NEW YORK — The game is beautiful. The game is cruel. Daniel Murphy could tell you all about it.
It isn’t fair that the same man could be a hero for three weeks in October and a modern-day Bill Buckner in the last week of October. But this is baseball. This is life. Sometimes beautiful. Sometimes cruel. Sometimes all at once.
Until Halloween night in Flushing, Murphy’s postseason was the kind of story you would have expected to read in the pages of a W.P. Kinsella novel. Too amazing to be real. Too heroic to besmirch.
But as long as there’s another baseball game on the schedule, there’s always a chance to rewrite these scripts. And after Game 4 of the 2015 World Series — after Kansas City Royals 5, New York Mets 3 — Murphy could tell you all about that, too.
It was the eighth inning at Citi Field. Two men on. One out. The Mets holding a one-run lead, five outs away from tying this World Series at two games apiece. And then it happened.
Eric Hosmer thunked a slow hopper toward second base, in the direction of a man whose seven postseason homers had rewritten the history books and lifted the Mets into this World Series, sometimes practically singlehandedly. But this was no time to relive the memories. This was a time to get a humongous out.
Except the man on the center of this stage never got it.
Murphy was playing back, almost to the edge of the infield dirt. So he had no choice but to charge this baseball and make a play that big-league second basemen get paid to make. Especially in Game 4 of the World Series.
The baseball took one big hop. Then a second small hop. Then a third tiny skip. And somehow, when Murphy tried to scoop it with his glove, it evaded captivity.
It skidded under his glove and dribbled onto the outfield grass. Ben Zobrist came roaring home from second base with the tying run. And in that one crazy instant, everything was different. This inning. This game. This World Series.
Not to mention the tale of Murphy’s wild ride to postseason glory.
It was the pivotal play of a show we have seen before — Kansas City Royals Late-Inning Comeback Theater. It was the definitive “oh-no” moment in a three-run inning that has a chance to haunt the Mets all winter. And as hard as Murphy’s teammates tried to hide the goat horns, the man who committed this crushing error seemed to understand it was his fate to wear them, like it or not.
“I just misplayed it. It went under my glove. They made us pay for it. I put us in a really bad spot. And that’s frustrating.”
Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy
When the clubhouse doors opened afterward, he was the first face within view, standing at his locker, ready for the onslaught. Then he answered those questions, one after another. Flicking away the softballs that gave him a chance to dodge the blame. Rising up to take responsibility for a game that couldn’t get away but did.
“I just misplayed it,” Murphy said. “It went under my glove. They made us pay for it. I put us in a really bad spot. And that’s frustrating.”
He tried to one-hand it when he should have used two hands, he said. He rushed when he probably had enough time to not have to, he said.
It was obvious he’d been thinking about all of this since the moment that E-4 flashed on the scoreboard. It was clear he’d concluded he’d messed up this play just about every way it was possible to mess it up. What was most striking, though, was how little interest he had in rationalizations or alibis.
He was asked at one point if he’d been distracted by the runner crossing in front of him.
“I didn’t make the play,” he said, emphatically.
He was asked at another point if that was a play he makes nine times out of 10.
“I didn’t make it the only time that counts,” he said, simply.
He handled it all in a way you’d expect players like this to handle it, but many often don’t. So if you’re into awarding points for professionalism, Murphy deserves all the points on your scorecard.
But he knows and we know the way the world works. And all the stand-up quotes on earth aren’t going to convince people to forget this moment. So it was up to his teammates to suggest why they should.
“Well,” David Wright said, “you can look at the hundred home runs he’s hit in the last couple of weeks.”
Oh yeah. Them. Would the Mets even be playing right now if this man hadn’t decided to hit a home run pretty much every night, over an unprecedented six-game stretch of this postseason? We doubt it.
“Without him,” Michael Cuddyer said, “we wouldn’t be here.”
But life sure is lovely when the baseballs are sailing over distant fences and the crowd roars. When the baseballs dribble under gloves and World Series games skip away along with them, though, the band stops playing and the memories turn into nightmares.
And that’s where Murphy finds himself today, praying that there will be another shot to fix this. With a big hit. With a long ball. Even with a flash of leather.
Sunday brings another game. And “hopefully, we’ll make the plays,” he said, “starting with me.”
He was the first player to make an error that let in the tying run this late in a World Series game since Manny Ramirez flubbed a Larry Walker fly ball in the eighth inning of Game 1 in 2004. And he was the first infielder to do that since Carlos Baerga couldn’t come up with a David Justice ground ball in the eighth inning of Game 3 of the 1997 World Series.
But there was one big difference between Daniel Murphy’s error and those two errors. Ramirez and Baerga were lucky. Their teams came back to win both of those games. So those critical mistakes faded to black. And only research projects by knuckleheads like us bring them back to life at times like this.
For the Mets, though, the ninth-inning comeback on this night fell short. The pain of this loss wouldn’t fade. And Murphy’s E-4 felt like the kind of play that had a chance to live on, not just through the night but through the lore of Mets October heartbreak.
“Daniel Murphy didn’t lose us this game,” Wright would say later, over and over and over again. “This was a collective team loss. There were dozens of things we could have done better to win this game.”
But would anyone remember those things when they had a video playing in their head of that ground ball that hip-hopped under Daniel Murphy’s glove? Good luck on that. Memories get selective this time of year. Funny how that works.
“Obviously, this is tough,” Cuddyer said. “But I think anybody that’s been following us knows how huge he’s been for us. And obviously, the country knows how huge he’s been for us. So if you have selective memory on Daniel Murphy, shame on you.”
But if Murphy’s teammates really want the world to forget this moment and remember the good times, words won’t do it. Only winning can save them now. And if they’re looking for inspiration, how about this:
Before they came along, no team had lost two leads, in the eighth inning or later, in the same World Series since Byung-Hyun Kim started serving up late-night gopherballs for those Arizona Diamondbacks in Yankee Stadium in 2001. But there’s a good reason those long balls didn’t turn into the signature moment of that World Series. Luis Gonzalez and Mariano Rivera could tell you all about it.
So there’s still time for the Mets and their second baseman to figure out a way to do what that team did. There are still more games to play, so there are still three more games they have a chance to win. So there’s still a chance folks will remember that once upon a time, Daniel Murphy was playing the role of Reggie Jackson in this production, not William J. Buckner. And then it will be those majestic home runs that will be sailing in the memory banks forever.
“Yeah, hopefully, we’ll come back and win this thing,” Michael Cuddyer said. “And when the DVD comes out, they can see that.”