PEORIA, Ariz. – Smiling and looking every bit as comfortable wearing a San Diego Padres cap and T-shirt as he once did in Arizona State Sun Devils garb, it is immediately obvious that Pat Murphy and his current surroundings are as compatible as a bat and a ball.
Murphy is at MLB Cactus League spring training this month, beginning his fifth year working in the Padres organization. He spent his first year (2010) with the club as a special assistant to baseball operations and then the next two (2011-12) as the manager of the Eugene Emeralds in the Class A Northwest League. His two Eugene teams finished a combined 93-47.
Last season, Murphy was promoted to be the skipper of the Triple-A Tucson Padres in the Pacific Coast League. He remains in that position this season although the Padres PCL affiliate has moved to El Paso and will be known as the El Paso Chihuahuas. Tucson finished 77-67 in Murphy’s first season as manager but missed the PCL playoffs.
“I’ve learned so much,” he said Thursday morning while sitting just outside the Padres’ clubhouse at the Peoria Sports Complex, their Cactus League home. “It’s a transition that isn’t made very often, going from college to the pros after 28 years of college (coaching), but it’s been a good one. It’s really opened my horizons and taught me a lot; I’ve learned so much.”
Most baseball fans know Murphy from his more than 30 years playing and coaching at the collegiate level. He pitched at Florida Atlantic University, played four years in the minor leagues and held coaching jobs at several schools – including FAU – before being hired at Notre Dame ahead of the 1988 season. He led the Fighting Irish to a 318-116-1 record and three NCAA Regional appearances (1992-94) before becoming head coach at Arizona State in 1995.
In 15 seasons at ASU, Murphy won four Pacific-10 Conference titles (2000, 2007-09) and during one stretch led the Sun Devils to nine straight NCAA postseason berths and 11 out of 12, and to College World Series appearances in 1998, 2005, 2007 and 2009. His record at ASU was 629-284-1.
“I miss the college game a lot; there are a lot of parts to it that I really miss,” Murphy said Thursday. “It’s playoff baseball every day, that pressure-packed environment of the (NCAA Division I) super regional or the regional – that’s a rush that few can experience and the few that do never forget it. The college game is changing but I keep up with it.”
That long of tenure has brought one unexpected consequence. After years of coaching and recruiting on the collegiate level and now encountering hundreds of players at the professional level who knew Murphy as a college coach, the players aren’t sure how to address him.
“I’m the only manager out there where 50 percent of the players still call me ‘Coach’,” he said. “They knew me then and I can’t tell you how many times a day somebody comes up to me and says, ‘Hey Coach, Hey Coach’, and that’s a no-no here in pro ball.”
Arizona State honored Murphy last month as part of a season-long salute to ASU’s Packard Stadium, which is being used for a final time this season.
MURPHY IS IN THE PRO GAME NOW AND HAS ADJUSTED ACCORDINGLY. At the Triple-A level, he is dealing with veteran professionals who may have already made their big-league debuts only to be sent back down, as well as with the up-and-comers, the college-age prospects looking for their shot at The Show.
“Triple-A is a real fun place because anything can happen,” he said. “You have to be there to know that the only ‘W’ that matters is in the big leagues. Even though we had a good season (in 2013) and I’ve gotten all this attention because all of the teams that I’ve managed so far have done really well, it isn’t about that. It’s about the culture you create and it’s about the environment and helping the big league club win.”
As an illustration, Murphy imagined a situation in which a pitcher who was scheduled to be his starter on a particular night doesn’t get the start because the big league club has called and indicated they are going to need that arm in the next few days and it better be fresh. Dealing with a revolving roster is one of the biggest challenges a Triple-A manager faces.
“I guess it’s part of the job, but it doesn’t bother me,” Murphy said. “I like the new faces and I like to see guys get a chance to go to the big leagues, and it’s a real thrill to tell guys they’re going to the big leagues. Again, this isn’t about our ‘Ws’, this is about the big leagues.”
While Murphy previously coached at the collegiate level and is now managing on the professional level, he always has and always will keep his thumb on the pulse of the youth levels of amateur baseball. Part of that is because the college recruiter in him will never die but an even bigger part is that he has a 13-year-old son, Kai, who is just beginning the journey.
“I think it’s the healthiest it’s ever been,” he said when asked about the status of youth baseball across the country. “Kids are getting better, kids are seeing the process, and they understand what they need to do in order to get to the next level. So, yeah, I think it’s the healthiest it’s ever been.
