Tough Coach

During the Arizona State-Arizona series in Tucson a few weeks ago, Arizona Daily Star sports columnist Greg Hansen wrote of ASU's head baseball coach:

"Pat Murphy will win no one's popularity contest. He's thoroughly unlikable, but that's good in the sense of the UA-ASU thing. . . . One thing about Murphy is that he has not once slipped up at ASU and has become, with women's hoops coach Charli Turner-Thorne, the most successful coach on campus."

A few days after the series ended, one of Murphy's assistants showed him Hansen's blurb at a practice back home in Tempe.

The coach scanned it in a corner of the Sun Devils' dugout at Winkles Field-Packard Stadium at Brock Ballpark (yup, that's the official name), and then busted up in laughter.

"Thoroughly unlikable!" he said, in that megaphone voice of his, honed during a lifetime spent at ballparks. "I love it! I don't know if I've ever been thoroughly unlikable in that guy's presence, but whatever. At least I'm not a shitty coach, or run a dirty program. I'm just THOROUGHLY UNLIKABLE!"

A few of Murphy's players tuned in to their coach's entertaining little riff. They love when he does his stream-of-consciousness thing, sounding like some kind of Beat poet who happens to know more about the dynamics of a slider than about writing an ode to lost love.

Time was when Murphy wouldn't have laughed at himself so readily.

It didn't take long for him to cement a reputation -- deserved or not -- as a first-class jerk after he barreled into town in late 1994 to take the helm of ASU's storied baseball program.

What bothered some locals at the time was Murphy's seeming lack of proper respect toward the icons he'd succeeded in Tempe -- Bobby Winkles and Jim Brock -- the only two previous head coaches in modern ASU baseball history.

In 1997, a national baseball periodical dubbed Murphy "Black Hat Pat," and referred to him as the most disliked coach in major-college ball.

Murphy says there were grains of truth in that early and apparently enduring image of a coach driven to succeed by an unrestrained ego.

"I came out here and started right up without consideration for some folks," he says. "That was wrong. But I think my intensity was misinterpreted by some people. I've always loved the guys who play for me, and they know that. I just had some growing up to do."

Maybe it's fatherhood, or a new love interest, or maybe it's simply that 47-year-old Pat Murphy is all grown up. Whatever it is, what becomes glaringly clear after spending weeks around Murphy and his consistently successful program is this:

Most of the players on this year's team -- whose season ended last Sunday at the NCAA regionals in Houston -- respect and even like Murph, as everyone around him knows him.

Calling Murphy "thoroughly unlikable" isn't close to accurately describing the man.

He is thoroughly intense, bright, funny, acerbic, candid, charming, demanding, compassionate, loyal, genuine, sensitive (sometimes oversensitive), and, in baseball's grand tradition, crude, rude and lewd.

Oh, another thing. Murphy has a needle as big as that of a large-animal veterinarian. No one, including himself, is immune from his verbal barbs.

Pat Murphy turns out to be a complicated man wrapped in a deceptively simple package, or maybe it's the other way around.

"Murph is an eminently likable person who has lived in an intense world where coaches often are able to cover up a lot of their complexities and the good things about themselves," says Dr. Ray Karesky, a Scottsdale psychologist who currently runs the Employee Assistance program for baseball's Toronto Blue Jays.

"He has something in him that a lot of people wish they had -- a willingness to learn and grow, and to have a sense of humor about himself and about life."

Looking at Murphy through a different prism, recently retired University of Southern California head coach Mike Gillespie says of his sometimes-bitter rival, "I can't quite define Murph. He has a great rapport with his players, but that doesn't say it. It's different than good players who are just playing hard for him. You can just see that there are good feelings in his dugout, that his guys admire him and that he reciprocates.

"Something has been going on at ASU for a long time. The school has a lot to offer a baseball player, or anyone, for that matter. But players aren't going to like it there unless they truly like their coach. They do. There's some magic to what he does."

