YANKEE INVASION | Bradenton's J.R. Murphy returns home in New York's lone visit to McKechnie

Bradenton’s Murphy returns home in NY’s lone visit to McKechnie

jlembo@bradenton.comMarch 7, 2012 

BRADENTON -- They’re the New York Yankees.

They are the pinstripes and the championships and so full of Hall of Famers that they could have their own wing in Cooperstown.

This spring, J.R. Murphy is one of them.

“Man, I don’t know where to start,” he said Tuesday while leaning along the dugout railing lining the third-base side of McKechnie Field.

A Bradenton native and a 2009 graduate of The Pendleton School at IMG Academies, Murphy is in his first big-league camp with the Yankees, who chose him with the 76th overall pick of the ’09 draft.

He wore pinstripes Sunday and drove in a run when the Yankees played their Grapefruit League home opener at George M. Steinbrenner Field against the Philadelphia Phillies. And he was on the Yankees’ travel roster Tuesday when they headed south to play the Pittsburgh Pirates at sold-out McKechnie Field.

The Yankees brought several of their biggest stars -- including Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano -- and started ace C.C. Sabathia on the hill in a game the Pirates won 7-4.

Murphy, a 20-year-old catcher, knows he isn’t competing for a shot on the 25-man roster. So he has decided to have some fun and learn as much as he can this spring.

There are plenty of teachers to learn from, too.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi was a big-league catcher for 15 seasons and spent four of those in New York. Bench coach Tony Peña was a four-time Gold Glove winner during his 17 years behind the plate. And the Yankees’ starting catcher, Russell Martin, won a Gold Glove in 2007 and has been selected to three All-Star teams.

“This stuff is pretty cool for a guy like me who’s young and coming up,” said Murphy, who turns 21 in May. “All in all, just seeing how they go about their business in a professional manner, it’s pretty neat.”

Inviting youngsters to big-league camp serves as more of a learning experience than anything else, and Murphy is getting to see how professionals prepare themselves for the rigors of a season.

But this spring also is giving him a chance to see there is a heartbeat beyond the Yankees’ mystique.

“People have this faraway image of what the New York Yankees are like, and getting to be in the clubhouse every day and see how they act is pretty neat,” Murphy said. “They’re good people, which is awesome to see.”

Murphy took a big step forward last summer, when he was selected to play in the South Atlantic League All-Star game with the Yankees’ Single-A affiliate in Charleston, which helped lead to a promotion to the franchise’s high Single-A team in Tampa.

Now, he’s back in Tampa under the watchful eye of Girardi, who chatted with Murphy briefly during batting practice Tuesday.

“I was impressed when I saw him catch the other day. To be as young as he is and to catch in a big league game and be able to relax and look good back there, I’ve been impressed with him,” Girardi said. “Tremendous work ethic, very bright, knows what he’s doing. So he’s been good.”

Murphy’s last trip to McKechnie was a painful one. During a Tampa Yankees game against the Bradenton Marauders, Murphy broke his left foot when he fouled a pitch off it and missed the rest of the season.

But after using crutches and a walking boot, Murphy, who hit .259 in 23 games last summer in Tampa, said he is 100 percent healthy and ready for the next step, whatever that may be.

The Yankees’ catching situation grew a little less crowded during the offseaso,n when they sent one of baseball’s top prospects, Jesus Montero, to Seattle in exchange for pitcher Michael Piñeda.

Will that make the path to the big leagues clearer for Murphy? Or will Gary Sanchez and Austin Romine, two of the Yankees’ other top catching prospects, get a call before him?

Murphy, for now, isn’t concerned with all of that. He just wants to enjoy his first big-league camp, learn from it and control what he can control.

“I just have to go out every day and try my best and work hard, and it’ll all play out the way it’s supposed to,” he said. “This is my first camp, and I know I’m not making the club this year. Really, I’m taking it as an experience, to have fun.

“If I go out here and have as much fun as I am having, and learn as much as I’m learning, that’s all I really came to this camp to do.”

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