06/11/2008 – Daily News Record
Murphy A Scrappy Turk Written By Dustin Dopirak Daily News Record HARRISONBURG – Bob Wease loves dirt dogs. When the Harrisonburg Turks owner/manager calls college coaches to recruit players each summer, he asks them to send him the type of guys whose jerseys turn into dirt-and-grass stained badges of honor nightly. Guys who would never dream of jogging out a ground ball or shrugging off a bunt sign. So after giving Wease center fielder Kevin Koski in 2004, Southern Illinois coach Dan Callahan knew Wease would love freshman center fielder Chris Murphy. "Bob likes those bulldog type of guys," Callahan said by phone Tuesday. "That’s the way Kevin Koski was. That’s the way [former SIU and Turks reliever] Danny Wells was, and that’s the way Murph is." Callahan was right. The Pittsburgh area native fits Wease’s prototype almost perfectly. Wease could certainly ask for better numbers from Murphy – who bats left-handed and throws right-handed – but, then, the same goes for the whole team. Murphy’s .229 average, unfortunately for the struggling Turks (2-7), ranks fourth on the squad, which is hitting a miniscule .199. But Wease sees capacity for improvement, and he sees exactly the kind of mentality he’s looking for. "He’s a damn hard ballplayer who comes to play every day," Wease said during the Turks’ off day. "We’re not hitting at all, but he’s got the potential to be very good. He reminds me a lot of [former Turk and long-time major league outfielder] Steve Finley. He’s got that short compact swing like Finley, he’s got decent speed, and he’s just a competitor, just like Finley was." Ironically, Murphy’s demeanor off the field – even in the dugout during games – gives no hint of the fierce competitor he is on it. His teammates and coaches say that he’s strikingly soft spoken. "He’s a very quiet kid," Callahan said. "When I’m talking to him, I always have to say, ‘Excuse me,’ or ‘Pardon me,’ ‘Speak up a little bit, Murph.’ He mumbles things, but you can’t let that fool you. You can’t equate that with a lack of intensity." Indeed — because if Murphy lacked intensity, he wouldn’t be here. At 5-foot-9, 150 pounds and with better-than-serviceable but less-than-eye-popping speed, Murphy doesn’t fit anyone’s physical mold for what a baseball player should look like. But due to his grit, intelligence and bat speed – which is surprising for a small frame – Murphy’s lack of size was never enough to hold him back. "I’m not the biggest kid in the world," Murphy said by phone Tuesday as he drove down Route 33 looking for a fishing hole where he could spend his off-day. "So for me, it’s the little things that matter." At Fox Chapel High School just north of Pittsburgh, though, Murphy didn’t just do the little things, he did everything. He set school career records in batting average (.446) and RBIs (111 in four years); as a senior, he led Class AAAA teams in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League with a preposterous .620 batting average. As little as he is, Murphy showed he could still crush a baseball, hitting 14 home runs in his four years. On the flip side, he’s also a brilliant bunter, with the ability to lay one down the third-base line seemingly at will. He’s also an excellent defender, known for taking good routes to fly balls and going all out to get them. Despite those numbers, Fox Chapel coach Donnie Schubert raves more about Murphy’s desire to win and his willingness to sacrifice for the cause. "He wasn’t a selfish player at all," Schubert said. "He hit .620, and that’s phenomenal, but even while doing that, he gave himself up for the betterment of the team so many times. He’d bunt to move the guy over or hit to the right side to move the guy over. He just wanted to win so badly." That left an impression on a few Pittsburgh-area baseball people who Callahan trusts, and they spoke so highly of him that Callahan offered Murphy a scholarship without ever seeing him play in person. Murphy sent in a highlight video, but by that point, Callahan said, he was already pretty much sold. "We knew he could be our starting center fielder as a freshman," Callahan said. "We never promised him that, but we tried to paint that picture." The picture came to fruition. Murphy started at center in 52 of the Salukis’ 57 games, hitting .281 with two home runs, 24 RBIs and 36 runs scored, helping Southern Illinois to a 34-23 record. He played sparkling defense – center field with reckless abandon," Callahan said – making just two errors in 152 chances, and had two outfield assists. Murphy hit a rough spot at the end of the season, however, that has continued through the early part of the summer, a slump that Callahan attributed to fatigue from the grind of Murphy’s maiden voyage into college baseball. But the player’s desire, Callahan said, will continue to carry him. "He’s the kind of guy who understands that if you respect the game, you’re going to get some payback," Callahan said. "We talk about that a lot in our program. If you have respect for the game, you’ll be rewarded. He respects the game, and I think in the future, he’s going to be rewarded even more so."