Gardner, Murphy aim to excel in hot spot

NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees' center fielder is 5 feet, 10 inches and 185 pounds worth of former college walk-on, forever driven to prove people wrong. He plays the game with the exuberance of Bo Obama frolicking on the White House lawn.

The Mets' left fielder, in contrast, plays with a maturity that belies his youth. He's deliberate and analytical in his approach to all things baseball. Like Winston Wolfe, the cold-blooded crisis manager in "Pulp Fiction," he solves problems.

Brett Gardner, 25, and Daniel Murphy, 24, aren't the only young players trying to prove they belong in the majors this spring. But they face distinct challenges establishing themselves in a market where mistakes are magnified, warts are readily exposed, and instant gratification is a way of life.

Befitting its reputation as the city that never sleeps, New York is also the city that never stops paying attention.

For every Derek Jeter or David Wright who embraces the scrutiny as a rookie, there's a corresponding Gregg Jefferies whose helmet-throwing escapades make him a favorite target of the tabloids, or Jose Reyes, whose lack of plate discipline sets off alarm bells when he's 21 years old. And that's not even counting the Ruben Riveras and Alex Escobars, who fail to live up to the hype because of lack of talent or too many injuries.

"Anytime you have that type of exposure, people see some things they wouldn't normally see," said Mets manager Jerry Manuel. "That's a good thing, because it builds character. If you have a little adversity, you see if a guy is ready for this level or not. I think New York is the perfect stage to evaluate championship-type people."

Time and plate appearances will tell whether Murphy and Gardner are complementary pieces, solid regulars or something more. But they'll have ample opportunity to succeed or fail on the biggest stage of all.

Murphy, anointed the Mets' regular left fielder before spring training, is hitting .319 out of the No. 2 spot in the order. Gardner, who beat out Melky Cabrera for the starting job in spring training, is playing center field across the street from where Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Bernie Williams made their names. He's too busy chasing down balls in the gaps to stop and pinch himself.

"Maybe one day I will, but right now this is where I feel like I belong," Gardner said. "I feel comfortable here. This feels like home."

Gardner's new home is a long way -- geographically and stylistically -- from his roots in Holly Hill, S.C., a town of roughly 1,300 located in the heart of the state. As Gardner describes it, Holly Hill has two stoplights, a few fast food restaurants and a killer barbecue joint called Sweatman's that's so packed on Fridays and Saturdays the owners can afford to stay closed the other five days of the week.

Any list of celebrities with ties to Holly Hill is likely to focus on Gardner, Willie Randolph and Eddie Sweat, the groom for legendary Triple Crown winner Secretariat.

Randolph, the former All-Star second baseman and Mets manager and currently Milwaukee's bench coach, was serving as grand marshal in the Holly Hill Thanksgiving Day parade in the mid-1990s when the lead float was trailed by a bunch of local Little Leaguers. Among the kids who later mobbed him for an autograph was little Brett Gardner.

Brian Cashman He's been an overachiever his whole career. He's been told, 'He can't do, he can't do, he can't do,' and so far he continues to do. Until he runs into a brick wall, his career has been defined as 'I will not be denied.'

-- Yankees GM Brian Cashman on Gardner

Randolph has since become friends with Gardner's father, Jerry, a former minor league outfielder with the Phillies who now raises soybeans, wheat and corn on a farm in Holly Hill, so he knows that Gardner comes from hearty stock.

"I'm rooting for him, not just because he's a home boy," Randolph said. "He's a great kid, and I see him as someone who could really hold that gig down for a long time. He kind of exemplifies what the Yankees are all about with his grit and the way he plays. He's just a real down-to-earth, down-home kind of kid."

Gardner was a walk-on at the College of Charleston, where he hit .447 as a senior to convince the Yankees to draft him in the third round. He received the nickname "Squirrel" from a teammate who said that Gardner reminded him of an old high school buddy. To Gardner's relief, the name hasn't picked up any steam in New York.

In his climb through the minors, Gardner stood out for his speed and base-stealing acumen. In spring training, Yankees teammate Nick Swisher called him "the fastest white dude I've ever seen."

The bat remains Gardner's most questionable tool, but he's made progress with the help of Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long. Now that they've taken the stride out of his swing, Gardner's timing is better and he's able to let the ball travel deeper in the zone and use the entire field.

"If it weren't for Kevin Long, I wouldn't be here right now," Gardner said. "I would still be in Triple-A still trying to figure out how to hit."

Gardner posted a .389 on-base percentage and a .385 slugging percentage in four minor league seasons, but he's showing signs he might be ready to amend his reputation as a slap hitter. In a recent win at Tampa Bay, he hit an opposite-field double over Carl Crawford's head in left and a double over B.J. Upton's head in center in consecutive at-bats. And once the ball finds a landing place, he'll run all day long.

