PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- A 75-foot expanse separates two buildings on the campus of Jacksonville University, buildings that serve two decidedly different needs of the student body. One is the library; the other the Davis Building, where students congregate, socialize and learn lessons outside of books. Daniel Murphy wasn't particularly drawn to either in his time as a Jacksonville undergraduate. It's when he passed from one to the other that he felt an attraction, one that often prompted a detour and the collegiate equivalent of hooky.

Off in the distance, between the library and the Davis Building, the batting cage was visible.

There was Murphy's lab. The cage was where he experimented with his stance, his stride, his swing, his trigger, how to hold his hands, his head and his elbows and the 1,001 other components of hitting. The cage was where he fed his obsession, found his joy and shaped his future. The cage was where he went when he had nowhere else to go -- and when he did have someplace else to be.

"I missed some classes," Murphy said. "Only two or three a week. ... Better say two; my mother might read this."

At the time, it seemed like a balanced arrangement -- cut a class, take some cuts. Either way, Murphy was preparing for his future. He was in the cage like Larry Bird was in the gym, like Michael Phelps was in the pool, like A-Rod is in the news. No visible tether existed. But leaving was difficult.

"Once you skip one class," he said, "it's easier to miss a second one."

It was a joy, almost therapeutic. The collision of a baseball and a baseball bat, even in a mostly silent, somewhat sterile setting, thrilled him.


"The more at-bats that young man gets, the better off we're going to be."
-- Mets manager Jerry
Manuel, on Daniel Murphy

"I just like the way it feels when you make good contact," Murphy said.

He likes the sound of it, the sight of it and the sensation in his hands and arms.

"When you hit it perfectly," Murphy said, "you don't feel a thing."

He likes that, too.

And when Murphy became a professional, another of his senses was included in the experience.

"That's when I learned you could smell the burn of the ball on the bat," he said. "I didn't know what that was. Now I like it."

It should not come as a surprise then, that when someone in the Mets' clubhouse is searching for Daniel Murphy these days, the only suggestion he hears is, "Try the cage."

"If he's not there, we get the cops on it," Ryan Church said. "He's been kidnapped."

The APB that would follow would include this description: White male, 23, 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, dark hair. Last seen wearing jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt -- maybe a Lacoste golf shirt -- and carrying a bat.

"He'll have to have it surgically removed," J.J. Putz said. "If they'd let him take to it to the outfield, he probably would."

Murphy will be in the Mets' outfield this year -- presumably without his bat -- because of it. Jerry Manuel's lineup card will show Murphy's defensive assignment as left field. But his position is hitter. Always has been and will be. He works at his defense as conscientiously as anyone at Mets camp. But whatever marks Murphy makes in this game will be carved into white ash or maple, not burned into leather.

With a mere 131 big league at-bats -- one more than the maximum to retain status as a rookie -- he finds himself prominently placed in the Mets' plans for 2009. His swing, his batting acumen and his attitude put him there last August, when his Minor League at-bats totaled fewer than 1,000 -- David Wright had 1,419 -- and before his time as a professional equaled his time at Jacksonville.

"There's a difference between being rushed and being challenged," Manuel said late last summer. "We haven't rushed him."

Soon after Murphy was promoted --his first game was Aug. 2 -- Manuel detected an attribute he admired, one that had fueled his uncommonly fast ascent through the Mets' system.

"He didn't flinch," Manuel said last month. "You don't look for that necessarily in a young player. It's normal to wonder if you belong. But you notice it when it's there. He came in here, didn't say a word, but the way he went about his business, you could tell he was thinking, 'OK, what's the big deal?' We brought him up because we thought he could hit up here. He expected to hit, and he did."

Murphy hit -- a .313 batting average, .397 on-base average with 14 extra-base hits and 17 RBIs. He took all the batting practice his rookie status would allow him. And he may have led the league, not only the rookies, in questions.

"He wants to know everything there is," Wright said. "I love that."

Carlos Delgado was the primary witness for the offense. Murphy calls him "the smartest hitter I've ever seen" and picks at Delgado's brain whenever he can, storing it all in his own portable library.

"You can tell by his questions that he's more sophisticated than a lot of guys his age," hitting coach Howard Johnson said. "Jerry wants intelligent at-bats. He'll get them from [Murphy]."

So taken was Manuel with Murphy that, in the first weeks of Spring Training, the manager abandoned the plan that had served as the spine of the club's offseason personnel maneuvering for position players: Murphy, the left-handed hitter, and right-handed-hitting Fernando Tatis would share left field in the best kind of platoon -- with the younger player getting the majority of the at-bats. But Manuel decided the majority wouldn't suffice. "The more at-bats that young man gets, the better off we're going to be," Manuel said.

Tatis is now an all-purpose understudy.

Manuel likes Murphy's swing and his production, no matter how small the sampling last summer provided. What distinguishes Murphy more in his manager's eyes is his conscientiousness in the box and his contentious at-bats.

"There's a maturity in his game that Jerry likes a lot," Johnson said. "He recognizes the situation, knows what's called for and he tries to provide it. Jerry likes to see that."

Murphy has the plate discipline of a more seasoned player and a sense of the strike zone that plays well with Manuel's plans for a more piecemeal, more consistent offense. More pitches seen, more contact, more hits, more extra-base hits, fewer home runs, more baserunners -- more runs. That strategy ought to work in any park. The Mets' new park, Citi Field, with its taller walls, may be more conducive than most parks to that kind of game.

Some folks already have characterized it as a "pitcher's park," because of the dimensions.

"I hope not," Murphy said.

Johnson senses Murphy would fare well in any other park. The marriage of hitting skills, hitting savvy and batting-cage obsession ought to produce what Manuel seeks.

"He's going to be successful, yes," the coach said. As long as the way he produces is accepted. People have to understand what we want from him -- a .310 average, walks, good at-bats against left-handed pitching. He's going to be important to our offense if he gives us what Jerry wants."