With trust from Mariners, Tom Murphy embracing lightness — and loudness
Tom Murphy knew the clock was ticking.
Dating back to MLB’s pandemic shutdown, interview answers by the veteran Mariners catcher would often be prefaced with statements like, “I’ve only got so many years left in this game.” Time and opportunities lost to injuries and DFAs will do that to a player in his late 20s. Losing the pandemic-shortened 2020 season to an injury suffered at the end of summer camp did not help Murphy.
It was apparent time remaining was still on his mind in 2021 despite being the Mariners’ No. 1 catcher, and the shoulder injury that knocked out most of his 2022 season was perhaps the cruelest blow to date. Yet in 2023, there has been no sense of forced urgency. Rather, a lightness – and loudness – from Tom Murphy has been appreciated by all in camp.
“It’s nice to see him take a deep breath and relax,” said Mariners manager Scott Servais. “Enjoy the journey a little bit more perhaps than early on.”
The clock is still ticking, but the message received.
“With age, you kind of realize that you probably don’t have that many baseball days left. I’m just trying to enjoy the (heck) out of it, for sure,” said Murphy.
Any bitterness over Murphy’s misfortune of missing the Mariners’ trip to the playoffs last October has been replaced by motivation and a reinforced belief in the process the led the organization to its first postseason appearance in over two decades.
“You look at the organization and how long and how much the fans wanted something like this to happen, and to have it happen and feel like you are a part of it, realizing this isn’t just a one-year process,” he pointed out. “I feel like this has been a buildup for a few years to a point where we have finally got a team capable of doing what we knew we could always do. To be a part of that is something I truly cherish, and for them to ask me back here this year? It provided me with so much motivation to help go out and do it again.”
Mariners value Murphy
If there was any doubt he would be asked to return, Murphy must not have been reading the clips this winter. Servais and Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto went well out of their way to express how valued the now veteran catcher was. A second catcher was not on Seattle’s offseason wish list. Dipoto appreciated Murphy’s buy-in to the Mariners’ systems and his work with the pitchers.
For Servais, there was a special connection having been a big league catcher himself. In short, his manager gets him.
“I felt similar at certain points in my career,” said Servais, who caught for four teams over 11 MLB seasons. “I know how hard it was for him not being a part of winning because he was instrumental in getting us to that point. I knew it was killing him.”
To that end, Servais last year would often text Murphy, who eventually was sent home to rehab from shoulder surgery, from the team bus as the Mariners wrapped up a big series and hit the road just to reinforce how important he was to the organization and that he was still a part of the team. Eventually Murphy was asked to rejoin the team in order to be there for their Wild Card and Division Series. When the season ended after the 18-inning ALDS Game 3 marathon loss to Houston, Murphy’s offseason work began.
The results? Impossible to miss.
“Murph has bought smaller shirts,” Servais quipped early in camp.
Tom Murphy, noted weight room enthusiast, had the appearance of someone who took every frustration this winter out on the weights. His routine, and setting, unique as he returns each year to the woods of New York where he grew up, miles from any gym – let alone a high performance center – with no big leaguers to work out with.
“It’s got a like ‘Rocky 4’ feel to it,” Murphy said of his home set up. “We live in upstate New York, extremely rural and we don’t have neighbors. My garage has my weight room in it that’s heated, but my barn is where my hitting goes on and that’s not heated. It’s a little bit of a challenge throughout the winter to motivate yourself to go out there and hit in 20 degree weather, but that motivation from last year was instilled pretty strongly. I really rely on just that discipline of going out there and getting my work done and coming out here early so I can get outside with some of the guys.”
Intensity and balance
While he loves home, Murphy clearly relishes his time in camp. It has been commented on plenty of times this spring that Tom Murphy is the loudest, happiest guy in camp, with teammates pointing out that his contributions go beyond what he does behind or at the plate.
“I love Tom, as psycho as he is. He’s one of my closest friends,” said starting pitcher Marco Gonzales. “He’s just an energy source in our dugout. He’s kind of a wildcard, you don’t know what to expect. I think that’s good for us, it lightens up the mood a lot, keeps us on our toes.”
“It’s contagious in a good way,” said starting pitcher Chris Flexen of Murphy’s energy. “He’s very electric, very energetic. He’s wild, he’s got no filter, he’s there to have fun, but at the same time he’s very intense.”
Ah, yes. The Murphy intensity. The “crazy eyes,” which have become a social media sensation, are the fun intensity. There is a different intensity seen from Murphy at times, however. Whether it is the ticking clock or the passion for carrying out a plan he believes in, there were stories of occasional snaps and blowups off the field. The Tom Murphy we see today is much lighter than what was seen in his first couple of seasons with the Mariners.
“I’ve learned that balance is extremely important to me,” he said. “If I’m too high all the time, that’s not a good thing for anybody being that intense all the time. But also having kids, that’s really helped me in my life and understanding you can’t be the same person at the field that you are at home. Being able to switch those on/off switches, it’s taken a lot of practice and I’m far from perfect with it, but as I age, I feel like it is starting to get a little more in control and I know when to ramp it up or pull it back.”
These are lessons Murphy is grateful to have had the opportunity to learn. Before he arrived in Seattle, he had appeared in just 81 big league games over a span of four seasons – insufficient time to earn the respect behind the plate required of a team’s catcher. He could get attention being big and loud, but respect would take the time it took to learn each and every pitcher, who they were, what they needed, what they did.
“He’s an unbelievable leader,” said Flexen. “He really takes the time to learn you as the individual, to learn what works from you… As a pitcher you are hoping your catcher will take care of you throughout the game. He’s able to step up every single time with that leadership. The same thing with the intensity, as well, and be able to get you on back on track and carry me along the way.”
Said Gonzales: “For me, he’s able to kind of pull the mask down and be really serious, too. He knows what I need to be successful even sometimes better than I myself do. To have that voice back there is priceless for me.”
Big year ahead
Good health willing, Murphy should be behind the plate quite a bit in 2023 as the Mariners look to lighten the load on Cal Raleigh, who caught 115 games last year in his first full MLB season. Gone are the days of the ironman, Monday through Saturday catcher.
A more realistic split in this day and age – provided you have a good No. 2, and the Mariners very much believe they do – is 100 to 62. There is an open DH spot as well, with Servais not opposed to writing both catcher’s names into a lineup. If Murphy takes his spring offense into the regular season, we very well could see that from time to time.
“Murph has really changed a lot in his (hitting) approach from when he first got here,” said Servais. “This was a guy who could not hit a ball really on the right side of second base. He’s controlling the strike zone better than he has. He looks great.”
Murphy has improved since his arrival in Seattle as a 28-year-old, out-of-options catcher. To his credit, he put his trust in those who put their trust in him.
“I think every player in the big leagues is searching to become better with better info. I knew I had found that when I got to the Mariners,” he said. “They were giving me exactly what I had always strived for in the minors and big leagues with the other teams, but they were able to communicate in a way that felt like it gave me the tools to do exactly what I needed to do. All those answers I had been searching for, clear direction, a clear path, the daily work the coaches were willing to put in, I truly can’t thank the organization enough because that move coming over here has helped me realize a dream, but also realize my full potential. And it’s only getting better because we keep trying to get that 1% better. You hear ‘Skip’ (Servais) talk about that a lot, and that certainly would apply here.”
Perhaps a clicking clock is not such a bad thing.
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