An example revealed itself earlier this season in a game against Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Murphy long has been a lightning rod for opposing fans because of his exuberant (some would call it obnoxious) attitude on the diamond. But he's not averse to engaging his antagonists with banter and one-upmanship.

A group of Baylor fans, some of them super-size football players, were riding Murphy -- who coaches third base when his team is hitting.

So he upped the ante a bit.

He unbuttoned his Sun Devils shirt to reveal a tee shirt with the following letters: DYRTIGAF?

"You guys figure it out, you're college students," he told his hecklers.

Someone finally came up with the correct translation -- "DO YOU REALLY THINK I GIVE A FUCK?"

At the end of the game, Murphy signed autographs for the enemy fans, at least some of whom he'd won over.

(Those good feelings evaporated during two losing games against Baylor in the just-completed regionals. During Saturday's nail-biter against the Bears, the coach responded to a smart-ass dig by Baylor's pitcher by confronting the guy as he passed by the mound to argue a close call with the first-base umpire. The bad vibes spilled over to the elimination game on Sunday, with a handful of hecklers in Murphy's ear for almost the entire game.)

It says a lot about Murphy, a former amateur boxer whose macho image is no mere image, that he's eager to discuss his own personal evolution, warts and all.

"When I go for counseling with Ray [Karesky] these days, he tells me I've come a long way," the coach says. "Maybe. But I always tell him I want to keep talking to him, and that I'll always find some new issues for him."

Those "issues" include a difficult childhood with an alcoholic father, troubles maintaining long-term relations with the opposite sex (though after two marriages, he now seems well-matched with fiance Francheska Figueroa), a lifelong war with authority figures (come to think of it, that's not so terrible), and an innate stubbornness.

Bob Welch, a onetime major-league All-Star pitcher who lives in Scottsdale, says about his friend, "Murph never tells you what you want to hear, but what you really need to hear. But he's always there for you, no matter what. If you're in the other dugout, you're gonna hate his fucking guts. But if the test is would you have your kid play for him, almost everyone I know, including me, would say yes."

A look at the numbers suggests Pat Murphy is the closest thing ASU has to a Lute Olson-type coach in a "major" sport. (For those who don't know a roundball from a shuttlecock, Olson is a Hall of Famer who's coached the University of Arizona men's basketball team to three Final Fours, and a national title in 1997.)

No, Murphy hasn't won a national championship yet, though his team finished runner-up to USC in 1998 and came in third last year. But the Sun Devils seem to be in the hunt almost every year for a coveted trip to Omaha and the College World Series.

Murphy's accomplishments at ASU -- which include 480 wins (he's won about two-thirds of his games) -- dwarf those of the school's other big sports.

"Football and basketball aspire to be what the baseball program has been under Murph and before Murph," says Tim Healey, ASU's fine play-by-play announcer.

What Healey is talking about is consistency. Though this year's squad fell short of its annual goal of making it to the College World Series (in fact, only Oregon State has a chance to return to Omaha as one of the eight teams this year), ASU lands in the Top 25 rankings every year, and is a formidable opponent almost every time out.

According to veteran scribe Bob Eger, who does color commentary for the Devils' radio baseball games, Murphy came into his own at last year's College World Series.

"Murph became the media darling in Omaha because of his accessibility, the accessibility of his players, and his wacky sense of humor," Eger says. "He's open to any question and shies from nothing. He made a great event greater. I have to say, he's as good as I've ever seen in a post-game interview."

Perhaps because of a recent New Times commentary titled "Fire HIM!" (John Dougherty, May 4), Murphy says he was advised initially by ASU's sports information office not to cooperate for this story.

The opinion piece blasted the institution for awarding football coach Dirk Koetter an extension through the 2009 season, and with it a $172,000 raise (with monster incentives) to $950,000 a year.

"I have nothing to hide, and my program has nothing to hide," Murphy says. "I'm not scared of anyone telling the truth about what we do here and how we do it."

The coach's five-year contract (which pays him about $277,000 annually) ends June 30. He remains optimistic that he and new ASU athletic director Lisa Love soon will reach an agreement, and Love confirms that.

"Murph is a very, very fine teacher, and he's also an extraordinarily compassionate person," Love told New Times on Tuesday, shortly before deadline.

"He's raising his children, he's a loving father, and he's definitely a part of our community. He's a good soul, and I'm glad he's going to be around for a while."

The coach says he's put the negotiations with ASU into perspective.

"With what I've gone through already this year, the contract is just another hurdle," Murphy says. "If they want me around, we'll make it work. I love ASU, and everyone who spends five seconds with me knows that. I think it'll happen."

Murphy truly has had a momentous several months:

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!"

During a weekend road trip to Tucson a few weeks ago, Kai Murphy begged his dad to tell the "bear story."

Murphy settled into the tale for the umpteenth time.

"Okay, son," he said.

"Me and Kai like to lay down before he goes to sleep, and I tell him stories about made-up stuff, animals, stuff like that. One night I was in the middle of telling him about these bears and their magical powers. I guess I started fading out, falling asleep."

"So what did I do, Daddy?"

"Next thing I know, Kai wakes me up. He tells me I was mad at myself for not trying to hit-and-run with Ike [Davis] in a game. I went from bears to baseball, right?"

"Yeah, dad," Kai said. "You were goofy!"

The small anecdote reveals a few relevant things about the coach.

One is the tight relationship between the father and son.

Another is how seriously Pat Murphy takes his job.

"Losing isn't death anymore to me, but it still hurts," he says. "It's a physical hurt, a physical thing. But that's what sports always has meant to me."

For Murphy, who grew up as the youngest of five siblings in Syracuse, New York, sports also provided a refuge from what was not an idyllic childhood.

The coach is reticent to go into much detail about the negative side of his upbringing. But he will allow that his late father -- a marginally successful businessman who was 50 when Murphy was born -- was an alcoholic whose parenting skills left something to be desired.

Murphy says he loved both of his parents dearly, but concedes that his mother often was overwhelmed by her husband's illness.

As a youngster, Murphy spent an inordinate amount of time outside his home, playing baseball in sandlots and fighting anyone who looked at him sideways.

"I became what you'd call a tough street kid," he says. "I'd always take the fight. I had a lot of anger in me."

His three older brothers channeled some of that anger in organized basement boxing brawls that included role play.

"One brother would be Ali, another would be Joe Frazier, another would be Floyd Patterson," Murphy says. "All of them champs. They made me be Jerry Quarry."

Quarry was a popular Irish-American heavyweight who had the misfortune of not being good enough to beat the best of his era. He took many beatings, later became demented, and died at the age of 53.

"I related to Quarry because he'd fight anyone and feared no one," says Murphy, who later fought a ton of amateur fights in the Northeast. "But that doesn't mean we didn't get pounded on now and then."

He describes his family life "as dysfunctional, though we didn't know the word at that time." But the Murphys did have a common ground -- Notre Dame football -- not so surprising in an Irish-Catholic household.

For as far back as Pat Murphy can remember, he was a Fighting Irish fanatic, listening to games on the radio, memorizing statistics, living and dying with the team, and always dreaming of someday being part of the mythical South Bend experience.

(Murphy bears an interesting resemblance to Knute Rockne, the iconic Notre Dame football coach of 1918 to 1930 said to have composed the famed "Win One for the Gipper" speech.)

Murphy was the last of the siblings at home as he hit his teens. He describes himself as a wild child, mad at the world.

"I had this girlfriend who lived eight miles from us," he says, "and I'd sneak out at night and get my ass over there. I'd walk back at dawn or whenever, and I made sure I'd walk right through a bad part of town, slow as could be. What made me want to walk so slow? It was always, 'What's that white boy doing? He's gotta be crazy.'"

Murphy attended Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse. He lettered in three sports, and won a reputation that has stuck.

"Toughest guy I've ever met, bar none, physically and mentally, and also the most loyal person I know," says Greg Dunn, who played high school baseball with Murphy and still lives in upstate New York.

