Donnie Murphy Shares Insights, Vancouver Canadians’ Upcoming Season
Donnie Murphy, manager for the Vancouver Canadians, took some time out to share his thoughts about the upcoming season and its unique hurdles to overcome. Whether it is having to play hundreds of miles from your home stadium in a different country to sharing a stadium during a pandemic.
Playing Away From Home
332 miles separate Vancouver, British Columbia and Hillsboro Oregon where the Canadians will share The Tonk with the hosting Hillsboro Hops. The Tonk is short for Ron Tonkin Field where the Hops have been playing since 2013. This year, Covid-19 has forced many Canadian teams who play teams in the States to find a home away from home. The Toronto Blue Jays, parent club of the Canadians, are playing their home games in Florida instead of Toronto. Same with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors.
But, the Canadians are on the west coast and Florida is too far away to play teams from Eugene, Tri-City, Spokane or Everett. So, Vancouver looked south and saw the welcoming Hops from Hillsboro. Almost centered perfectly between the other four teams in the league, Hillsboro proved to be the most logistically sound place to call home for the time being.
Adjusting to Home
The Canadians will first notice the differences between The Tonk and Nat Bailey.
Those differences represent the adjustments needed. “It’ll allow us to play faster, more aggressive. Infielders will have to get used to… ” the bounce, Donnie said referring to the artificial turf. “We have our first work out today (Friday, 4/30)”
Schedules worked out so one team would be home while the other is on the road. That means that the Tonk will get a workout hosting a total of 132 games in the regular season. Even major league teams only host 81 games during a normal season. Adding to that total could be the playoffs. If both teams make it to the postseason and both win their first rounds, they would meet for the championship. Round one could go three games while round two could hit five. By the time the dust is settled, 140 games would have been played in about 160 days. The grounds crew might as well set up their home away from home in foul territory.
Covid-19 Makes the Rules
All of this is due to Covid-19. Canada has a mandatory 14 day isolation period after crossing the border heading north. With most home and road stands alternating, it would mean the Canadians never get to play a home game in Nat Bailey Stadium. Hence, find a home down south and play all of their games on U.S. soil.
Donnie Murphy talked about how the regular routine changed because of the pandemic. Gone are the ‘hands-on’ instruction by coaches. Like most workers everywhere, work assignments came home. Face to face communication continued electronically. “Everything was through Zoom or phone call.”
When the players arrived at Spring Training, coach Murphy first saw his new team and he noticed, “This group gets along…very motivated… definitely took advantage of their downtime this year…” For Donnie, he was, “…excited. There is only so much Zoom coaching you can do throughout the year.”
Donnie Murphy’s View of the Big Jump
The last time Vancouver played, fans watched Short Season A ball. Going from 76 games a year to 132 can make a noticeable difference. “I think it’s big, I personally think it’s a big jump… short season a lot of guys trying to get their feet wet… not sure what to expect… you kind of let them play.”
But, a full season is a lot different. “The type of play you’ll see is more fundamentally sound… less errors… I think the game is cleaner in general.” Fans will see a player closer to major league level but there is still a distance to go. “They’re a little more advanced… compared to the short season.”
Donnie Murphy Sees Seasons Change
For lifetimes, baseball was scheduled around the chaos of daily life. You might
meet your storied rival in June. Next year in May. You can start the season at home one year and on the road the next. Rain can change the schedule causing games to double up. But, this year, the schedule becomes more regulated. At least for the Northwest League. A homestand or a series on the road will always start on a Tuesday, end on a Sunday and consist of six games. Monday will always be a day off unless needed for a rained out game. Will this make life easier? Or too rigid? Does baseball lose its flexibility while gaining dependability?
When it comes to the rotation, Donnie had this to offer: “There’s going to be a lot of piggybacking… (what’s) saving us right now is the extra players on the extended rosters..” Because of the shortened Spring Training, baseball has increased the roster to allow more pitching. “There’s going to be some trial by error… it’s going to take at least the first couple of weeks to figure that out.” The number of pitchers in the rotation is up in the air at the beginning of the season. “Right now it’s more five-man (rotation).
