Tough Coach

Another winning season ends for Pat Murphy and his baseball team. Now, it's ASU management's turn at bat

His mother died in January at the age of 88.

He won an ugly court battle with his second ex-wife over custody of their 5-year-old son Kai.

His fiance Francheska's father, with whom Murphy had become close during his last months, also died.

Late last year, Francheska moved into Murphy's lovely ranch-style home off College Avenue in Tempe, just a mile or so from ASU's ballpark.

Murphy had been living there with Kai and his daughter Keli, a 20-year-old from a previous relationship who attends ASU, helps her dad at the baseball office, and is an aspiring actress.

Professionally, there were other special challenges.

The coach fired his top assistant coach and friend Jay Sferra in midseason after an ongoing dispute over the reduced playing time of Sferra's son J.J.

J.J. was a diminutive center fielder who'd spent years in the Devils' dugout as batboy before earning a scholarship at the school.

The coach later put J.J. -- the starting center fielder for much of his season and a half as a Sun Devil -- on the inactive list. Murphy insists he made the move for the good of the team and for J.J., who seemed deflated after his dad was ushered out of the program.

"When things come to a head, there's just no way out," Murphy says of Coach Sferra's departure. "It was just hard for Jay to separate what was best for the program as a coach and what he wants for his son [J.J.]. It was tricky. Jay handled it professionally."

Jay Sferra didn't respond to a request for his side of things. But he told the Ahwatukee Foothills News in 2005 about adjustments J.J. was trying to make after coming to ASU from Mountain Pointe High School.

"Things are much more complex and complicated than the normal pressure, and the normal pressure is huge," he said presciently of his son, an All-State player at Mountain Pointe.

Some college baseball pundits had predicted this was going to be the year Pat Murphy finally tasted what he'd been dishing out for so long: a losing season.

Most important, the Sun Devils lost six key players in the pro baseball draft after last season. The pitching staff was decimated, including the loss of two guys, Erik Averill and Jason Urquides, who'd combined for half of the team's 42 wins.

On top of that, ASU's early-season schedule was loaded with land mines.

Murphy was forced to field an inexperienced team, with true freshmen Ike Davis (who would become the league's rookie of the year), Petey Paramore and Brett Wallace thrust into immediate starting roles, as well as having to remold his pitching staff.

"This isn't Murph's most talented team," Bob Welch said last week, before ASU flew to Houston for the regional. "But the son of a bitch gets them to do things they've never done before, even with all the pressure on ASU baseball to be special every year."

Going into the season, Murphy did have an established closer in Zechry Zinicola. The junior from San Bernardino, California, ranks third in school history in saves, and had been mentioned as a potential All-American.

But his poor academic performance and other off-the-field woes led Murphy to suspend Zinicola for five games in mid-April.

This wasn't a case of a coach making an example out of a scrub, nor was Zinicola officially ineligible to play.

"You think [head football coach] Dirk Koetter would have the balls to bench one of his star players?" asks Mike Moreno, Murphy's regular center fielder from 1996 to 1998 before playing professionally for a few years.

"Murph's job is to win ball games, but he really does put other things ahead of that. He doesn't conform to other people and the conventional ways. He always reminded us, 'You're real close to greatness and real close to being putrid.'"

Moreno, a 29-year-old who now teaches and coaches baseball at Florence High School, says he was "keenly aware I could be benched at any time. He'd tell me, 'Be grateful you have a fuckin' locker. You're not bigger than the program.' Best coach I ever had."

Despite the obstacles this season, ASU's scrappy squad slowly turned into something notable. It did so without a pitching ace and with a defense that remained rickety through the final game against Baylor.

Murphy's answer to the awkward departure of J.J. Sferra was to recall Michael Jones, a 19-year-old freshman from Sugar Land, Texas. At the time, Jones was awaiting the start of football practice as a wide receiver.

He had appeared in a few early-season games as a pinch-runner, but hadn't swung a bat in an organized game for two years, back in high school, and is nowhere to be found in the team's media guide.

Jones seemed as raw as a plate of sushi in workouts leading up to the California series in late May. But he came through with a few hits during the crucial three-game set, which brought a Cheshire grin to Coach Murphy's face.

"Mike Jones, got to love him," he said during practice a few weeks ago, loud enough so everyone in the dugout and infield could hear him. "Got to shake it up around here! Got too many of those soft Scottsdale kids running around thinking they got it made. Time to bring in the brother to show them how it's done!"

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