By Sean Gregory
October 23, 2015

No one in baseball saw it coming. New York Mets infielder Daniel Murphy, who hit 14 home runs in the regular season, has smacked seven in the playoffs, carrying his team to their first World Series in 15 years. But if you look back two decades, there were signs that he had something special in him. You just had to squint to find them.

Back in the mid-1990s, Anton Dawson was assistant coach for the Southside Youth Athletic Association, an elite little league team in Jacksonville, Florida. During tournaments, he strategically deployed a pre-teenage Murphy, who was smaller than his teammates but outworked them all. “He was my chicken fight partner,” says Dawson. Back at the hotel pool between games, Murphy was the kid you wanted on your shoulders, tossing other 10-year-olds into chlorine. He was slight but scrappy. “Daniel was pretty much the runt of the litter at the time,” says Dawson, an operations manager for a financial firm in Jacksonville.

When Murphy’s Little League coaches are asked to recall a man who has slugged a home run in six consecutive postseason games, a new major league record, they talk about his size. More pointedly, his lack of it. They don’t remember Murphy being blessed with overwhelming natural talent. When they sit in front of their television sets and watch Murphy turn in one of the greatest power performances in the history of our national pastime, Murphy’s coaches are just like the rest of us. They can’t explain what they’re seeing. “Yeah, I didn’t exactly know it would end this way,” says Mell Harris, the head coach of those Southside Youth Athletic Association (SYAA) squads — and Dawson’s dad.

Murphy showed some promise in tee ball. Billy Doyle, Murphy’s tee ball coach, remembers Murphy playing second base — his postseason position — in one game. A fly ball sailed towards him; Murphy positioned himself perfectly for the catch. But he looked straight ahead, instead of up towards the ball. Murphy stuck his glove up and squeezed. “He raised his hand down real, real slow” says Doyle. “He was a little thing — then he peaks over the top of his glove, like somebody told him to look at the eggs in a bird’s nest.” Murphy then looked up into the stands. “Mom!” he yelled. “I caught a popper!” Says Doyle: “The crowd went into an uproar.”

After tee ball, Harris nabbed him with a top draft pick. “He could always hit with his eyes,” Harris says. In other words, unlike most kids, Murphy kept his head down and swung through the ball. He rarely struck out. “He would always listen,” says Harris. “You could just look the kid in the eye, and tell he wanted it.” Since Murphy wasn’t graced with great athleticism, he had to work for everything on the field. “If I pitched the ball to him 100 times, he’d want 200,” says Harris. “If I was going to stay out there all night, he’d be right there with me. Unless he had church. I wasn’t looking for him if he had church.”

After a walk sent Murphy from first to second in the deciding game of the National League Division Series, he caught the Dodgers napping: Murphy darted to third before the Dodgers infielders, who had shifted over to the right side of the field during the at-bat, could cover the base. Murphy then scored the game’s tying run on a sacrifice fly (the Mets later scored the winning run on — what else? — a Murphy home run). This move seemed somewhat familiar to Harris. “If there was a fat kid on first, and a fat kid on third, we’d have Daniel put a bunt down,” says Harris. “And then have him keep running to second.”

Harris, who’s now retired after working at the local Anheuser-Busch brewery for 35 years, hasn’t missed a Mets game this postseason. After Murphy hits yet another home run, he shouts the old Little League cheer. “Hey, hey what do you say, SYAA.” During Wednesday night’s Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, which clinched the Mets sweep over the Chicago Cubs, Murphy drove a double to center in the seventh inning, his third hit of the night. But his home run streak was in jeopardy. Harris turned to his wife. “He’s got one more shot,” he said. An inning later, after Murphy made contact, Harris raised his hands. “There it goes,” he shouted, as the ball soared over the center field wall. “Go, go, go.”

It’s a long way from the chicken fights.

Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com.

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