TUCSON, Ariz. — Tucson Padres manager Pat Murphy wanted to convince his audience (a reporter) that he’s boring. That the team’s success was hardly about him.
Both are tough sells.
We’ll start with the boring counter-argument. He’s engaging and personable — part philosopher, psychologist and offensive lineman.
And let’s not forget influential father and manager of the hottest thing in Tucson besides the typical July heat. He has his Padres atop the Pacific Coast League Southern, playing some of its best baseball.
Thursday night’s victory over second-place Las Vegas, watched by a holiday crowd of 10,950, best of the season — gave the Padres a 1 1/2-game lead. Thursday’s win followed a 9-4 road trip.
Of course, Murphy knows baseball championships aren’t won in July.
“I’m never kind of pleased with the way we are playing,” Murphy said before the fireworks went off late Thursday. “I’m one of those guys who look at the way we can improve. I’m looking at individuals hoping that somebody can reach them to help them find their best selves.”
He also believes most must help themselves, all the while knowing it isn’t easy.
“You have to make it fun,” Murphy said, a word he used a number of times throughout a free-flowing interview. “These guys make it fun. Everyone thinks it’s a glamorous life. But if you travel in the PCL, it’s not glamorous. It’s difficult with all that’s surrounding them. The thought of getting called up to the thought their career being over to a position change or a trade. It’s tough all the way around. There’s also the need to be good people … so many things go on. This is a tough juggling act.”
Call Murphy the master juggler.
Through the first three months, Murphy has had to mix and match 70 players who have come and gone through 103 transactions.
Whether it’s magic dust, smoke and mirrors, intuition or good old-fashioned luck, Murphy is working some winning ways. Not that this is anything new.
He’s won at every level. The Padres have gone 37-23 since its 3-9 start, inching their way from the bottom the division to the top in two months.
The clubhouse has a comfortable vibe, one that general manager Mike Feder said brings back memories of 1993, when the Tucson Toros won the city’s last minor-league title.
“The talent is the right talent,” said Feder, acknowledging that there have been a number of unforeseen transactions that have made things more difficult. “What he’s done is always stay positive. And he has guys who know how to play the game. It’s those kinds of guys we have on this team.
“I can say we have no star player … and the bullpen is very good.”
The same can be said for Murphy, who’s fit in well in what was once enemy territory. Prior to taking over the Padres, his dealings with Tucson and its baseball fans were all from the opposing dugout of the hated Arizona State Sun Devils.
What did Feder know of him? Not much.
“I knew that people were pissed that we had an ASU coach,” Feder said, smiling. “I didn’t know anything. I know the Padres liked him. You can tell by being around him he knows how to manage people. He creates a positive atmosphere. … He’s a baseball guy.”
Still, when Murphy became the Tucson manager after two years of managing the Padres Rookie League team to the league’s best record, he didn’t know what to expect. He jokingly says he still doesn’t.
“I’m just an offensive lineman, I open holes,” he said. “It’s doing that and not getting noticed. It’s keeping my helmet on and helping the players find their best selves. If I can do that, I can help them be closer to getting to the big leagues.”
In truth, that’s his primary job. Of course, winning along the way helps. He brought in his philosophy of making it fun and playing together. He also did something no manager in Tucson had done in the 10-plus years of existence. He made the clubhouse smaller by enclosing one of the ends.
“He has this team mentality you don’t see very much in Triple A often,” said Tucson first baseman Cody Decker, a former UCLA player. “In Triple A, players go up and down (to the majors all the time), and every team could have a certain amount of bitterness, but Murph kind of manages that out of guys. It’s a good time.”
Winning helps. Tucson didn’t start off that way, finishing the season’s first month in last place at 11-17. At the time, it seemed more of the same from a team that finished 2012 in last place, 30 games out of first.
One person never doubted a change was coming.
“I knew it was just a matter of time,” said Kai Murphy, Pat’s 12-year-old son who has seen his father succeed at every level he’s been at.
For Murphy, having his son, a star player on one of Arizona’s youth club teams, nearby is like having the comfort of a security blanket. He has sole custody and is a proud father.
“One on the things I enjoy the most is building relationships (with the players),” Murphy said. “And to have my son with me is a bonus. Raising my kid at the same time as managing is beautiful. And I’m learning … I’m just trying to figure this thing out.”
He said he rarely looks ahead at what might be next but often looks back, wondering how he could have done things better. He left ASU under tough circumstances of an NCAA investigation that hit him “like a Mack Truck.”
According to NCAA findings, ASU’s program was sanctioned for a series of violations that occurred over more than five years and included improper coaching by team managers, paying student-athletes for work not performed, use of an impermissable recruiter and a lack of institutional control.
Murphy continued to say this week the teeth of the penalties were in response to ASU’s “lack of institutional control,” although he regrets “that I did not handle it well. I lashed out at people.”
Nearly four years removed from the entire episode, he’s still not over it.
“I’ll let you know when I am,” he said. “You don’t pour your life into something and then accept it. When the bus runs you over … (but) I know a lot more people in the last 20 minutes who have gone through worse things than I have in the last four years. But it doesn’t make my pain any different. I am so grateful everything came my way and am better for it.”
Now he’s in Tucson, doing what he does best — leading a successful baseball team.
“When I was at UCLA all I wanted to do is destroy Pat Murphy and ASU,” said Decker, saying it was a sign of respect of competition. “I wanted to kill them. He’s respected throughout college baseball. He made moves that worked for him. He had this way about him and a way about handling his team. He commanded the respect from his players and opponents. I wanted to beat him so bad. He’s a great manager and I love playing for him.
“There are not many people in baseball I have more respect for than Pat. (But) I would never say that to his face.”