"We'd play these contests -- who could hit the ball the hardest and the farthest -- and Murph always won. His shoulder used to pop out when he played first base if you threw wild to him. He'd drop his glove and come at you. He was and is a piece of work."

Dunn adds that "Pat Murphy was born to be at Notre Dame. It just took him a while to get there."

One reason was that Murphy lacked academic discipline. He says Notre Dame rejected him for admission as a student four times before he finally gave up.

Instead, he first went to Le Moyne College in upstate New York. He stayed there a year, transferred to Bowling Green University for another year, then moved in 1981 to Florida Atlantic University, which was just starting its own baseball program with just 12 players.

Murphy played there for two years under Steve Traylor, whom he cites as a mentor. Last year, Murphy invited Traylor to be his guest in Omaha at the College World Series.

After graduating from Florida Atlantic (he later earned his master's degree in developmental studies from the institution), he played pro ball in the lower levels for four years.

When Murphy still was in his mid-20s, he already was well on the road to becoming a baseball lifer, which usually means being a kind of gypsy.

At the age of 24 in 1983, he accepted a job as head baseball coach at little Maryville College in Tennessee, where he also served as an assistant football coach.

Murphy spent much of 1984 in Australia, where he coached baseball in the outpost of New South Wales.

After a stint coaching for a minor-league professional team, he took a job in Southern California at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps College, a school bereft of a baseball tradition.

Murphy turned the program into an immediate winner.

Two significant events in Murphy's life happened during his two years at Claremont:

He met Michelle Whaley, who would become his first wife. Whaley was a volleyball player in her senior year at Claremont when she met Murphy, just five years older than her.

"Murph was a compelling and dynamic person, and still is," says Whaley. "Even then, he was thinking deeply about life and the way he should be as a person. Despite his reputation, he's extremely intelligent and reflective. He knew what he wanted and he was going to go for it."

She and Murphy got married in 1987, the same year that a series of serendipitous circumstances opened the door to his dream job, the head coaching position at the University of Notre Dame.

The short story is that, in the summer of 1987, Murphy begged, cajoled, prayed and basically forced his way into a program literally teetering on the edge of extinction.

Finally, after years of trying, Murphy had made it to his own campus of dreams in South Bend, Indiana.

He was 29 years old, and was paid $7,000 his first year at the helm of the Fighting Irish baseball team.

Coach Murphy's first recruit at Notre Dame in 1988 was a 135-pound kid from South Bend named Craig Counsell.

He offered the unheralded infielder a $500 scholarship to a private school where annual tuition then ran about $20,000.

Counsell later would earn his degree in accounting, and was selected in the 11th round by the Colorado Rockies.

Arizona Diamondbacks fans know Counsell as a pivotal player on the 2001 World Series championship team, and an extremely popular current mainstay of the rapidly rebuilding team.

"Other than my Mom and Dad, who got me going, Murph was more responsible for me becoming a baseball player than anyone else," says Counsell, now 35. "He made me understand what mental toughness really is, and that I could become a player even though I wasn't the most talented guy around. He can make enemies from time to time because what you see is what you get with Murph. But he won't back down from anyone or anything, and if you stick with him as a player, he has so much good to offer."

Murphy looked and felt like Notre Dame when he was there, and the community and student body responded to him. He had a swagger to his step from the moment he first stepped on the campus.

"We were nothing and we became something," the coach says.

The Irish hadn't reached the NCAA tourney for two decades, but twice just missed earning trips to the College World Series during Murphy's seven-year tenure.

Murphy's marriage ended in 1992, but he remains close to Michelle Whaley.

"We always have had a lot of respect for each other, but sometimes it doesn't work out," says Whaley, who earned her doctorate at Notre Dame in molecular genetics and now teaches there.

"Professionally, I learned some amazing things from him about direction and focus. I know that Pat ruffles feathers, because he did it here. But he's a very genuine, good guy."

In 1994, ASU's baseball team took a poignant journey to the College World Series, where they finished third under veteran head coach Jim Brock. The coach died of cancer a few days after his team was eliminated ("Brock Solid," May 25, 1994, and "Jim Brock Lived for Baseball," June 29, 1994).