Donnie Murphy the Player and Coach
Donnie had quite a long career as a professional ballplayer. Drafted in 2002, he hung up the cleats after spending 2015 with the Milwaukee Brewers organization. It didn’t take him long to jump right into coaching the following year. “I was one of those guys who can’t just sit around.” Donnie said, explaining how he got into coaching to begin with. “Toronto had some hitting coach opportunities right away. I did that for four years.”
The change from player to coach is as big a step as college to pros. “As a player, I was very determined, focused. As a hitting coach, I had to learn to be patient.” But, after that time, Donnie felt something else lay ahead of him. “I decided I think I was more of a manager type personality… obviously Covid derailed that…” Donnie was assigned his first manager position for Dunedin in January, 2020, just before Covid-19 knocked North America for a loop.
Time to Reflect
That down time gave Donnie time to reflect. During that time, he realized he was not as prepared as he thought he was. That extra time was time to find out who he was. “I’m a grinder… I’ve always been a grinder.” Donnie said. A team will follow the style of their coach. “I’m definitely a fundamental guy.” The coach will lead with how he thinks the game should be played. “There’s going to be no quit… I think we’re gonna go-go-go all the time.”
Mistakes made years ago are very similar to mistakes made today. One thing Donnie had to remember was… “patience… things are different now.” When Donnie was a young ballplayer, “they pounded it into you (when you made a mistake)… now it’s personal… swing stuff… pitching stuff.” Today’s game is more intricate. More studied. “They have a lot to learn. A lot of the technical stuff is individualized.” But the games are more than making a science out of baseball. “There’s a lot of conversation during games… a lot of conversations during the day.”
But, life is more than just baseball. These young players are away from home. Away from their families. Friends. “It’s important to build trust with these players from the get-go. As a manager, I have an open door policy.” That also goes for his staff. “We mesh well. We collaborate well.”
How Soon Vancouver, Donnie Murphy?
The future of baseball is still in doubt with Covid still sticking around. The Canadians may spend the entire season calling Hillsboro home. Or, it might let up enough next month to start thinking about opening the borders.
“That’s one of those things we’re not thinking about right now. We want to get our feet wet…we want to get the season started.” Fans are starving for baseball. The coaches and players are no different. “Everybody is hungry to start the season.”
“Last year threw a lot of curveballs at us.” Donnie explained. “It’s prepared us to not know what to expect.” When you don’t know the future, all you can do is know the present as best you can. “What we do know right now is… playing here. Making the best of it as we can”
One of those curveballs is getting vaccinated. The minor leagues have yet to start. “I’m not sure when that is going to happen. I’ve heard 85% with the big leagues.”
“Toughest right now… Covid protocols.” Donnie Murphy admitted. “With the
restrictions… in place… it’s not so much where we are playing at… it’s more how we are going to operate on a daily basis. You’re only allowed so many people in a clubhouse at one time” While Donnie Murphy says they “pretty much have it mapped out here, there’s a lot of unknowns going for us on the road.”
There is a parallel with the Vancouver Canadians. Baseball has a home. Baseball is a home. But, when we can’t be home for a period of time, baseball can make any place home. Young boys knew it when they found an empty field or an almost empty street. The G.I.s knew it when they found a quiet place away from the war. When you bring a ball and a bat with you, you are bringing a part of home with you.
One thing that is not in doubt is that baseball does and will have a home. Even an historic pandemic like Covid-19 can’t stop baseball from coming back home. As relentless as this pandemic has been, baseball has proven time and again that it can be just as relentless. Baseball may have to wait its turn, but baseball can teach patience like no other major sport. Baseball has started its journey home. The Vancouver Canadians will be one of the last teams to make it. But, home is there… waiting. The Canadians will make it home. Baseball always does.
Check out the Vancouver Canadians’ home page to learn more about the Hops new roommates.
For more on the story on how the Canadians came to Hillsboro (temporarily), check out my column from April 20th, 2021.