Drayer: Mariners’ Tom Murphy showing a lighter side on the diamond

Mar 22, 2022, 12:03 AM
Mariners Tom Murphy...
Mariners catcher Tom Murphy following a 2021 spring training game. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

A highlight of the earliest days of Mariners camp was a live batting practice with George Kirby facing a stream of Mariners big league hitters that included Mitch Haniger, the newly acquired Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suárez, Julio Rodríguez and Jarred Kelenic, who was perhaps a bit startled to hear his name announced by the catcher as he stepped to the plate.

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“Jarred Kelenic, ladies and gentlemen,” boomed Tom Murphy, who had jumped out from behind home plate and turned to face the crowd, huge grin on his face.

Crowd and teammates alike got a good laugh out of the moment – and any time Murphy announced a new hitter during the drill.

For those who were there the year before, seeing this side of Murphy was perhaps striking. There was a lightness that wasn’t seen a year ago from him. At that time he was returning to the team after losing a season to a foot injury, and as a late bloomer who didn’t record more than 100 MLB plate appearances until his age-28 season, he felt the pressure of the ticking clock.

“I think about my career at 29,” he said during the COVID shutdown in 2020. “I’m not getting any younger and this game has not really been kind to older players.”

To sit through the shutdown, miss the 2020 season due to the foot injury suffered days before the opener, then stumble badly at the plate out of the gates in the next, Murphy has been through a lot in the past two years. To emerge on the other side of the struggles cemented in his role, the announcement of Kelenic’s name carried the feel of an announcement of Tom Murphy. “I’m here.”

“Yeah, it’s funny. One of the most impactful conversations I’ve ever had was with Wade Davis, longtime closer, a great pitcher,” said Murphy, referring to his former Rockies teammate. “I always talked to him about how comfortable he was and how effortless he made things seem. He was never (in a) panic situation or anything like that. And he just told me it came with time. Then kind of nearing that time in my career where things kind of slowed down a little bit for me, I can enjoy the game as opposed to just worrying about everything.”

As it turns out, the time he had considered an enemy was perhaps more a friend. The struggles that could have led to his undoing instead took him on a different path.

“I take nothing from the baseball, honestly. I take more of life lessons from it,” he said. “Struggling in baseball in front of 40,000 people every night is not a fun thing to do. But at the same time, I always had something to fall back on, usually my family and being home with them. And just to kind of take the breath sometimes. I spent the first two months of the season not feeling that way. I kind of changed things around and started having fun with baseball again, and I realized that you can be in the most miserable situation possible. But if your outlook on it is good, then you’re going to be alright.”

“Just have fun,” may be one of the oldest clichés in the book, but when struggles start to snowball and you are in a role where you can hardly afford to wallow in the struggle, sometimes letting go and taking that breath is the first step.

“I think Murph learned a lot last year,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He got off to a rough start to the point where I didn’t know if he could dig himself out of the hole, and to his credit he did, and he did that in changing his mindset, not so much changing his swing. He changed his approach and how he’s thinking about the game, how he’s interacting with his teammates, and that’s a credit to him. All of a sudden he’s playing a bit better. It’s crazy about how that is connected.”

Servais and general manager/president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto both gave Murphy votes of confidence at the end of last season for the way he handled the pitching staff, forwarding the organizational messaging. The trust they placed in Murphy in-season, especially when he was struggling, was instrumental in getting through it.

“It is kind of the precedence for everything I do in a day,” Murphy said. “My job is to catch first and do everything else afterwards. And the better I can take care of my pitchers and have them as prepared as I am, the better off we’re going to be as a club and I know that I’m a big part of that. Our analyst team does a fantastic job. They honestly make it very easy on me.”

In the clubhouse, Servais has also appreciated Murphy’s leadership.

“That has been huge for us. He’s one guy who’s not afraid to speak up and that’s been good for us. He’s in a good spot.”

A good spot off the field and on.

Servais revealed that Murphy played the majority of last season through a shoulder issue that was not publicly disclosed for obvious reasons as it affected his throwing. Now healthy, Murphy is excited to be a part of a team that appears ready to take the next step forward while taking the time to enjoy where he is.

“It’s about just being able to do exactly what I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “When I can keep that perspective, it’s a lot more enjoyable, because you know, flashback to 25 years ago, this is the exact position I want to be in. And now I’m here. So that should be as fun as it can be.”

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Drayer: Mariners’ Tom Murphy showing a lighter side on the diamond