#TGW: A Brother's Advice

May 12, 2015


By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word

For all the vacillations that come with a baseball season, there seems a great deal of symmetry and significance attached to Georgia Tech's run to the finish line, especially for A.J. Murray -- a perfect sort of glue for the Yellow Jackets.

The senior do-whatever-he's-asked iron horse will make his 100th consecutive start tonight at Turner Field, where the Jackets (32-18) will try to sweep Georgia (24-26) in football, men's basketball and baseball for the first time since 1970-'71. Murray's been so smooth in his last season on The Flats that bumps in his road are nearly forgotten.

Tied atop the ACC with 14 home runs, seven coming in the past 11 games, and among the league's top 10 in runs (48), RBI (49) and slugging percentage (.604), he's hitting a career-best .292.

He, fellow senior Thomas Smith and junior Matt Gonzalez are the only Jackets to start all 50 games, but Murray hasn't exactly been able to settle into a groove.

In starting 28 games as designated hitter, 15 at catcher, and seven (and six of the past eight) in right field -- where he last played as a freshman at Westfield (N.J.) High -- he's done whatever asked without changing expression.

Murray is a day-in/day-outer the likes of whom head coaches relish building teams around. That's ironic in way.

He's consistent like a clock, maybe even machine-like in his approach to all that he does, yet the process that made him a Jacket was so sudden and spontaneous that matching his Tech beginning to its ending would seem nuts.

It was the summer of 2010, before Murray's senior year in high school, when, "He was in a [local] tournament, and [assistant] Bryan Prince saw him play. Liked him," head coach Danny Hall said. "We were looking for a catcher. Bryan told him once the tournament was over we'd like to have him to campus.

"He came down, we showed him around, I offered him and I left to go to another game. I had barely gotten off campus, and I get a call from A.J. and he goes, `I'm coming.' I'm like, `Well, you didn't take very long to make your decision.' "

Murray's mind was made up with the help of a perfect backstop -- his family.

Michael Murray Jr., who'd played at Wake Forest just a few years ago, was at Russ Chandler Stadium last Friday to see his younger brother go 3-for-4 with a homer and three RBI in Friday's 9-1 win over Pitt.

His advice years earlier -- go to Tech -- was key.

"I texted my Dad, and he was surprised they offered me," A.J. said. "I always knew Georgia Tech as the team that hit five home runs against my brother."

Just a few feet behind the screen behind home plate on Sunday, watching as A.J. made much of his final home game by hitting a two-run homer in a 10-3 Tech victory over the Panthers, Michael Jr. was there again.

So who do you think made the trip from New Jersey to Atlanta, last spring, as the Jackets opened conference play with a tough weekend against Wake Forest that saw two Tech starting pitchers go down with injury as Mr. Steady scuffled?

All has not gone smoothly. Life interrupts.

The Murrays' father and baseball savant, Michael Murray, died of a heart attack over Christmas break in 2013. That was just a few months before the miserable Wake series, and A.J. was wearing it.

"He struggled out of the gate, and he and I had a conversation . . . they were playing Wake the first ACC weekend, and I asked him, `Do you think you're struggling because Dad died, or are you putting pressure on yourself because of the draft? A combination?' " Michael said.

"He said, `I don't know.' He was kind of figuring it out.' "

A.J. always has.

After playing in just 12 games as a freshman, starting two, Murray started all 64 as a sophomore while working at DH, catcher and first base.

His junior season began as a slog before Murray emerged from fog.

He started 60 of 62 games, led the Jackets with four home runs and saved the best for last. He hit .318 in the ACC Tournament, where the Jackets upset the field to win their second title in three years. In the title game against Maryland, he was 3-for-4 with a double, three RBI and a run scored.

The Murrays' father, owner/operator of a baseball academy back in New Jersey that Michael Jr. now owns and runs, was 51.

"He was the driving force, always pushing me to be better. He was the one flipping soft toss, taking me to the YMCA," A.J. remembered. "The special thing about him was it wasn't just me, any of my teammates . . . they were all his sons, and they treated him like that.

"[The heart attack] was completely out of the blue. He had two bouts with cancer in the past. We were running our baseball school; we were doing some camps [over break in `13]. He was at a Christmas party with some buddies, and I think he was just sitting on the couch."

As always, A.J. Murray re-calibrated, found his way back on track the same way he always does -- by busting tail.

"He's been that way since he got here," Hall said. "He was primarily a catcher. We've played him at first. This is the first time [recently] he's played in right. He's a good athlete, was an all-state running back in high school. He's a competitive kid, and he does everything the right way.

"He leads by example. He's a hard worker. It's paying off for him. He's having a great senior year. I think it just shows that he's a strong person. He was very close to his Dad; his father was heavily involved in his baseball."

If Michael Jr. was worried, he has not been surprised.

"The thing about A.J. that I'm most proud about, he comes out every day and grinds, good times or bad," said he big brother. "He just does his work."

At about the time the Jackets were wrapping up the ACC title, A.J. went undrafted, which was a bit unexpected since he'd been selected by the Astros in the 48th round after his senior year of high school.

You know how Murray deals with disappointment.

The ACC Tournament had been a shining moment, and he made last summer offer more of the same by taking to the Cape Cod League with purpose.

There was the .317 batting average, the six home runs (tied for second in the CCL), and the 32 RBI (tie third). Oh, and in addition to being named MOP for the Chatham A's, he was the East MVP of the All-Star Game in Fenway Park, where his brother had played in the Cape Cod League All-Star game a few years earlier.

The CCL named him winner of the Manny Robello 10th Player Award, recognizing Murray's dedication on and off the field.

Add the ACC and CCL runs, and the Murrays were re-discovering their strides.

"They ended up winning the ACC tournament in Greensboro the same weekend my cousin was graduating from [nearby] Elon so my grandparents -- my Dad's parents -- ended up seeing it," Michael said. "It was just a convergence of things where it was unbelievable.

"I know how hard it is to play ACC baseball when everything in your life is going good. To have to do it with those circumstances, I'm just so proud of him." Murray has earned the right to be proud. He may be too busy working.

He's 12 hours shy of a business degree with a focus on marketing, and looking forward for a third time to next month's MLB draft. He has two plans. Hopefully, they will merge.

"If I get drafted, I'm definitely going to sign and go play," he said of his goal to follow in the footsteps of a father and an older brother who played minor league baseball. "Depending on the team and the organization, I'd like to come back in the fall and get my degree done. It all falls on the organization."

Michael Jr., 27, is almost certain to help with any decision.

After graduating from Wake with a degree in political science, he played in the minors, took a Master's degree in sports business from Columbia, has worked both in the MLB commissioner's office (chiefly on salary arbitration and licensing) and with agents, and is now in law school at Rutgers.

"I played at Wake, and enjoyed my time playing down here," Michael Jr. said. "[Former Wake] coach [Rick] Rembielak, who I played for, was here helping Danny. Coach Hall and coach Rembielak are kind of blue-collar, Ohio attitude and that resonated with A.J., myself and our dad.

"I didn't want him to go to Wake just because I had played there. This was the right spot for him. Over the four years, it's been everything we could've hoped for . . . A.J. certainly has gotten a lot better in his four years here from the quality and attitude Danny installs in the guys."

A.J. is following in footsteps and blazing his own trail. In a father's love, guidance and principle and a brother's advice, he's had dual compasses.

With only a final game against the Bulldogs and series at Miami Thursday-Saturday before the ACCs and possible NCAA, no path seems beyond his track.

Look at his arc: as a freshman, he had one hit in 12 at-bats. Then, he batted .271, .283 and now .292 with a seven-game hitting streak and at least one run scored in 11 straight.

"You never know what position you're going to play. I've embraced it. I think the adjustment to first base was a little difficult in the beginning," he said. "Definitely as I've gotten older, these adjustments have come easier . . . it's been fun.

"I knew they were a big-time program, and with the alumni they have here . . . I definitely made a spur-of-the moment decision to come to Tech, and I don't regret it one bit."