Some of general manager Brian Cashman's people think Gardner will eventually settle in as a fourth outfielder with the Yankees. But just as many swear that he'll make himself into a center-field regular for years to come.

"He's been an overachiever his whole career," Cashman said. "He's been told, 'He can't do, he can't do, he can't do,' and so far he continues to do. Until he runs into a brick wall, his career has been defined as 'I will not be denied.'"

While Gardner is still classified as a rookie this season, Murphy exhausted his eligibility last year when he hit .313 in 131 at-bats with the Mets. Murphy singled off Roy Oswalt in his first at-bat, and came out of the dugout for a curtain call after hitting his first big league homer off Florida's Renyel Pinto. Not bad for a former 13th-round draft pick out of Jacksonville University.

When Murphy isn't talking about hitting, he's on the bench studying pitchers or in the video room watching tape. When he's not watching tape, he's chronicling his at-bats in a notebook -- a la teammate Carlos Delgado. And when he's not scribbling down his thoughts for future reference, he's getting positive reinforcement over the CD player in his car.

When Murphy was in the minors, teammate Nick Evans gave him an instructional CD by Steve Springer, a former Mets minor leaguer who's now a scout for the Toronto Blue Jays. Murphy spent so many hours playing and replaying the CD that he can practically recite its tenets by heart.

Before reliever J.J. Putz came to New York from Seattle, he thought Raul Ibanez was the most hitting-obsessed player he'd ever seen. Then he met Murphy.

"The guy sweats hitting," Putz said. "It's his whole life -- seriously. He probably sleeps with his bats. It wouldn't surprise me at all."

Some other facets of Murphy's game are in need of refinement. He was primarily a third baseman in the minors, and now he's trying to embrace the nuances of left field with no margin for error -- or errors. After Murphy dropped a Cody Ross fly ball in a recent 2-1 loss to the Marlins, pitcher Johan Santana pointedly observed that the misplay cost the Mets the game. The New York Post and New York Daily News ran dueling "Murphy's Flaw" headlines the following day.

Murphy, to his credit, took a little extra time in the shower to collect his thoughts, waited for the media to arrive at his locker and owned up to the mistake with no excuses. Although Murphy has received guidance from David Wright in preparation for the scrutiny he will face in New York, accountability was an organizational mantra when he was working his way through the Mets' minor league system.

"If you're going to field questions when you go 4-for-4 with a bomb, you better be at your locker when things don't go the way you want," Murphy said.

If effort can overcome a lack of grace in the outfield, Murphy will figure it out eventually. Even though Murphy bats from the left side, he reminds Manuel of a certain switch-hitter known as the Hit King.

"I didn't know Pete Rose or have a personal relationship with him, but I watched how he played, and Murphy plays that way," Manuel said. "He runs the bases hard. He plays the outfield hard. Every pitch is a grind."

Through two weeks, Murphy is seeing an average of 4.52 pitches per plate appearance -- seventh most in the majors -- so he's showing he can work a count and manage an at-bat. He's also self-aware enough to recognize the shortcomings in his game and focus on what he needs to do to compensate.

Jerry Manuel I didn't know Pete Rose or have a personal relationship with him, but I watched how he played, and Murphy plays that way. He runs the bases hard. He plays the outfield hard. Every pitch is a grind.

-- Mets manager Jerry Manuel

"I don't hit the ball 500 feet, I don't have a great arm and I'm still getting better on defense," Murphy said, "so I have to play hard. When I'm done playing, hopefully the fans will say, 'He played the game the right way every day. He backed up every base. He ran out every ball. He busted up every double play.' That's all I can ask for."

Ultimately, Murphy will have to develop more power to show that he can be an elite corner outfielder. If not, he might be looking at a nice, productive, Hal Morris-Frank Catalanotto type of career.

Cashman has called Gardner a Juan Pierre who can walk, but Gardner will have to post an OBP at least in the .340 to .350 range to prove he's more than an extra outfielder.

He's not about to get caught up in the expectations game. Gardner and his wife, Jessica, welcomed a baby boy, Hunter, in November, and they're living in New Jersey, where the family golden retriever has plenty of space to roam. Once the season ends, Gardner will leave the Manhattan skyline behind and return home to South Carolina, where hunting and fishing are his main offseason diversions.

In the meantime, the pride of Holly Hill will make do with a locker in the Bronx.

"People ask me, 'How crazy has it been?'" Gardner said. "I've never been with another organization, so this is what I'm used to. I'm used to going to spring training and my locker is right next to Alex Rodriguez or Robbie Cano. It's a circus at times here, but I like it. I don't know any different, so to me, this is just normal."

Normal enough that he just might stick around awhile.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.