Donnie Murphy was riding high at the end of January of 2020.
After serving as a hitting coach in the Blue Jays organization since 2016, Murphy had been named manager of the then-High A Dunedin Blue Jays, who were coming off of a Florida State League co-championship, and were looking forward to moving into their brand new facilities at TD Bank Ballpark once the parent Blue Jays had broken spring training camp.
What a difference a year makes.
Dunedin’s season, along with that of every other minor league affiliate, was cancelled by the Covid-19 pandemic. And now, with MLB having taking over MiLB, we’re into a brand new minor league world. Murphy now finds himself in Hillsboro, OR, as manager of the displaced Vancouver Canadians of the newly-minted High A Northwest League. It will be his first official managing gig after the wipeout that was 2020.
Murphy told a zoom conference Friday that while trying to coordinate workouts online for players last year was difficult, he used the time that otherwise would have been put to the day in/day out on-field operations of the D-Jays to become more prepared, and to get to know his fellow Blue Jays minor league staff considerably better. “I took the time to get better organized,” he told reporters in a zoom session yesterday. “I thought I was organized before, but I just became way more prepared and better organized. It’s maybe kind of a messy organized, but I know where everything is.” Getting to know his fellow staffers also helped “everyone get on the same page,” so that players don’t hear conflicting information.
When asked what will be the biggest challenge about a season in which most – if not all, given the travel ban and general state of B.C. at the moment – of their games will be played south of the border, Murphy responded, “just getting the guys as comfortable as possible.” Trying to get workouts in has proven to be difficult, given Covid restrictions. “I think the biggest challenge for us a team is trying to schedule our day. It’s very hard right now….with the (Covid) protocols, we have to map out our days, in terms of bus times and how many guys are in the clubhouse at one time.” Luckily, most of the C’s roster (which has yet to be made official) worked together in a group at Dunedin, so there will be a level of familiarity with each other for the the players, but getting in reps could be a logistical issue, as the team will start their season with six games on the road before returning “home” to Hillsboro – or Hillscouver, as new team broadcaster Tyler Zickel nicknamed it.
An added challenge to the Hillsboro situation beyond sharing their home park with another team is the fact that due to Covid, players can not be lodged with host families, as has been the case in the past when the team played in Vancouver. Finding reasonable short-term apartment and hotel accommodations has been added to the list of tasks the C’s front office has taken on.
The C’s pitching rotation has yet to be decided, but it will likely be anchored by 2019 C’s stalwart Adam Kloffenstein, who was named a Northwest League post-season All Star, and the 5th top NWL prospect by Baseball America when the league was a short-season loop. 2020 2nd rounder C.J. Eyk was named, along with Kloffenstein, as headed to Hillsboro by Blue Jays beat reporter Shi Davidi. Murphy said the challenge with his planned five-man rotation is that not every starter is at the same point in their innings/pitch count ramp up, so he envisions going with a piggyback situation for the first part of the season.
When asked what kind of ball a Donnie Murphy club will play, he said his teams will be relentless. “I’m a grinder,” Murphy, who played in parts of nine MLB seasons, reasoned, “and I’ve always been a grinder. I think that’s wearing off on the players a bit. From the first to ninth inning, there’s going to be no quit. I think we’re going to go, go, go all the time…..you’re going to see a team that’s very energized and gets after it every day.”
The team Murphy starts the season with may look very different by the end of the schedule. With highly touted prospects like Orelvis Martinez, Miguel Hiraldo, and Leo Jimenez apparently starting the season in the now Low A Florida State League, and Eric Pardinho still working his way back from Tommy John surgery, it’s reasonable to expect players will force their way up the ladder by mid-season, and some of Murphy’s current charges will make their way up to New Hampshire.
The C’s have perennially been the top-drawing team in the NWL, and the atmosphere at venerable Nat Bailey Stadium is a unique experience for players in the low minors. A limited number of fans will be allowed to attend games at Hillsboro, but the C’s will likely play most of their home contests in front of a small gathering of spectators. One thing is for sure: the word “challenge” is in for a workout this season.
For those hoping to watch the C’s this season, there’s good news and bad news. The MLB takeover will mean an enhanced viewing experience, as MLB has insisted on upgrades for teams using the milb.tv streaming service. The bad news is that the six game Sportsnet package is on hold for the year, and only two NWL teams will be streaming their home games – Hillsboro and Eugene. Despite sharing Ron Tonkin field with the Hops, the C’s will not be using their streaming capabilities. New broadcaster Zickel will be travelling with the team to their road games, and we will be able to hear the audio of Vancouver’s games on Sportsnet 650, or via the team’s website.