On Sept. 6, Owen Murphy walked out to pitcher’s mound at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, the home of the Tampa Bay Rays, wearing a Team USA uniform to start a game against a team of Canadian 18-Under all-stars.
Last week, Murphy, a 17-year-old senior at Riverside-Brookfield High School was named to the Team USA 18-Under baseball team and pitched the fourth game of a seven-game friendly series against Team Canada.
And he rewarded the coaching staff’s confidence, starting the game and pitching four shutout, hitless innings while striking out six and walking three in Team USA’s 16-1 win over Team Canada, their fourth straight win in the series.
Murphy made Team USA after a week-long tryout in Sarasota, Florida, fulfilling a dream he has had since he was 13 years old. In game one of the Canada series, Murphy showed his prowess at the plate, entering midway as the designated hitter and swatting a bases-clearing triple in the eighth inning.
“It’s a dream and a honor to be able to put this USA jersey on,” Murphy told the Landmark in a telephone interview. “I’m getting choked up just thinking about it.”
Murphy, a Riverside resident, has always loved baseball. “Ball,” along with “ma” and “da,” was one of the very first words he ever uttered.
He started playing some sort of baseball at about 4 when his father signed him up for a class at the Riverside Recreation Department called Smart Start Baseball. He moved on to T-ball and then played on Little League teams in Riverside and on the Riverside Rockets travel team that were both coached by his dad, Mike Murphy, starting when he was 7. At age 13 he started playing and training with Rake City, a Countryside-based elite baseball training program.
His dedication, work habits, and passion for baseball set him apart, said Rake City owner and coach Pete Flores.
“He’s obsessed about being the greatest that Owen Murphy can be and he does not stop,” Flores said. “There’s no off button with that kid.”
Murphy made the 26-player Team USA team as a utility player and is the only player from Illinois on the team. In addition to pitching, he can play third base, second base and shortstop.
Although he is most known for his pitching and throws a fastball that has reached 94 mph Murphy loves to hit and play the field. In fact, hitting is his favorite thing to do.
“I love the feeling of hitting the ball and squaring it up on the bat,” Murphy said. “That’s how I fell in love with this game, and that’s what I hope to be able to continue to do.”
His coaches rave about his work ethic and competitiveness. That’s one reason that Team USA 18U manager Jason Maxwell picked Murphy to start the only game in the series with Canada that will be played in a major league stadium.
“I told our pitching coach, I want Owen Murphy throwing at Tropicana Field,” Maxwell said. “I thought that kid would be lights out on that stage. I just love the way he competes.”
Murphy has always been very competitive at everything, even playing board games with his family.
“Our family game nights used to consist of me being not too happy when I didn’t win,” Murphy said. “If my brother won or my dad won, I was not happy. If my mom won, I was not happy. The only times I went to bed happy was if I won.”
Backyard whiffle ball games with his dad were also tough, no-quarter-given games. His dad would not ease off and let him win.
“All I did was want to play sports in the backyard with my dad,” Murphy said.
Being part of Team USA has been quite an experience, and his coaches are all former major league players.
Maxwell, who now coaches at a high school in Nashville, was a September call-up for the Chicago Cubs in 1998 whose first major league hit was a pinch hit home run at Wrigley Field.
The pitching coach is former major leaguer Brad Penny, who won 121 games in a 14-year major league career. His hitting coach is Michael Cuddyer, who had a career batting average of .277 in his 15-year career and led the National League in hitting in 2013, batting .331 as a member of the Colorado Rockies. His fielding coach is former Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson.
“It’s just great, being able to go into the cages and start swinging and getting tips from guys who have hit .300 in the show, who have made less than 10 errors in an entire season, and who threw nasty splitters on the mound,” Murphy said. “I mean, it’s just amazing to be able to talk to them and feed off their knowledge and ask a ton of questions.”
Tryouts for Team USA started in Sarasota Aug. 26 with 44 players and Murphy found out he made the 26-man roster on Aug. 31. Before the tryouts, Murphy had made a name for himself at the Prospect Development Pipeline camp cosponsored by Major League Baseball and Team USA last month in North Carolina.
He led all pitchers there with 10 strikeouts in four innings, including striking out the side in both innings he pitched in the bronze medal game. At the plate went 4 for 9 and hit a home run.
The team has two practices a day, and Murphy is trying to keep up with his school work during a daily mandatory study hall but admits that his focus is on baseball. His says that his teachers at RBHS have been understanding.
“They’re very happy for me, so they’re very forgiving when it comes to all this kind of stuff,” Murphy said. “I keep in touch with them through email, keep them all updated, and hopefully get just a little bit of work done so I’m not terribly behind when I come back to school.”
The only downside of the experience is that Murphy, who is also a standout football player, is missing the start of the RBHS football season.
As a freshman Murphy was thrust into the starter’s job at quarterback, something very rare on the high school level. He was a standout wide receiver as a sophomore and started all five games at quarterback last spring in last year’s abbreviated spring season while also starring for the RBHS baseball team and playing travel baseball.
Murphy spent the summer traveling to high-profile baseball showcase events across the country from San Diego to North Carolina. He is keeping close tabs on his football teammates and their games from Florida.
He is scheduled to play in two more showcase baseball events this fall so he is not sure he will play football once he returns from Florida on Sept. 10.
Next summer Murphy, who has committed to play baseball at the University of Notre Dame, might have a big decision to make, because he’s likely to be selected in the Major League Baseball amateur draft next June.
But he’s not thinking about that too much right now, focusing instead on the thrill and honor of playing the game he loves for his country.
“I’ll have a clearer picture by the end of this fall of what I think I want to do, and then going into the spring is when the decision is made,” Murphy said.
Whatever he ultimately decides, he will be doing what he loves, playing baseball.
“Nothing compares to putting on the jersey and getting out on the field and feeling the dirt under my cleats and being able to square up a ball and throw a ball over the plate,” Murphy said. “There’s nothing that matches it, and I just love everything that comes with the game.”