In addition to falling into the second base job (because legally you can’t just place an orange traffic cone between short and first), Brad Emaus seems to be the frontrunner for an award that is probably no more familiar to you than, well, Brad Emaus. He certainly qualifies as the favorite, which speaks less for Emaus and more for the lack of competition — sort of like second base.
Sometime in the next week it is likely to be announced Emaus, or Lucas Duda, or maybe Pedro Beato or…can’t think of anybody else…has been voted recipient of the John J. Murphy Memorial Award, given annually to the top rookie in Mets camp.
I’ve been assured the award still gets announced, as it has most every year since 1972, but word doesn’t seem to readily seep out about it. Last year’s winner was…ya don’t remember, do ya? Don’t feel bad. I missed it entirely when it came down, and I pay attention to this stuff. The 2010 John J. Murphy Memorial Award, as voted on by the members of the media who cover Mets Spring Training like a tarp, was Ike Davis. Ike enjoyed a hellacious spring a year ago — batting .480, socking three homers, driving in ten runs — and won an all-expenses-paid trip to Buffalo to start the season.
When the Murphy — named for the general manager who helped build the 1969 World Series champs and died the following offseason — was first instituted, the winner received a Omega Dynamic wristwatch from the good folks at Clive Jewelers. It was a big enough deal that the New York Times reported not just the announcement that John Milner was the inaugural recipient, but the statistics that earned it (.296, 3 HR, 12 RBI) and the vote total (Hammer 8, Buzz Capra 2) that made it official.
It was never much more than a one-day blurb, befitting anything that happens in Spring Training. By the time the real season began, it was something for Ralph, Bob or Lindsey to mention a couple of times, and then it would be tucked into the press guide for posterity. Still, I always liked to learn who won it. It used to be a staple of late March and early April Met reportage.
Has it proved predictive of rookie success? Sometimes. Milner had a fine rookie campaign in 1972, though interestingly, his teammate Jon Matlack, who received no Murphy support in spring, won the National League Rookie of the Year Award (while Milner placed third). No offense to Clive Jewelers, but that’s a more impressive piece of hardware. Darryl Strawberry, who had to endure an Ikelike detour to the minors before taking the Senior Circuit by storm in 1983, pulled down the only Murphy-ROTY double win in Met history. Dwight Gooden, Rookie of the Year by November 1984, however, was aced out of the John J. Murphy in March by Ron Darling…who would go onto finish fifth in N.L. Rookie balloting.
Other Murphy winners who garnered Rookie of the Year support included Roger McDowell (1985) and Kevin Mitchell (1986) in addition to Davis. Conversely, some of the more noteworthy Mets rookie outings of the past four decades were overshadowed in the runup to Opening Day. Hubie Brooks’s 1981 was stellar (.307 batting average, third to Fernando Valenzuela and Tim Raines in Rookie of the Year balloting), but it was Tim Leary’s sensational spring that attracted Murphy voters (en route to his career-altering injury in the chill of Wrigley Field on Opening weekend of that fateful April). Gregg Jefferies won ROTY votes in both 1988 and 1989 yet in neither spring did he take home the Murphy, coming in behind Kevin Elster in ’88 and Mr. March himself, Darren Reed, in ’89. Jason Isringhausen would spring to rookie prominence in the summer of ’95, but it was Edgardo Alfonzo who carried the month of April the year Spring Training was strike-delayed. And when David Wright was first opening eyes in March 2004, it was the legendary Orber Moreno who put up what was judged the superior spring.
Moreno’s Murphy was presumably the only award the forsaken righthander ever won at the major league level (on the other hand, Orber pitched in 40 more games than I ever will). He beat out not only Wright but Kaz Matsui, which was probably a bad sign for Kaz — and if you’re thinking maybe Kaz wasn’t considered rookie enough for John J. Murphy voters because he wasn’t “really” a rookie, Japanese league veteran Tsuyoshi Shinjo won the award in 2001, as did Masato Yoshii in 1998.
Is Orber Moreno the most obscure John J. Murphy winner? Define obscure. These are the Mets, and their media horde has also been blinded by the Florida light provided by the likes of Mike Bruhert (1978), Mario Ramirez (1980), Doug Simons (the Emausish Rule V draftee who shared JJM jubilation with Pete Schourek in 1991; Ron Gardenhire and Charlie Puleo were the other co-winners, in 1982), Mike Draper (another Rule V’er, in 1993), Steve Bieser (1997) and fellow Subway Series hero Dae-Sung Koo (2005). Kelvin Chapman was so dazzling in St. Pete in March 1979 that he won not only the Murphy but the second base job, making him the last second baseman with zero major league experience to start for the Mets there since (presumably) Emaus. Kelvin proved not so hot at second in ’79, but redeemed his Murphyness five years later when he re-emerged from the discard bin to serve as Wally Backman’s effective platoon partner for parts of two contending seasons.
Some Murphmeisters, as in the case of Strawberry and Davis, don’t make the team out of spring but make a mark later. Jose Reyes won the award in 2002 as a 18-year-old, but wouldn’t see the Mets for another year (nobody won the award in 2003, the second time in the bling’s history that happened; a labor-stoppage curtailed Spring Training in 1976, and no award was given then, either). Jon Niese, at 21, whetted Met appetites with a strong spring in 2008 then disappeared into the minors until September. Melvin Mora tore up St. Lucie in the March of ’99, but wasn’t truly ready for his closeup until October 3 of that magical year. Others who left a calling card the previous September — Lee Mazzilli in 1976, Anthony Young in 1991 — maintained their cup-of-coffee momentum and seized the Murph the following spring.
Only one winner of the John J. Murphy Memorial Award never saw game action in the regular season, not as a Met, not as anything. Yet he had more big hits than Ramirez, Reed and Chapman combined: the 2000 recipient of the award, Garth Brooks.
Yes, Spring Training games are taken so seriously within the industry that a celebrity who alighted in Mets camp on a goodwill, fundraising mission on behalf of his charitable foundation…a country music megastar who went 0-for-17 in exhibition games…was voted the top rookie in Mets camp.
Did it do any harm? Other than to the psyche of Jason Tyner and any other freshman hoping to make a meaningful impression that spring? Well, the Mets were so distracted by Brooks’s participation in their contests that they went out and won the National League pennant in 2000. Through his visibility in March ballgames, Brooks’s Touch ’Em All Foundation elicited the aid of 120 MLB players and millions more dollars for his philanthropic endeavors. Upon Brooks’s departure from St. Lucie, Bobby Valentine referred to Garth as “one of the most special people I’ve ever been around”.
Garth Brooks was a bigger attraction than Mike Piazza that March. He didn’t contribute to a single Mets win, but essentially nobody minded. He didn’t collect one lousy single, yet they were happy to present him with a trophy (prior to the Home Opener, no less). Hard-bitten writers and broadcasters looked past his 0-for-17 and went along 100% with the spirit of his briefly “being” a Met.
By next week, we’ll know the identity of this year’s John J. Murphy Memorial Award winner. And by the week after, we’ll have probably forgotten. In the meantime, in case you’re tempted to take any Grapefruit League result close to heart in the next several days, remember that Garth Brooks once won an award that Hubie Brooks didn’t, and it wasn’t a Grammy.