- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Johan Santana has a heat balm that can make you feel like you're resting on the planet Mercury, and before Daniel Murphy went out on a back practice field Wednesday morning to resume his quest of mastering the position of second base, he slathered some of the substance on his knees.
It just so happened that the first drill that New York Mets instructor Tim Teufel asked him to do was to field grounders on the infield grass of Practice Field 3 ... kneeling. "My knees are burning!" Murphy barked, for the first time.
A morning sun was rising, the infield grass was still damp from the first watering of the day, and Murphy was a human cup of coffee, chattering happily through his work, grounder to grounder. "Here we go!" he said, leaning forward, glove extended.
For Murphy, playing second base is like filling a dishwasher: It's work. Not everything fits perfectly, with his particular abilities squeezing awkwardly into the corners of the position. But Ike Davis is the Mets' first baseman and David Wright is the third baseman and Jason Bay is the left fielder. Murphy is regarded by some rival evaluators as one of the Mets' best pure hitters, but if he's going to play regularly, he needs to play second base. This is why he was out here on the half-field in the Mets' spring training complex, taking ground balls. Jordany Valdespin, a 24-year-old infielder, worked alongside him, but most of Teufel's instruction was aimed at Murphy.
Swinging a fungo, Teufel slapped a grounder at Murphy, who caught the ball closer to his body then Teufel would have preferred; Teufel paused and suggested an alteration in how Murphy should extend his glove. "This is going to come into play on double-play grounders," Teufel said aloud, "when you move in on balls and snatch it."
Murphy nodded, and the dialogue continued to go both ways, with Teufel -- his words framed with encouragement -- calling out, and Murphy responding, like two actors ad-libbing a scene.
"I want a dozen eggs in that glove," said Teufel.
"Hard-boiled or soft?" Murphy called back, as he completed the play.
"Charge that -- center it," Teufel said.
"I feel that," Murphy responded.
"Try to get there a little sooner," Teufel said, "and that way, you won't have to try to catch up."
"I see what you're saying, Teuf," Murphy called back.
"Stay on the balls of your feet," Teufel yelled.
"My knees are on fire!" Murphy said.
Murphy started swinging a bat when he was 5 years old, his parents have told him, and for most of the next decade, his mom or dad would throw batting practice to him or play catch with him in the yard. Murphy played some basketball and soccer as a kid, but that was just killing time, he felt, until baseball came around. He didn't choose baseball, Murphy has told others; rather, baseball chose him. He's not tall enough to play basketball, and he doesn't like contact sports, and there's no hockey in Florida. He loves baseball, and it killed Murphy to not be able to finish last season, after he got hurt on Aug. 7. Murphy sat on a couch and watched the Mets play for a few weeks as he recovered.
"We had a really tight-knit group last year, we played hard, and we came through together," Murphy recalled. "Then, to sit at home and watch them play..."
It was the second straight season in which Murphy got hurt on contact with a runner at second base; now, you can see the outline of knee brace through his uniform. The greatest challenge for him in playing second base, he believes, is turning the double play.
So the grounders that Teufel hit to Murphy and Valdespin on Wednesday morning were more of a preamble to the main event. Valdespin shifted to shortstop, and over and over again, grounders were hit to the left side, so Murphy could rush to the second-base bag and take the throw and pivot to throw to first base. Wally Backman, the Triple-A manager in the Mets' organization, had joined the drill and stood at first base, waiting to take Murphy's throws from second.
"I'm going to drive you through that fence," Murphy said, grinning, as he prepared to throw to first.
"If you do, I'll be out of here in a New York minute," Backman said.
But it's not the throw on which the work of Murphy and Teufel was concentrated; it was the catch. The most important skill that Murphy feels he must have, in turning the double play, is to catch the ball cleanly with both hands.
Some infielders, like Omar Vizquel, won't actually hold the ball at any instant as they transfer the baseball from the pocket of the glove to the throwing hand; rather, they'll position their hands so that the ball ricochets from the glove to the bare hand.
But Murphy says he does not have this ability yet. His focus is on catching the ball cleanly, in an optimal position to throw, and then getting rid of the ball quickly enough so that he has enough time to get out of the way of the oncoming runner, or brace himself for the contact.
"It's the only play in baseball you make with your back to the runner," said Murphy. "There's going to have to be trust, there's going to have to be repetition, and just knowing that I can get the ball in the air and I'm going to be in position to protect myself. I've played second the last two years and got whacked twice. ... It's definite that there are concerns about me. I've got to become more efficient and put them to rest."
Murphy skipped over an imaginary runner over and over on the practice field after coming across the bag with his hands high in position to take the throw and then releasing the ball to first.
