Sean Murphy was 16 years old and held his world in the palm of a right hand that could throw a baseball accurately at nearly 90 mph. He was well over 6 feet tall and still growing. Worries? Maybe one: Should he choose college or a baseball contract after graduating from Westbrook High?
That was five years ago. His hope of following in the footsteps of Billy Hamilton, the grandfather who pitched in the Milwaukee Braves’ minor leagues, has all but died.
Thursday afternoon, Coach Murphy walked with his team of victorious eighth-graders to the grass behind third base at Lyman Moore Middle School in Portland. Clap your hands for Landon Sjoberg, he told them. Sjoberg had pitched well for his Westbrook Middle School teammates.
Clap your hands for Cam Cross, said Murphy. Sjoberg was working on a no-hitter in the middle innings when Cross dived for a ball just beyond his grasp. Cross was being a good teammate, trying to save his pitcher’s no-hitter.
The sound of applause carried to the small bleachers near home plate.
Murphy is 21 and an imposing 6-foot-6. His thick shoulders and calves speak to great strength. The grin behind his facial hair speaks to a certain contentment. He and Zach Gardner, his childhood friend and former teammate, are coaching the eighth-grade team for the first time.
The outward sign of contentment masks a harder reality. Murphy can maybe reach 75 mph if he throws to a radar gun. He doesn’t always know where his throws are going. He had Tommy John surgery in the fall of 2011 to repair an elbow injury that wasn’t diagnosed properly for two years. Many pitchers can resume their careers after 10 to 15 months of rehabilitation. Murphy couldn’t.
The arm and shoulder injuries suffered by major league pitchers seem like an epidemic. More than a dozen pitchers have had Tommy John surgery this year and the season is six weeks old. Jose Fernandez, the Miami Marlins’ young star, was diagnosed this week and is lost for the season.
Murphy can remember the exact pitch when he hurt his arm five years ago in a high school game. He felt the tingling and his fastball went from 84 mph to 74 on the next pitch. He walked the next batter and Mike Rutherford, then Westbrook’s coach, went to the mound. “Are you OK?”
“I’m fine,” Murphy remembers saying. He continued pitching that season and the next. His velocity was down and his control was no longer precise. Doctors couldn’t find any damage until one told him to bend his arm instead of holding it straight. That’s when the MRI found the small tear near his elbow.
After surgery, Murphy tried to come back. One of the heroes of the 2005 Westbrook Little League team that advanced to the World Series in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, he was recruited by major Division I programs such as St. John’s and Clemson. He went to St. John’s after his surgery and bonded quickly with the 20 pitchers on the staff. He worked on his rehab and strength training but discovered he wasn’t able to get anyone out. So much of pitching is mechanical and in trying to pitch comfortably before the correct diagnosis, Murphy developed bad mechanics.
He left St. John’s. “I knew I was just taking someone else’s spot.”
A year ago he was one of Coach Ed Flaherty’s pitchers at the University of Southern Maine. He pitched in the Division III championships in Appleton, Wisconsin. He pitched in garbage time after the outcome has been decided. He’s proud of being on a roster that won the Little East Conference and Northeast Regional titles. “I wish I could have contributed.”
He walked into Flaherty’s office long before this season and said he wasn’t returning to school and thanked Flaherty for the opportunity.
“I know he was hurting inside because I know how much baseball meant to him,” said Flaherty in April. “He also looked like a huge weight had been lifted.”
Murphy works part time at a home for adults with brain injuries. He has no formal training but he’s working as a caretaker, not a medical caregiver or therapist. The experience puts his life in perspective. So he can’t throw a fastball 90 mph like he once did. His clients can’t do a lot of things they once did.
At 21, Murphy isn’t sure what door to open next. Becoming a game warden is appealing.
Thursday, he taught his young players. The heads of many of them didn’t reach Murphy’s chin. He looked like a bearded giant standing near the third-base coaching box. He interacted easily with Gardner, his teammate on that Little League team and other teams that followed.
“We’re 2-2,” said Murphy, referring to the won-loss record. “We pitch very well and field very well. We just don’t hit very well.”
He grinned again. “I’m OK. This is fun.”
Just not the fun he envisioned.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: