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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Niekro and Matthews: Major-League Mentors

Who did you look up to in the early days of your career?

Early on in my career I was lucky to rub shoulders with a number of great players, but there were two guys, in particular, that really had a lasting impact on me: Phil Niekro and Gary Matthews, or “Knucksie” and “Sweet,” as we called them, respectively. In Phil’s case, one thing I admired was how he managed his career, namely, his contract negotiations, which were always done professionally, avoiding any conflict. On the field, he was a great example to us young guys (me, Bob Horner, Glen Hubbard, etc.) of how to play hard and endure to the end. For instance, I saw him pitch a bunch of times when he wasn’t feeling 100%. He may have had a sore back or arm, but he’d get out there anyway and give it his all. He also hated getting pulled from games. Contrary to many pitchers in the game today (which fact is partly due to the rise of the middle-reliever), Knucksie expected to pitch all nine innings every time he got on the mound. A couple of years ago, in fact, he told me that he genuinely felt like he had failed the team every time he didn’t pitch a complete game. Another thing about Knucksie was that he could hit. He took his hitting very seriously, and he was always on the lookout for ways to help the team win. In short, Knucksie was a true gamer. And, watching his example, I decided that’s how I wanted to be known, too—-as someone who’d put the game and their team ahead of himself.

A few posts ago I mentioned going to a Giants/Phillies game the night before my pre-draft workout in Philadelphia back in 1974. If I remember right, Gary Matthews was a young player on the Giants at the time. And like Knuckise, Gary was a true player’s player. His effort and enthusiasm on the field really set him apart, in my eyes, from so many other guys. Every time Gary would put the ball in play, you just knew he wasn’t going to be satisfied with a single. He’d often knock his helmet off running to first so he could at least try for second base (in fact, he’d hit with his baseball cap folded up in his back pocket, a habit I think came from his early career when it was typical to run without a helmet). Gary was aggressive, always talking and motivating everyone, and he’d push us young guys to be better. We all really looked up to him. I can remember, for instance, when I heard we’d traded Gary to the Phillies in the spring of 1979. I was taking batting practice in spring training, and I hurried in to John Mullen’s (the general manager) office and asked him if it was true that we traded Gary. I remember first stopping in the clubhouse, to grab a Gatorade or something, all the while debating in my mind whether it was appropriate for me to go express my disappointment to the GM! It was the first time I’d ever gone in to management to voice my opinion on one of their decisions. That’s how much I admired Gary. In a way, trading Gary was a compliment to the younger players—the Braves obviously felt we’d be strong enough offensively that we could trade him to get some pitching. Still, we missed his energy on the Braves, and he went on to great things with the Phillies and Cubs, where he was given the nickname “Sarge” for saluting the bleacher bums out in left field before every game. I was very fortunate to have had him and Knucksie showing me the way during the critical early stages of my career. I’ll never forget their examples.


  1. Mr. Murphy,

    I wish there were a more formal way to contact you, but this will suffice. I saw your tweets today with Jim Rome...which lead me down a path to your blog--I didn't know you were blogging.

    I am launching a new online newspaper (if you will) for the residents of American Fork, Alpine and Highland. Residents, civic leaders,churches and schools will provide the content as they post about their organizations. 100% of our subscription fee will go to our local schools through a PTA fundraiser. With the school fundraiser, expected in early September, we anticipate having 5 to 8,000 subscribers.

    Anyway, I am looking for "featured" bloggers from these 3 communities to blog about whatever makes them happy. It is not a paid position, rather an exposure (message) opportunity. The process is simple, we can just take a feed from your blog or give you access directly to our site.

    If you feel like this would be appropriate for you...it goes without saying--we would love to have you participate. You can check out the early stages of the site at americanforkonline.com. I can be reached at jwarner7@gmail.com

    Thanks for your time...and I look forward to hearing your remarks on Rome tomorrow.

    Justin Warner

  2. Heard you on Jim Rome and so glad you're blogging. Had the pleasure of meeting you in the summer of 1987 as a TBS intern. I've met many famous athletes, but I still maintain that one five minute conversation really left a mark. We were shooting the "Celebrate Superstation TBS" commercial with Nique and you (my backside is actually dancing in that commercial) and I had the opportunity to talk with you about BYU and the internship. I'll never forget that you were the one asking me questions. After a few minutes, it was your turn in the cage...would've been a perfect way to end the conversation but I'll never forget you saying that you have to take some swings but you'll be back. And you were. We talked a bit more and you extended your hand, wished me luck, and made me feel like a million dollars. I do think back on that encounter often when I ponder if taking an extra 5 minutes with someone is worth it. Guess you never know when some people's "moments" are made out of your "minutes". Anyway, all the best to you and your family and thanks for being someone that even Dan Patrick says "made a mark" on their lives.
    Tom Ruesink

  3. I hate that I missed the Rome interview. Any chance he'll let you post a transcript of the convo in your blog? I knew the interview was coming last week but I work during the daytime!