"There ya go, Murph!" Teufel shouted.
"My knees are burning!" Murphy said.
If Murphy can play second base and turn the double play and stay healthy, he will get more chances to do his favorite thing in the sport -- to hit, to compete mentally with the pitcher. "You've got a pitcher, he's got a plan, and I'm a hitter, and I've got a plan," Murphy said. "Whichever one of us gives in first loses, is kind of the way I've always thought of it. There's times when you face somebody you know, and you know in your stomach you're going to get a breaking ball. And you sit on it and wait on it and the count goes 1-0 or 1-1 or 2-0, and you finally get it. That's the part I love."
At the plate, he's like a hunter in a blind, for that one pitch in that one spot that he is sure the pitcher will try to sneak past him. He can remember waiting and waiting through multiple at-bats against Clay Hensley last summer, when Hensley was still with the Marlins, and anticipating a changeup -- and Murphy finally got it, and put a good swing on it.
But he's got to catch the ball cleanly at second base for that to happen, and on the last drill Teufel put him through, that's all Murphy did, without a glove, catching baseballs without a glove. Only his bare hands. He'd catch a ball, drop it on the ground and wait for the next one, until a wide infield swath of grass was littered with baseballs.
When his work ended, Murphy and Teufel talked for a few minutes, in review, and then Murphy walked over to pick up his bat.
"My knees," he said, "are burning!"
• The Mets hope to get Johan Santana an inning of work in their first exhibition game.
• The Mets have sold some $20 million shares, writes Teri Thompson.
• Major League Baseball and the players' association continue to unravel the final details needed to implement the 10-team playoff field this year. Because the baseball calendar is already in place for 2012 and there is very little time left for this extra round of playoffs, there will probably be something of a high-wire act to squeeze everything in given how it's structured. But personally, I think it'll be great, because the new system will reinforce the integrity of what it means to win a division, and because the winner-take-all games have been tremendous theater during the last five years. The other day in Lakeland, retired manager Tony La Russa mentioned that in the discussion of commissioner Bud Selig's advisory board, there is a general sense that the wild-card teams have been given a relatively easy road in October, without much of a built-in handicap. La Russa noted that his 2011 Cardinals were one example of this on their way to becoming World Series champions.
• In San Francisco Giants camp: The organization believes it's really deep at catching for now and into the future. Bruce Bochy and Felipe Alou both commented about how they had never seen the type of high-end quality of catchers in one organization. With Buster Posey at the major league level, and youngsters Hector Sanchez, Tommy Joseph and Andrew Susac on the way, the Giants feel they are stacked at a position which is a place of little depth for most teams.
• A baseball version of an heirloom: Daniel Schlereth, looking to improve his changeup, is trying the grip used by Joaquin Benoit, who throws one of the game's best changeups -- with a grip taught to him about a decade ago by Al Nipper.
• Scott Kazmir will choose among the six teams that have expressed interest, with the Mets' among them; they will see him in throw in a workout Friday. In many respects, the Mets would be the best possible fit for Kazmir -- because of the park, the league and the natural adrenalin of what would be a unique situation, because of his history with the team.
• Ozzie Guillen doesn't expect any interference from Jeffrey Loria.
Dings and dents
3. The indomitable O-Dog is backing off on his workouts a little.
The fight for jobs
2. There is a scarcity of available jobs on the Miami Marlins' pitching staff, writes Juan Rodriguez.
3. A couple of Atlanta's hard throwers are not considered bullpen options, as David O'Brien writes.
Moves, deals and decisions
2. The Angels are trying to play down Bobby Abreu's trade value.
3. Michael Bourn hasn't talked about an extension with the Atlanta Braves, and he's eligible for free agency in nine months. His agent is Scott Boras, and typically, Boras clients go into free agency this late in their service time.
• Andrew Cashner is throwing heat in the Padres' organization, and he's been noticed, as Tim Sullivan writes. I remember watching Cashner on the day he got hurt while pitching for the Chicago Cubs last year, and before the injury took place, he was showing electric stuff. He finds fun in fielding, writes Dan Hayes.
• Robin Ventura is opening camp with an open mind, writes Mark Gonzales.
• Bobby Valentine is not big into the captain thing.
• The Brewers' catcher is steady.
• Vanderbilt won a grind-it-out game for win No. 20.
Vanderbilt will look into a tampering complaint.
• John Kruk and Tim Kurkjian will be at the Mets' camp today for the 3:30 p.m. ET "Baseball Tonight."
And today will be better than yesterday.
Buster Olney writes that for the Mets' Daniel Murphy, spring training is about becoming comfortable at second base and improving his glove work in the middle of the infield.