Brock had been at ASU for 23 years, 1,100 wins and two national championships when he passed away. He had succeeded Bobby Winkles, another big-time winner who won 75 percent of his games in 13 years (1959-71) and three national titles.

With his success at Notre Dame, Murphy was a natural candidate for the plum job in Tempe. But most people around South Bend and college baseball suspected that Murphy would never leave Notre Dame of his own volition.

A few years earlier, Murphy had turned down a prestigious job at the University of Miami, another perennial college baseball powerhouse. But he expressed interest when ASU courted him.

"People would tell me, 'You built a new stadium at Notre Dame with money you raised. How could you leave?'" Murphy says. "I don't know why. Maybe immaturity. Everything I did was based on emotion, and I made the decision to leave. Thank God I did. I never would have been what I could be if I didn't leave."

Murphy accepted the ASU job in August 1994.

He was succeeding two legends and was expected to win immediately, or else.

Though his team wouldn't reach the College World Series until 1998, his fourth season, Murphy won enough games to keep all but the most rabid alumni off his back.

But his unbridled brashness earned him precious few friends outside of his team.

"ASU already was crawling with respect in the world of college baseball," says writer Bob Eger, who had covered coaches Winkles and Brock for various publications.

"It was a clash of cultures between Murph and some people out here. He'd rather come out of the weeds and get you than be the favorite every time out like ASU usually is."

Says pioneering sports psychologist and author Harvey Dorfman, who met Murphy years ago while working for the Oakland A's:

"Murph had it really tough out in Tempe at first. It was twofold in that he was following the two icons, and also there was the immediate perception that he was a bad guy. That was exacerbated at first by some of his responses to things, especially to pockets of fans who were absurd toward him at games, saying this cruel stuff."

Dorfman says Murphy showed something about himself by surviving those first years as a Sun Devil.

"Slowly, he's redefined his self as he wanted to redefine it," Dorfman says. "He's had so many things to deal with within himself, things from his upbringing, perceived inadequacies and so on. A lesser person would have buckled under far less pressure. But he's turned himself into something whole and viable after being perceived as something completely the opposite. Things have gotten easier for him, and not because the external circumstances are necessarily easier. He's still expected to win big every year."

Beat reporter types such as Bob Eger have grown to respect Murphy as a coach and as a person.

"The common bond I see between the three coaches [Winkles, Brock and Murphy] are the intense way they attack their jobs," Eger says. "But there are differences. Brock brought in big-time assistants and just let them coach. Winkles didn't even have an assistant most of the time. Murph is as hands-on as I've ever seen, though he spreads himself awfully thin. He doesn't miss anything, and he totally has his finger on the pulse of his team."

The rigor of playing for a taskmaster has proved too much for a number of ASU players, including some future professionals. But more often than not, those who stick with Murphy through thick and thin are thankful they did.

"I'd heard lots of things about Murph, good, bad and ugly -- mostly the ugly," says Willie Bloomquist, who starred for ASU in the late 1990s and now plays for the big-league Seattle Mariners. "I'd heard about all these demands he has of his players, and that a lot of people out there thought of him, frankly, as an ass. But after speaking with him, I knew that, if that's an ass, I guess I'm going to play for an ass."

Bloomquist goes on to say that "Murph doesn't care about external bullshit. He holds everyone accountable, and the players hold each other accountable. That's the sign of a great program. I've spoken to former ASU players who hated him and left. They all tell me that Murph was right all along, that they'd screwed up. He's not for everyone."

On August 26, 2000, Kai Murphy was born to Pat and Argelia Murphy.

Though the union between Murphy and his second wife lasted only a few years, the addition of the little boy into the coach's life was profound.

Within a few years, he found himself in a bitter court dispute over Kai, after which he became the primary custodial parent.

"I've had to address a lot of things in myself to do the job properly with Kai, and it's an ongoing process," Murphy says.

His daughter Keli also came back into his life, another source of great joy.

