Every ballplayer wants to make an impression in his first professional game.
Tri-City Dust Devils catcher Tom Murphy made one on the first pitch. It just wasn’t quite the impression he hoped to make.
The Colorado Rockies’ third-round pick out of the University at Buffalo was eager to tackle his first assignment -- catching Ryan Arrowood, a pitcher making his pro debut -- during the Dust Devils’ season-opening series against the Everett AquaSox.
Arrowood’s first pitch was supposed to be a four-seam fastball down and away, but it stayed up in the zone.
Murphy prides himself on being a good defensive catcher who can get in front of most anything a pitcher throws, but he couldn’t get his glove in front of this one.
“That one just took off,” Murphy said. “It cut a good 10 inches.”
The result was a little embarrassing for Murphy and quite painful for plate umpire Sean Ryan, who absorbed the full impact of the pitch in the groin.
“It was an accident, but I don’t know if he was willing to accept that,” Murphy said. “He stayed kind of quiet after that.”
Ryan might have gotten a small measure of justice later in the game, when Murphy was hit by a pitch in his final two at-bats.
“I think we were both on the same page after that,” Murphy said.
With the unusual debut under his belt, Murphy was the one doing the hitting the next day.
In a 5-3 victory over the Vancouver Canadians, Murphy went 2-for-3, including an RBI double for his first professional hit.
Dust Devils fans might as well get used to watching Murphy drive in runs. He plans on doing a lot of it this season.
“Any team I’ve ever been on, my goal is to be an RBI hog and drive in as many runs as I can,” said the 6-foot-1 right-hander out of West Monroe, N.Y. “It’s been great learning from the other guys like Charlie (Blackmon). He’s been in the big leagues and knows the big league approach. It’s kind of refreshing to get into a routine like that.”
Murphy, who is nursing a slight hamstring injury, already has established himself as one of the Northwest League’s best run producers. Despite playing just seven games, he’s tied for 13th in the league with eight RBIs. He’s also hitting .400 (8-for-20) with a slugging percentage of .600.
‘You can tell he’s a pretty good hitter,” Tri-City manager Fred Ocasio said. “He’s not going to be chasing a lot of bad pitches. He has an idea at the plate.”
Murphy credits his high school coach, Kyle Brown, a former minor league outfielder in the New York Mets’ system, for giving him “the right train of thought,” and Jim Koerner, his former hitting coach at Buffalo, for helping him realize his true potential.
But the work ethic that sets him apart comes from his parents, Tom and Kelly.
“They didn’t go to college, but they made quite a name for themselves because of all the work they put in,” said Murphy, who picked up some valuable training by watching his dad at work. “He’s a mechanic, and he’s a tremendous leader. He manages four or five guys every day to make sure they get things done the right way. You learn from that, how to be authoritative. A lot of my leadership ability comes from him.”
When a catcher enters the Rockies’ system — especially one drafted as high as Murphy — it isn’t just looking for offense. The organization values a good receiver for the pitchers just as highly as it does a quality hitter.
“It’s a working position. The harder you work, the better you get,” said Marv Foley, the Rockies’ roving catching instructor. “He’s a big, strong guy with a plus arm. You can see he’s got a desire to learn.
“I’m going to throw a lot of things on him on purpose. I know they all won’t stick, but we’ll follow up. There’s a lot to it. You don’t get this stuff overnight.”
Dust Devils pitching coach Dave Burba, who spent 15 seasons in the major leagues, said a good catcher can provide a valuable support system for a pitcher and that Murphy has shown plenty of promise in that regard.
“I definitely feel there has to be a solid pitcher/catcher relationship, and from what I’ve seen of Tom, he’s doing a good job of that,” Burba said. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders. He knows when to slow a game down if pitchers are struggling a little bit.”
Burba presided over a pitching staff that led the NWL in ERA last season and tied a league record with 10 shutouts.
Murphy, the 2011 Mid-American Conference Player of the Year, looks forward to another productive season.
“I want to help my pitchers out as much as I can (framing pitches), making strikes strikes and hopefully make a few balls strikes as well,” he said. “I’ll try to control the running game and give my team the best chance to win.”
w Jack Millikin; 582-1406; firstname.lastname@example.org