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WHERE ARE THEY NOW: DWAYNE MURPHY : Comfort Zone Is the End : Baseball Career Over, He Returns to His First Love--Football

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a moment no father could forget, and Dwayne Murphy was no exception.

He was just 18, a married man for all of one month to Brenda, his sweetheart since junior high. It was May of 1973, and he was cradling his newborn son, Dwayne Jr., in his arms.

But with the arrival of young Dwayne came new responsibilities for a guy a month shy of graduation from Antelope Valley High. So as Murphy welcomed his son into the world and considered his financial obligations as a father, he said goodby to football, his favorite sport, spurning a football scholarship to Arizona State and signing a professional baseball contract.

It was a gut-wrenching decision, and little did Murphy know that he would be identified as a baseball player thereafter. The Gold Glove center fielder played alongside such players as Rickey Henderson, Dave Kingman and Tony Armas with the Oakland Athletics in the early 1980s. His highlight-filled major league baseball career spanned 12 years.

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Now 39, Murphy is four years removed from his playing days, and has come full circle. High school football is at the center of his life again. He is head coach at California High in San Ramon, Calif.

His football career had a memorable beginning in Antelope Valley where he starred as a running back and defensive back.

“When I think of him right now, I think about football and I think about him hitting guys and their helmets flying off,” said Brent Newcomb, who was an assistant at Antelope Valley when Murphy played there and is now the head coach. “He had tremendous athletic ability on both sides of the ball.”

Murphy’s exploits on the baseball diamond were equally impressive.

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“I remember against Burroughs Ridgecrest,” said Murphy’s younger brother, Rod. “Back-to-back-to-back-to-back home runs. Four home runs in one game. . . . Even an out was a hard hit for him.”

According to former Antelope Valley teammates, Murphy was a driven athlete, a leader who encouraged with his actions instead of his words.

“Captain, we called him,” Rod Murphy said from his furniture store in Canoga Park. “Nobody talked in the huddle. He did all the talking. On the baseball diamond his senior year, I think he won every game for us.”

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Duane Hellwig first met Murphy when they played football against each other in junior high and eventually became his teammate at Antelope Valley.

“When it came time to play, he seemed to be above everybody,” Hellwig said. “He seemed to be more focused. When you were playing you could pin it all on him.”

The 6-foot-1, 170-pound player enjoyed the practices and especially the hitting. His future was in football, or so he thought.

“I had a letter from every college there was,” Murphy said. “But I never got any scholarship offers for baseball.”

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Then the A’s came calling. The signing bonus? $6,500.

“Hey, back in ’73 that wasn’t too bad,” Murphy said.

Hey, his career wasn’t too bad, either. Murphy was a career .246 hitter with 166 home runs who won six Gold Gloves. In 1982, he led the team with 94 runs batted in and also hit 27 homers. Two years later, his 33 homers were third best in the American League.

But it hardly came easy at first when he reported to rookie ball as a shortstop in the small town of Lewiston, Idaho.

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It was there that he met Steve McCatty, a rookie pitcher who wound up becoming his best friend.

“I remember he wasn’t that great a shortstop,” McCatty said. “I won’t say that he threw balls over the wall and into the stands, but the coaches saw him play for a little while and said, ‘OK, that’s enough. Get in the outfield.’ ”

Said Murphy: “I lasted about 25 minutes as a shortstop.”

He found his true calling in center field, and moved through the organization in the next few years. First came two seasons in Class-A ball at Burlington, Iowa, and Modesto, Calif., then one season in double-A Chattanooga, Tenn.

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In 1977, he was called up to triple-A Tucson, and in 1978 he got his shot with the big club.

“I can remember we opened up in Anaheim in ’78 and I was in awe,” Murphy said.

McCatty soon followed Murphy, arriving in Oakland later that same season.

“It’s really strange,” McCatty said. “Sometimes guys’ careers parallel like that. It was nice to have somebody to share all that with.”

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Both were briefly demoted to the minors before being called up for good in 1979. Soon thereafter, the A’s enjoyed some of their best years under Manager Billy Martin. They won the American League West in 1981 before getting swept by the New York Yankees in the playoffs.

“It’s something you really work for your entire career.” Murphy said. “Some guys play all those years and never get to see it. You play all those years and that’s what it’s all about.”

Murphy enjoyed some of his best years under Martin, the controversial manager who helped Murphy refine his game.

“Me and Billy clicked real well,” he said. “He taught me how to run the outfield, and I think that’s what made our outfield so good.”

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Said McCatty: “Billy helped make him a better outfielder and he made me a better pitcher. (Murphy) made the plays that made me look so good, as did (Henderson) and (Armas). I used to say we should move the wall back so more balls would fall in for them to catch.”

The team reached its peak in the early ‘80s but then its fortunes turned when key people left the organization. First went Martin, who was fired following the 1982 season. Armas was traded to the Boston Red Sox the same year.

Injuries also began to slow Murphy. In 1986 he ran into the left-field wall at Fenway Park, rupturing a disk in his back. In 1987 he underwent knee surgery after colliding with Mike Davis in the outfield.

“You come off a successful season, you sniff a piece of it, and we never quite got back,” Murphy said. “The closest I got again was with Detroit in ’87, but that was it.”

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He played sparingly during his last season in the majors, a 98-game stint with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1989. In 1990 he played in Japan until a knee injury ended his career.

He returned to Danville, a suburb of Oakland, to relax before planning his next move, but he did not rest long. Murphy was approached by officials from California High in neighboring San Ramon to coach their freshman football team and he accepted, not because he needed a job.

“To me, this is just fun,” he said. “It’s fun working with the kids and it’s fun teaching them to be competitive.”

A year later, he was promoted to junior varsity coach, and became the varsity coach last year. Although he didn’t realize it at the time, he also accepted the position of team fund-raiser.

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Because of budget constraints, each player must pay $405 to participate. When some players struggled to raise the money, Murphy scrambled for ways to help them make up the difference.

“I don’t want kids not playing because of money,” he said. “I’ve been going around, putting on fund-raisers for the hardship cases, and it’s worked out real well.

“It was something I never thought about. I took the job to coach football, but you have to do what you can to make your football program successful.”

Murphy led perennial doormat California High to a 5-5 record in 1993 a year after a winless season in ’92. The lessons learned on fields in the Antelope Valley two decades ago have served him well, he said.

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“Football was a big part of my life back (at Antelope Valley),” he said. “I felt I was coached well and I learned a lot. I think it’s carried over to the way I’m coaching now.

“I’m satisfied with my baseball career and I’m enjoying what I’m doing right now.”


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