Ron Murphy’s heart and mind are never far from baseball.
The game ranks behind the importance of his family, and ensuring that his ballplayers on his team feeling like they’re part of a family is important to him.
It wasn’t always that way: There was a time when, as a young buck, Murphy cared more about victories and championships.
Of course, he’s got plenty of them now, with three state championships in his longtime role as Rio Rancho High School’s baseball coach since 1997 and on his way to becoming the all-time leader for wins in the state.
As a recent example of his fondness for the game and what he does, while you were sleeping in, maybe nursing a hangover or just relaxing on New Year’s Day, “Murph” was in his office at the Rams’ ballpark, cleaning and organizing things.
“I cleaned out all my drawers, threw a bunch of stuff away, cleaned up some stuff — I was struggling,” he said. “Like I tell everybody, I don’t miss baseball, as far as the game goes, I miss seeing the kids every day — the interaction.
“The teacher that emails, says the kid came in late; I bring him in, have my one-on-one with him,” he said. “I miss those types of interactions, (like) high-fiving a kid when he does something good.”
Yeah, a pandemic will do that. As this week rolled around, he was hopeful of getting his guys back on the field, albeit in a 4:1 ratio of players to coaches, and trying to get things back to normal — and maybe even a 2021 baseball season.
Last year, prior to the pandemic, the Rams had the makings of possibly his best team ever: A bunch of talented seniors that led the team to a great start, with five wins, two losses and a tie.
Those five Ws gave him 567 for his career, which includes 117 wins as the head coach at St. Pius X, and the rest at RRHS. Fifteen more and he’ll surpass the state’s career leader, John Gutierrez (581-262), who coached for a long time at Bloomfield High School in the Four Corners.
Murphy admits he’s not even sure when this new attitude began for him, but it now includes making sure his players are having fun.
“I would say when I was a young coach, I would consider myself young and dumb. I mean, I know winning was real important to me,” he said. “I felt like I had to win every game, and if I didn’t, it was personally on me — it was my fault.
“That was my mentality for a long time — I went home and didn’t sleep. I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep, I wasn’t in a very good mood — I didn’t know how to handle it.”
Like a fine wine, as they say, Murphy has mellowed. He often thinks about his former players and stays in touch with a lot of them, hoping what they learned from him — more of how to be good men than great ballplayers — has stuck with them.
“Coach Murphy was an example of a strong male figure for me as a high school student-athlete,” said former ace Josh Walker, who went on to play for UNM and briefly in the pro ranks. “I think this is overlooked too often and not enough credit is given to people like this.
“We need more strong male figures. We worked hard, no matter the weather or conditions,” he said. “(Murphy) showed us all how to work together, be resilient, tough and persevere through difficult situations, especially when the odds were stacked against us. I’m appreciative of his passion for success because it was contagious.”
Still getting better
Baseball hasn’t really changed much in the 160 or so years it’s been around. You still get three outs per inning and the team with the most runs when it’s over wins. Bigger, faster stronger don’t mean as much in this game as they do in football.
Still, Murphy and his coaching staff, which this season includes former Eastern New Mexico baseball coach David Gomez — yes, the husband of new Cleveland High volleyball coach Charity Gomez — never miss the national coaches clinic (Jan. 6-10 this year), which was held virtually this month.
“When I started going to these clinics, it was more about the X’s and O’s, strategies, and this and that, how to hit, being able to do this and blah, blah,” he said. “I’d say within the last five years, it’s really gotten to be 1, the mental approach to baseball; 2, the bonding aspect of it; 3, the mentorship of coaches to other coaches, especially the older coaches to younger coaches; and a lot of mental drills.
“This is what I get out of it, a lot,” he explained. “One of the things we get out of it is the coach bonding. We just sit here all day and watch videos, and then we talk about them. ‘This is what we do and why we do this and blah, blah, blah. Well, if we do this, will it work for the high school level?
“So we get to talk a lot of baseball. … It’s usually away, at a motel; we do everything together. We eat, we travel, we do clinics, we travel together. We have a coaches meeting, where we can talk about the upcoming season, what we think, what state of mind are the kids in right now, what else do we need to do to improve mentally right now? It gives us a chance to all get together, away from the families, so that’s an upbeat thing.”
Murphy chuckled when he recalled seeing a notable college baseball coach explaining the best way to do something — and it’s something his Rams have been doing on the field.
“It reaffirms we’re doing it the right way and reaffirms to my staff there’s a little bit of madness behind what I do, so that’s a major thing.
“Then, one of our goals, I always tell our staff when we go to a clinic, I want every one of them to come back with three new drills,” he said, preferring something new to an old, stale thing his veteran players aren’t motivated for. “I don’t care what they are, but three new drills to incorporate with our team this year.”
Sometimes it can be the same thing, but done differently.
“Sometimes you see things people do and you think, ‘Man, I’m stupid. Why didn’t I think of that?’”
Something else that wasn’t around when Murphy began his coaching days, the analytics aspect — finding its way into every sport — isn’t something he’s fond of.
“Some of those speeches you listen to for 45 minutes to an hour, and I sit there and I look at my assistants and say, ‘OK, you guys take notes on this one,’” he said. “I don’t have the attention span for those minute details. … That’s not me. I’m, ‘See the ball, hit the ball.’”
He said he has only two instructions for his players: “Play hard; have fun. That’s it; those are my two instructions.”
“It’s big right now, the analytics,” he said. “The only two guys in my program that even know a little bit about it, Mario Tafoya and our new hire, Dave Gomez. So I told them if we do anything with analytics, they’re in charge. I don’t want to know anything about it — just tell me the result.”
Often, such numbers and percentages aren’t that important.
“Sometimes, just the feelings you have as a coach (are important). I mean, I’ve made unorthodox moves in the past that nobody else would do, but it was based on knowing my kids, and knowing what they could and couldn’t do,” he explained. “We just know our kids.”
Something his kids are sure to know, because he won’t tolerate anything less, is a sprint to first base after a base on balls. And, speaking of running, Murphy takes pride in hearing other coaches compliment him for the way they race around the bases, knowing when to take advantage of a bobble by an outfielder, for example.
‘Big brother’ is watching
He can’t literally be a father to anyone other than his son Tyler on his team, but it’s still a family under his wing.
“Like I tell people, there’s a lot of times when we spend more times with the kids than their families do, their mom and dad,” he said. “A lot of them, they go to work; the kids are with us 3-3½ hours a day sometimes. I see them at school, they stop by my classroom.
“I always said, a coach is like 15 titles: You’ve got to be a psychiatrist, a dad, a mom, you have to be an uncle, you have to be a best friend, you have to be a counselor — to me, that’s what makes the coaching job the best in the world. Sometimes you have to be a cop; you have to be ‘Mr. Discipline.’
“Every day I walk in this office and I sit here, I don’t know what my title’s going to be that day; I really don’t,” he said. “I don’t know what kid’s gonna come through this door that day with what type of problem they had that day: Who broke up with their girlfriend? Who failed a test? Who’s (mad) because Mom yelled at them going out of the house?
“So I usually have 10-15 or 20 emotions coming to the field every day, by 2 o’clock,” he said. “Most of the time, I’ll find out about (discipline) problems before their parents do. … The title I love the most — I don’t know if I love it the most — is I look at it as ‘big brother.’
“This family matters, man,” Murphy said. “You can’t write a lesson plan for the day. That lesson plan writes itself. I think the better teachers and the better coaches are able to adjust quicker to that lesson plan to make it to the kids’ benefit.”
Murphy received some great news mid-January. Not only did Murphy — the only varsity baseball coach at the school since it opened in 1997 — learn that he had been named the 2019-20 New Mexico Baseball Coach of the Year, after being nominated by the New Mexico Activities Association, but he’d also been named the Southwest Section (Arkansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and N.M.) Baseball Coach of the Year by the National Federation of State High School Associations Coaches Association Advisory Committee Baseball, and the National Baseball Coach of the Year by the NFHS.
Murphy received the three prestigious honors due to, the letters to him noted, his shaping of athletes, contributing in a positive way to the community, school involvement, philosophy of coaching and on-field performance, despite the pandemic and only eight games played by his Rams in 2020.
“The National Coach of the Year is great for us because it brings national exposure to the best high school in the country,” Murphy said. “We have all been around long enough to know awards are won because of the people you surround yourself with.”