by Howie Stalwick & r & Steve Murphy has played in the shadow of John Mayberry Jr. for so long, you almost expect Murphy to be covered in moss. From sixth grade through high school, Murphy played second fiddle to his good buddy and baseball teammate Mayberry every year. They went to different colleges, but Mayberry continued to draw far more attention. When they were drafted in June, Mayberry was selected much higher than Murphy.
Funny game, baseball. Out of the hundreds of minor league teams, the baseball gods conspired to bring Mayberry and Murphy together one more time in their first season of pro ball. Only this time, it's Murphy -- fresh out of Kansas State -- who has become a bigger star than Mayberry and everyone else on the Spokane Indians.
"Obviously, he's doing great things," Mayberry says. "He had this kind of talent in high school, and he carried it through college. The numbers he's putting up are no surprise to me."
Murphy was not drafted by Texas until the 14th round, but he led the Northwest League through Sunday with a .533 slugging percentage, 36 extra-base hits and 23 doubles (tied) in 62 games. He was seventh in hitting at .306 (despite ranking second in strikeouts with 71), and he was tied for fourth in homers (nine), triples (four), runs batted in (37), runs (45) and stolen bases (13).
And Mayberry? Well, the Rangers' first-round draft pick was hitting just .235 with seven home runs and 20 RBIs.
"I'm definitely happy with what I've done so far," Murphy says.
Murphy has good reason to be enjoying his first summer in the pro baseball sun. Murphy, Kansas State teammate Terry Blunt and Mayberry (the son of a former Kansas City Royals slugger) are living rent-free with a family in Liberty Lake. They're playing in a former Triple-A stadium that was once home to the likes of Willie Davis, Tommy Davis, Frank Howard, Ron Fairly, Tommy Lasorda, Steve Garvey and Carlos Beltran. And unlike so many players who turn pro in backwater towns the size of a postage stamp, Murphy gets to play in a metro area of well over 400,000.
"I'd never heard of Spokane," Murphy admits. "I thought it was some Podunk town -- you know, a one-horse town. Typical short-season, minor league, Class A; a couple hundred fans at games, crappy stadium, yellow grass field.
"But I come here to Spokane, and the city is great. I don't think we've had under 2,000 fans a night, and sometimes up to 7,000. The support here from the fans ... you can't really ask for more than that."
The gregarious Murphy has quickly established himself as a fan favorite, and he's a big hit in the clubhouse, too.
"He's a great guy," Blunt says.
"He's one of the funniest guys you will probably ever meet," Mayberry says. "It's hard to be in a room with Steve and keep from busting out laughing."
Any good pranks we can mention in a family newspaper, John?
"Uh, I don't think so," Mayberry says with a laugh.
Rival pitchers certainly aren't laughing when they face Murphy, who hit .328 with 10 homers and 45 RBIs as a junior at Kansas State this year. Murphy has primarily played left field (Blunt's position at K-State) for Spokane after playing right field for the Wildcats.
"I didn't put up the great numbers I wanted to so I could be drafted higher," Murphy says, "but I think it worked out best to be with this organization, with the coaching staff here and the atmosphere in Spokane."
"Every [home run] ball he's hit has gone into the night," Indians Manager Greg Riddoch says. "I think five have been to the off [left] field."
Riddoch and Blunt say they've been particularly impressed with the way the lefty-swinging Murphy has hit the steady stream of left-handed pitchers that Spokane has faced.
"I've seen Steve terrorize pitching, both left-handed and right-handed, for as long as I can remember," Mayberry says.
"He definitely brought his game up a notch," says Blunt, who joined Murphy on the Big 12 Conference honorable mention list this year. "He looks real comfortable out there. He's been tearing it up."
Murphy, who was not drafted out of high school (he says Boston offered him $40,000, but he wanted $100,000), starred on the 2003 NCAA Division II champions of Central Missouri State. He then followed coach Brad Hill to K-State, where he hit a team-high .338 and made the All-Big 12 second team in 2004. He regained eligibility for the draft this year and says he signed for $25,000, plus three semesters of college.
"It was a little disappointing being in the 14th round," Murphy says, "but you get your feet in the door and you're able to start your pro career."
Murphy, a big fan of George Brett when the Indians' co-owner starred for the Kansas City Royals, grew up in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, Kan. Murphy says the presence of old Kansas buddies Mayberry and Blunt has made the transition to pro ball easier for him, and Blunt -- tongue planted firmly in cheek -- says Murphy should be grateful.
"He got spoiled, I think," Blunt deadpans.
Can't let your roomie get a big head, ya know.
The Indians, battling for the East Division championship and a berth in the Northwest League championship series, wrap up their regular season home schedule with 6:30 pm games Friday through Sunday, Sept. 2-4, against Tri-City at Avista Stadium. Call 535-2922. Spokane finishes the regular season with games on Sept. 5-7 at Boise.