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Survive enough days, make enough reasonable decisions, care enough, and one of those days you begin to see yourself in your children’s eyes. If you’re very lucky at the end of all that, you’ll like what you see. Or maybe not hate it entirely.
Pat Murphy is 55. He’s survived his share of days, many of which he is proud of, some of which he’d maybe take another shot at, given the opportunity. He’s cared plenty.
He has a daughter and a son. And these are those days.
Five years ago, Murphy resigned as baseball coach at Arizona State, after 15 seasons and 629 wins. There was drama. A lot of drama. Before that, he won 318 games in seven seasons at Notre Dame.
When he was no longer a college coach, he took employment with the San Diego Padres, managed two seasons in the Northwest League and the last two in the Pacific Coast League. He’s still winning. He’s still making good ballplayers better ones. He is big-league manager material, though nobody’s talking about that yet.
The man on the other end of the phone line would rather talk about his girl Keli, who’s 28 and teaches yoga to the ladies at the Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, who is kind and giving. And Kai, his 14-year-old, an old soul and a ballplayer himself. It’s been just Pat and Kai for years now – in Tempe, Ariz., and Eugene, Ore., and Tucson, Ariz., and El Paso, Texas – and big ol’ Pat, all shoulders and block chin and ball coach, has a little something catch in his throat when he’s talking about Kai.
“He thinks I can do anything, I guess,” Pat said, his voice thinning. “Our times together, my relationship with Kai, yeah … it’s hard to talk about. I just want him to get the pieces of me, the perspective of, ‘It’s what you give that matters. Not just aimlessly giving. The true giving.’ I think he has that. And I think he just wants me to be dad. He loves wherever we are. How about that?”
Maybe he’s thinking of Keli and Kai when he’s asked what he wants, now that he’s 55 and he sees himself in their eyes, now that he’s chased all those wins and gotten so many of them, now that he can’t be sure what’s next.
“I guess you aspire to be wise someday,” he said. “I’d like to be wise.”
Then he laughed, mostly to himself.
“The truth is, man, I screwed up as much as I got it right,” he said. “Sometimes you can only fight to a draw. But you still feel good about the fight.”
Pat Murphy is under contract for another season, which perhaps means another year with Triple-A El Paso. It’s hard to say, really. The Padres have a new general manager and that usually means change, sometimes because change is required and sometimes because there are new ideas to tend to, or debts to pay.
Murphy loves his job. And while college coaches and professional coaches generally, for some reason, stay in their lanes, Murphy never much cared for lanes. Coaching ball is coaching ball. Building trust is building trust. Leading is leading. A win’s a win. Hell, those are lanes.
Only the cars in the parking lot change.
So along comes Murphy, whose reputation at ASU was on the blustery, rigid, unapologetically ferocious side, into a game in which the authority is a signing bonus, a list of prospects and the vision of a young man five or six years down the line. The wins are more subtle. Maybe, for Murphy, subtle was going to take some getting used to. Maybe, subtle was where he was headed anyway.
“Murph was awesome,” said Padres reliever Kevin Quackenbush, who played for Murphy at short-season Class A Eugene and El Paso. “An unbelievable manager and an unbelievable guy to be around. Everybody wanted to play baseball for him. He taught winning baseball.”
Adam Moore was the regular catcher for the El Paso Chihuahuas.
“That’s what I remembered him as, all that stuff that happened at ASU,” he said. “I get to spring training and found he’s a great man. He’s been through hell and back, and now he’s back to being the Pat Murphy a lot of people had known and respected. Good man, good manager, good father.”
Veteran Blaine Boyer, who pitched for years in Atlanta, for a short time in St. Louis, and now for the Padres, spent a decent amount of time this summer in El Paso. Bobby Cox, he said, was the grandfatherly type you didn’t want to let down. Tony La Russa, he said, made you feel like you played for “the only team in the world.”
“I played for some bad managers, too,” Boyer said. “And I would put Murph up there with La Russa and Bobby and Bud Black. He has that ‘it’ factor. You can’t help but play for him. You can’t help but play real hard for him.”
Jason Lane was on his own journey, from big-league outfielder to minor-league pitcher. Once, a long time ago, while at USC, he’d played Murphy’s ASU teams regularly. One year, he hit a grand slam and was the winning pitcher against ASU. That was in the 1998 national championship game. He’d look across the diamond at those ASU teams and at Murphy and, he said, “He seemed very intense.” Fifteen years later the Padres signed Lane, and Lane looked to see who his manager would be, and he saw the name and thought, “Whoa.”
So Lane walks into a hotel lobby in Tacoma, Wash., and there’s a voice from across the room.
“Oh geez, I quit,” the voice boomed. “They’re sending us Trojans now.”
Lane turned and Murphy was smiling at him.
“This,” Lane thought, “is going to be fun.”
And so it was.
When it came time for him to make his first big-league start – a late July game in Atlanta – and he was suffering from an unusual bout of anxiety, Lane went to Murphy.
“He sat me down,” Lane said. “And he said, ‘Hey man, you’re going to do this, and you’re going to do that, this is what you do.’ He just talked me right through it. It was exactly what I needed.”
The start ended after six innings and one run allowed, and the first text on his phone was from Murphy. He’d followed every pitch. He’d praised his execution of those pitches. He’d said he was proud of him.
“I absolutely believe he can be a big-league manager,” Lane said. “He has this ability to relate to players, get them pulling in the right direction. He’s as good a man as I’ve seen in this game.”
It would be an odd path, for certain. Murphy’s been on a few of those, though. He helped clear some. So he doesn’t know what’s next. That’s OK. He’s lost some good friends recently – Harvey Dorfman, Bob Welch, Rick Majerus – and he’s made some good friends recently. The lesson, then, is what’s next is not nearly as important as what’s now, and what’s now is a young man named Kai, who’s becoming a darned good ballplayer and a heckuva man.
“What can I learn?” Murphy repeated. “Who am I? What am I? Who I really am, I guess. I’m not super bright. I don’t think I’m super good, to be honest. I just know I have a passion and I’m not afraid.”
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