’s biggest stage. But it is one that worked for other former M.L.B. stars, including Dontrelle Willis and Carlos Baerga, who parlayed late-career stints with the Ducks into brief returns to the majors. Overall, the Ducks have sent 27 players to the big leagues in their 35-year history.
This year, the Ducks’ roster features a typical blend of young, undrafted players; minor leaguers released before they earned a call-up; and a few other major leaguers attempting comebacks. Adeiny Hechavarría, who played for the Mets and the Yankees, is on the roster. So is Rubén Tejada, a teammate of Murphy’s on the 2015 Mets who had his leg broken by a hard slide from the Dodgers’ Chase Utley in that postseason. Lew Ford, once a solid player with the Minnesota Twins, is on the team, as is Al Alburquerque, a former Detroit Tigers reliever who last played in M.L.B. in 2017 and is best known for the time a sports radio host insisted he did not exist.
There was even speculation that the former Mets pitcher Matt Harvey could join the squad after his surprising performances for Italy in the World Baseball Classic.
For now, however, Murphy, who went 3 for 4 on Friday, is the main attraction.
Last weekend, Tommy Palamara, 13, of Setauket, N.Y., had waited eagerly in the stands for Murphy to sign autographs. “I know him because of the 2015 Mets,” he said, before admitting, “I was too young to remember it, but I’m told I watched him.”
Scott Nitz, a Mets fan and Ducks season-ticket holder from West Islip, N.Y., said he is excited to cheer on Murphy this season. “He’s been at the top. But he’s at a level now where he’s humble,” Nitz said. “I think it’s great that he came back. I hope someone picks him up, and I hope it’s fast.”
Ducks Manager Wally Backman, himself a former second baseman for the Mets, thinks Murphy has as good a chance as any.
“He still has all the bat speed,” Backman said. “I know the last year he was with Colorado, he had a bad hand, and he tried to play through it. I believe just from watching him play yesterday, with the National League bringing in the D.H., I think there’ll be a spot for him.”
And beyond Murphy’s own goals, Backman said his experience could make a huge difference for the Ducks’ younger players.
“The older guys and the levels they’ve been at, they’re not going to let those younger guys out-hustle them,” Backman said. “We saw it yesterday when Murphy hit a ball down the right-field line and he had to leg out a double, and then later he makes a diving play at first base. That rubs off on the young guys. They’ll bust their butt because they see the work ethic in the older guys.”
Murphy, for his part, is trying to focus on the journey.
“This is a brand-new adventure,” he said. “I think I’ve got a bit of baseball left in me, and I want to find out.”
Glancing at his younger teammates, he added: “I still like base hits, though. It’s a lot more fun when you get hits.”