“Those showcases and things like that are giving kids exposure that they would have never had,” he continued, “it’s making college coaches’ jobs easier and it’s educating the parents and the kids about the process; it’s helping high school coaches get their kids exposed.”
Murphy founded his own travel ball organization about 10 years ago called Sandlot Baseball. It started out as a small group gathering in his backyard in Tempe and now has grown to nine teams. Kai Murphy, a 4-foot-11, 100-pound left-handed pitcher, got his first taste of upper-level tournament play when he took part in the Perfect Game 12u All-American Championship in San Diego in August, playing with the Sandlot All-Stars Black. Murphy might rank as one of PG’s biggest fans.
“Perfect Game has provided coaches, players, parents and even fans just an unbelievable opportunity,” he said. “Perfect Game has that reputation that they’re trusted – their information is trusted, their showcases are trusted and it’s not a money making scheme. It’s a good business model, I’m sure, but it’s about the kids, it’s about the players, and I think that’s what makes it special.”
AS BOTH PADRES’ MAJOR LEAGUERS AND MINOR LEAGUERS walked in and out of their respective clubhouses at the Peoria Sports Complex Thursday morning, Murphy took stock of the season that lies ahead, contemplating any adjustments he might have to make to his managing style.
“You change every year,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m totally different, but if you’re trying to be great at this you’re changing every year. It’s not because (the players) are professional, it’s just because they’re a little more mature and little bit older. The way the system’s structured, they’re a little more independent, so you have to treat them as adults and demand respect and you’ve got to respect them the same way. It’s a process and communication is the key.”
Murphy and the Padres’ Triple-A staff is here because the players who will fill the Triple-A roster when the season begins are here.
“Spring training is helping these guys get on track helping them get going, helping them get in their best self,” said Murphy, who helps Padres manager Buddy Black and the big league staff any way he can. “Buddy is unbelievable to work with; he’s one of the best I’ve ever been around in sports.”
After managing in the minor leagues for three seasons, Murphy has come to realize that the professional players under his direction have a lot in common with the college guys he coached previously.
“These players, they’re still dying to learn,” Murphy said. “There are little things that can go on that can tweak their swing or tweak their mechanics, and mostly tweak their mental approach to get them back on track to where they need to be.”
THERE IS ALWAYS A “NEXT LEVEL” IN BASEBALL. High school prospects play for college scholarships, college prospects play for the opportunity to get drafted, minor league prospects hope to climb the ladder to the majors and big-leaguers work for All-Star status or coveted MVP and Cy Young awards.
While at Arizona State, Murphy had 143 players selected in the MLB June amateur draft and 27 go on to play in the major leagues. There were numerous first-round picks among those elite 143 but, he said, he got more satisfaction when one of his Sun Devils was drafted who never in their wildest dreams expected to be.
He gets the same sort of satisfaction from calling a Triple-A prospect into his office and telling him to pack his bags. The Big Club just called and you need to get on an airplane pronto.
“It’s the biggest thrill you have, to see these kids realize that they can (make it to the big leagues),” Murphy said. “Some of them don’t get the chance, but to realize they can, and realize they’re good enough, and realize there is something that I might not have believed I could do but now I can do. Telling a kid he’s going to the big leagues is a fun thing; I feel very grateful that I get this opportunity to do that.”
The Padres gave Murphy the chance to join the team the last three weeks of the 2013 regular season, and he soaked up his experiences being in a major league dugout. Murphy’s son-in-law is Pedro Alvarez, a veteran of five PG events in 2004-05 and the Pittsburg Pirates’ All-Star and Silver Slugger Award winning third baseman.
“I got to be with the Padres as a coach and we traveled to Pittsburgh at the end of the (2013) season,” Murphy said, smiling at the recollection. “That was pretty neat being across the field from him in the other dugout.”
So, does Murphy aspire to one day have a full-time job in a major league dugout?
“We’ll see. I don’t know,” he said, a smile crossing his face. “I think I can, I definitely think I can do it but I’ve got a lot to learn.”
In the meantime, Murphy is only grateful to be where he’s at.
“It’s been great; it’s been like a new beginning for me,” he said. “The people in the Padres organization, I’ve got to tell you, they’re special. They have special people around here that enable you to do your job and enable you to express yourself in your own way.”