In recent months, Murphy has been assisted in child-rearing by his fiancée, Francheska Figueroa, a 41-year-old schoolteacher.

With Figueroa, a beautiful woman with a direct manner, the coach finally may have met his match, and in more ways than one.

A breast-cancer survivor whose own life story has had its dramatic ups and downs, Figueroa is apparently as strong-willed as Murphy.

The pair met after Murphy moved to Tempe in 1994, but then fell out of touch until last year.

"A friend of mine who's a private investigator asked me, 'Isn't there a woman out there for you?'" Murphy says. "I said I didn't really think so. I've been in and out of a lot of relationships, and I've never really understood them. It's always been about me. I mentioned this sweet girl Francheska from years ago. I'd never forgotten her. He tracked her down and checked her out, and actually told her I'd like to see her again."

Their first date last October was at a Starbucks, and a nervous Murphy had nine of his ballplayers show up at the coffee shop for moral support.

Figueroa says she hadn't laughed that hard in years.

Almost every Monday night in the Murphy backyard (which the coach has dubbed The Sandlot), neighborhood kids and family friends gather with their parents. Craig Counsell and his family, and ASU women's basketball coach Charli Turner-Thorne and her family are among the regulars.

It's a child's fantasyland, what with a miniature baseball infield, a manual scoreboard on a concrete retaining wall, a basketball court, and decent lights.

Murphy alternates throwing soft baseballs to the little ones with one of his baseball staffers or players who happen to be on hand. The kids obviously love the tough-guy coach, even when he pretends to be peeved at them for not swinging the bat properly.

The burgers and hot dogs come later.

A prime example of the "new" Murphy (please don't even try to suggest to his ballplayers that he's going soft) came against Cal State-Fullerton in last year's super-regional playoff.

Murphy ordered Zechry Zinicola to intentionally walk a Fullerton batter in the bottom of the ninth inning, with the game tied and the potential winning run on third base.

But an umpire stunningly called a balk on Zinicola, allegedly for not coming to a complete stop before he delivered the pitch.

That automatically allowed the winning run to score.

It was an unthinkable way to lose, and no one in attendance would have been the least surprised to see Murphy (or any other coach with a pulse) to come unglued.

Murphy somehow maintained his composure.

"I know I'm an asshole, and I wanted to act like an asshole after that guy hosed us," he says, "but I just couldn't be an asshole with my kid watching me from a few feet away. If that's a sign of growing up, I guess I'm growing up. Holy shit!"

Sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman's explanation of the telltale moment is to the point: "Murph wanted his son to see the father he wanted him to see. That's a beautiful thing. In the past, he knee-jerked everything."

By the way, the Sun Devils swept the next two games at Fullerton and made it to the College World Series in Omaha.

It's a few days before ASU leaves for Houston and the tough regional headed by Rice University, the number-one team in the nation in most polls.

Murphy watches from the dugout as his squad goes through its paces, commenting loudly whenever he feels the spirit.

"It's a beautiful thing, a nicely turned double play," he tells his infielders. "No one's in a hurry. Moving like ballerinas. I mean that in a good way."

He takes pitcher Pat Bresnehan aside and gives him a pep talk:

"God gave you a gift with that body and that arm, but you can't throw your shit right over the middle of the plate. Think about throwing filth."

He bellows out to no in particular, "Tournament team! Whoo-hoo! Now you can officially be prima donnas. I can't wait to kick you out of practice and get some coffee and bagels. You're all spoiled kids. Where are the street kids?"

One of ASU's third basemen tries in vain to scoop up a ball barehanded.

"Hey, we're gonna be playing the number-one team in the country," the coach yells over at him. "Bare hand ain't gonna help you. Only time a bare hand is good is after midnight."

That one cracks everyone up.

Murphy opens a greeting card, with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, circa 1860.

He reads it aloud for everyone within earshot to hear:

"What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

"You guys hear that?" he asks his team. "Whoooh! Tiny matters! Now that's something to fuckin' think about!"

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin