Tough Coach

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"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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin