September 10, 2014

ZAKOUR | Fatherhood on Opening Day

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By JOHN ZAKOUR

Some things are more important than sports. As the horrific Ray Rice incident shows, sports can take a backseat. So I thought, for this week, that I would reflect on something positive an athlete did rather than dwelling on Rice.

Maybe you missed it but Daniel Murphy, second basemen for the Mets and all around good player, received hell for his absence on opening day. Murphy was not hurt, nor was he suspended. Instead he was in Florida attending the birth of son, Noah.

Judging by the reaction, you would have thought Murphy had broken one of baseball’s nebulous unwritten rules or something equally sinister. But Murphy simply missed the Mets opener against the Washington Nationals. Nat’s Ace, Stephen Strasburg, was a little shakier than usual and was on the hook for the loss. However, in what would become alarmingly regular fashion, the Mets blew the lead in the ninth.

The typical reactionary headlines concerned how Daniel Murphy was letting down the Mets. It also served as an opportunity to decry the “wimpification” of baseball, as years ago Murphy would assuredly be in Queens manning second base. Mike Francesa laid into Murphy. How could a be man paid so well to do his job, one that requires absolute dedication to his craft, one many would kill to have, up and abandon it? Opening Day means a lot to a Mets team not expected to contend, at least it meant something to the fans and writers. How could Daniel Murphy leave his team for his son’s birth? At the risk of being obvious, he surely did not need to be there. Babies get born with absentee fathers, for a variety of reasons, all the time.

But let’s not question Daniel Murphy’s toughness, fortitude or even manliness. Daniel Murphy missed only one game in the 2013 season, playing in 161 games and playing 155 the year before. He had to learn a new position to stick in the majors, moving from the infield to outfield and back, even though he could always hit major league pitching since his call up. This transition was derailed by a horrific injury caused by an over aggressive slide in the minors. Daniel Murphy is a tough guy. He has negotiated the mental and physical demands of playing baseball everyday successfully, more than most of his critics can ever say.

The reason Murphy was inside a hospital and not a lineup is that there is something greater than baseball. For as often as we say sports are a metaphor for life and how quickly we espouse the benefits of team dynamics, it seems the media missed the boat entirely on Murphy. One of the lessons sports preaches is the greater good, taking one for the team, whether it be firing a pass to an open man or sacrificing to move a teammate over. But we seem hesitant to actually apply these lessons when they interfere with the game itself.

As a fan, for purely selfish reasons, I wanted Murphy to play initially. I always want the Mets to win, and Murphy’s absence certainly hurt the chances of that. But I did not have a problem with Murphy not playing. And with the benefit of retrospect, I am glad he was there to witness his son being born as opposed to Bobby Parnell melting down in the ninth.

Baseball, as much as we like to believe, is not infallible. Especially for Daniel Murphy. Murphy, a good player and one of my favorites as a Mets fan, is not a legend. His baseball career is not the stuff of legends. His craft is not so important that missing opening day (by the way, opening day is just one game out of 162) will collapse the fabric of professional baseball. The Mets offense actually did fairly well minus Murphy and it certainly was not his fault they lost.

If Murphy causes greater good in the world, it will be because of the opportunity provided by baseball, not his baseball play itself. His play alone will not transcend and inspire millions the way Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente or any other giant of the game did. Murphy utilized an opportunity that baseball gave him by speaking at a White House summit about working families in June, specifically working fathers. His greater good lies outside of the diamond.

So what is my point here? I think Daniel Murphy summed it up best, with surprising eloquence, when he said, “When Noah asks me one day, ‘What happened, what was it like when I was born,’ I could have answered, ‘Well, Stephen Strasburg hung me a breaking ball that day, son, and I slammed into the right field corner.’ But I think it is going to go so much further in that I’m the one who cut his umbilical cord. And long after they tell me that I’m not good enough to play professional baseball anymore, I’ll be a father. And I’ll be a husband. So that was a reason, on the front end, that I wanted to be there for my wife and for my son.” There is something more than just hitting a baseball.

Now, I do not think Murphy would have missed game seven of the world series and he did not. It was not about that. It was about being a father over being a ballplayer, not over being a champion. So let’s celebrate a message, not of a weaker and wimpy baseball, but a more sensitive and modern game.

As Daniel Murphy said, it is about being bigger than baseball. It is about being a good father. It is also about breaking a barrier (a rare barrier for a white male), so when other guys have to face the same decision, they can follow Daniel Murphy’s example. Even though we love to say it, while never actually meaning it, there are things more important than winning.

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