Scout's Honor Interview: Craig McMurtry

Scout's Honor Interview: Craig McMurtry

It's hard to imagine that the Braves were at one point desperate for pitchers, but in the early 1980's that was exactly their situation. For a few seasons, the Braves did find a few young pitchers to fill in the rotation. As part of the continuing coverage for his new book, "Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team," BravesCenter's Bill Shanks interviews for Atlanta right-hander Craig McMurtry, a pitcher with the Braves from 1983-1986.

SHANKS: Let's go back and talk about your minor league experience with the Braves.
MCMURTRY: Well I was drafted in 1980 in January when they had the secondary phase draft. I was at McLennan Community College out here. Played out the spring there and signed right before the June Draft. They sent me to AA in Savannah, Georgia right out of Junior College. It was interesting. I really didn't pay that much attention to it. We had two or three other guys. Jim Acker, who played for the Braves for a couple of years and some other teams. He came straight to AA. And Ken Dayley was also put straight in Savannah. So there were three of us there, and they needed pitching at the time. So it was a big deal. We went in there and I think I was 7-4 that half of the season. Then went to the Instructional League that fall, and then went back there to Savannah again the next year and I think I was like 15-11. Then they moved me up to AAA the next year in 1982 and I was 17-9 for Richmond. We won the International League and then got called up in September. Then made the team out of spring training in 1983 in Atlanta. It was pretty quick. As a time you don't think that much about it as a player. You think that's what it's supposed to be. The quicker you get there the better. Looking back at a lot of the guys that stayed in the minor leagues year after year and never got a chance when they were 26 or 27, I guess I was really fortunate at the time. It was kind of a whirlwind. Next thing you know you're in the big leagues and you win fifteen games. Rookie Pitcher of the Year and things like that. You just think things are going to keep rolling and they don't and you look back and go, "Man I had it pretty good there for a while and you realize how fortunate you were.

SHANKS: The time you came up the Braves were not known much for their pitching. Was there pressure on you young pitchers knowing that the team was always desperate for pitching?
MCMURTRY: They needed one. I'll be up front and honest with you. I was naive at that time. I mean I'm from a small town, small school, we had 36 people in my graduating class. I really didn't know everything about the game, and I still don't know everything about the game, but I was naïve about what was going on. The only pressure I really felt I guess personally after my rookie year was I looked up and won fifteen games and all of a sudden you're getting all this publicity and people are talking and your thinking "Man I guess I'm suppose to win twenty games next year." I think there was pressure understanding that we needed some people to step up and really be consistent and do things that give our team a chance – give the Braves the chance to get where they almost got to the two years before in 82 when they made the playoffs and then 83 when we finished second. And I'm thinking "Man if we can get some pitching here and do some things with Murphy, Horner, and Chambliss, and all these guys, then we've got a shot. I put the pressure on myself more than the organization doing that. But you're right we needed some people to step up. Phil Niekro was at the end of his career (with the Braves), a great career, and a great career. I think guys were just trying to do more than they were maybe capable of at the time. The whole key to baseball with the guys like Maddux, and Glavine, and Smoltz, is consistency. Every time out you know what you're going to get. That was something I think the Braves searched for quite a few years trying to find those handful of guys – 4 or 5 guys on a staff that can be consistent every time out and until the early 90's they couldn't find those guys. You know give the organization credit they kept working and kept going out and bringing guys in and the next thing you know they've developed the guys through the system and it's paid off big time.

SHANKS: Did you ever battle injuries?
MCMURTRY: No I really didn't have any major injuries. I had some nagging type stuff with tendonitis. I had some shoulder tendonitis when it knocked me out for maybe a month in 85. And then in 86 I had tendonitis again when I came back and couldn't get rid of it for several weeks. I never had anything major where I had to have surgery or anything like that. But elbow tendonitis, shoulder tendonitis, and things like that.

SHANKS: Was there a philosophy difference between Bob Gibson and Johnny Sain?
MCMURTRY: Both of those guys were great pitchers. I have a lot of respect for Bob Gibson and Johnny Sain. I think they had great careers and were great men, but they had different philosophies on what they wanted you to do. You have to be able to relate to what's going to work for you. If you're a young pitcher, I don't think I got caught up as far as what Bob Gibson was trying to teach that I thought, "oh all of a sudden I've got to throw 95." I threw in the low 90's. I consistently pitched 87,88 to 90, 91 with a sinker. As my career went on and I started struggling a bit, in 84 I was 9-17 or something like that and I probably could have been 6-20 or I could have been 13-12 or 14-11. I had some games that could have gone either way and didn't go the way I wanted them to. I think when I started struggling in 84 and 85 I did kinda get out of my game and start trying to throw the ball by people instead of using my strengths which was movement and a sinking fastball and slider and stuff like that and just trying to throw the ball harder. That was more my fault than anyone else, but they're philosophies are going to work with different guys. Maddux is the Johnny Sain-kind of guy that could spot it, move it, and locate it. Smoltz in some ways early in his career was a Bob Gibson type guy: rare back and if you can hit it you better have it ready cause I'm bringing it and then throw that nasty slider on the outside part of the plate.

SHANKS: But was it difficult to hear one thing in the minors and then one thing different in the majors?
MCMURTRY: Well my rookie year I don't think Bob Gibson said 15 words to me about how to pitch cause I was throwing the ball great. There was a time there when I thought, "Boy these guys must not like me because Joe Torre and Bob Gibson never really said a whole lot to me about what I needed to do pitching-wise. But things were going good and I guess it's the philosophy "Hey if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Keep going out there and do what you're doing." I didn't really have that much input as far as them doing something different for me. I just kept doing what I was doing as far as the sinker, the slider, and an occasional curve ball. And then the next couple of years I think I got away from that just because I was panicking thinking I had to change everything because I was not having the same success I had three years in the minor leagues and the first year in the big leagues. But I'm not going to blame anybody, and I don't think anybody should blame anybody or put it on anybody else. You put the ball in your hand and you kind of know what you need to do, it's a matter of maturity-wise knowing to stay within yourself. I think I was still at that age, 24 years old, where I thought, "golly I don't really know what I need to do sometimes," and got out of it. Leo was a pretty big influence on me. I had him in AA and AAA. Leo was really kind of a combination of both of those guys. I know he's changed some of his thinking and some of the things he does. But at that time, Leo was….we understood that you had to pitch and change speeds and move the ball and stuff. But he was also kind of a fireball. You got to be really tough out there on the mound and have the attitude that you're going to take it to these guys. So in my mind he was a combination of both of those guys. As far as attitude-wise you knew you had to be strong and aggressive, but pitching-wise you knew you had to do the other things like Johnny taught. I think that was his big asset early in his career. Of course I haven't been around him for a number of years. But he's doing a great job and getting a lot of notoriety about that now.

SHANKS: What was missing of those early 80's teams? Why didn't you guys win more?
MCMURTRY: I guess that's the million-dollar question. I don't know why we didn't get over the hump. We had a couple of pretty good years there, back-to-back, 82, 83, and 84. We had the hitting at times, pitching at times, defensively we were fairly solid defensively. Hubbard and Horner at third, and Murphy and Washington and those guys in the outfield. I just think it was a matter, at least in 83 and 84, I know in 84 the pitching wasn't as good because I had a bad year that year. It was as good as it was in 83. I guess we didn't put any streaks together and won games consecutively and got on a roll to put any distance between us and the other teams. When it came down to the last week or so in the season, we just didn't win the games we needed to win. Of course the other teams were pretty good. The Dodgers were strong back then. It was a good race. I remember facing Valenzuela a couple of times. Those were good games, big games, and a lot of fun. I don't know, I don't have an answer for the reasons why. It goes back to what I said earlier. We weren't consistent with what we did enough. We would have streaks of good stuff but not consistent stuff that's going to separate you from the other teams.

SHANKS: What about Joe Torre? What was your impression of him when he was manager?
MCMURTRY: I was a rookie and you know a young player whose first couple of years, honestly I didn't pay a lot of attention to how he managed games. He let me go out there and do the things they wanted me to do. I really didn't have a whole lot of conversations with him. I thought he was a good guy. I thought he did some things well. He kept us in the hunt for the division both years. I think he has probably matured as a manager over the last twenty something years since he was in Atlanta. I think he's one of the best managers out there, and I think a lot of that comes with who you surround yourself with, and the staff that you have, and obviously the players that you have. He's done a great job, and I think he's become a complete manager as far as the public affairs type stuff. I don't know too many guys who can handle New York.

SHANKS: Why did Eddie Haas not succeed?
MCMURTRY: I think Eddie's big thing was, and I don't think it was right, but I don't think Eddie ever had the respect of his players. I don't know why. I was a young player who played for Eddie in AA and AAA. He was just a good ole country boy like I was, so I related to him well. I understood what he was about. He knew the game and knew what needed to be done, but if you don't have the respect of the players and they don't believe in what you're doing then you're not going to be able to do a whole lot as manager. Eddie got caught in the situation where things didn't go as well as they should have, and the next thing you know the players were second guessing what he was doing because he was a first year manager.

SHANKS: You were traded after 1986 to Toronto.
MCMURTRY: Yeah ten days before we broke camp to go to Toronto, I had an emergency appendectomy. I ended up having some problems with that. I stayed in Florida for about six weeks. I did some rehab stuff. I ended up in Toronto at the end of the season but didn't pitch. Then I went free agent and signed with the Rangers and pitched three years with Texas. That was fun to pitch at home, two hours from where I grew up. I relieved. I relieved in 88, and then I spot started some in 89, and then in the bullpen in 90. I kicked around AAA for a few years. I was with Phoenix, the Giants AAA team in 91 and 92. Then I was in Buffalo with the Pirates AAA team in 93. In 94 and 95 I was in AAA with Houston. I got called up at the end of 95 with the Astros for about six weeks at the end of the season. Then I retired. Kids were getting older, and it was one of those deals where you stayed around trying to get back up. I pitched pretty well in a couple of games, but I had to have a couple of cortisone shots to get me through the season. I thought being away from home for 16 years was long enough.

SHANKS: You are now the head coach at Temple Junior College in Texas. How did you get into coaching?
MCMURTRY: I coached for two years with the Astros. They talked me into coaching their rookie league team in 96. I enjoyed it. Of course it was down in Orlando. Then the next year they offered the AAA pitching coach's job and I took it. But I didn't enjoy being away from home. I decided toward the end of the season that I'd rather be at home with them. I told the Astros, and they said they understood, and hopefully if I decided to pursue it again when the kids were older they'd try to find a place for me. Then I came home, and they started a baseball program here at the junior college, about 7 or 8 miles from where we live. That was in 98. So this will be our seventh season coming up in 2005. I enjoy the baseball part of it a lot. The recruiting is a little more than I bargained for. But as far as getting on the field, I enjoy that. I had my shot. I enjoyed the time I played. I didn't enjoy a great career by any means, but had some high spots and a lot of low spots. But I wouldn't trade any of it. Working with the younger guys is a lot of fun.

SHANKS: Do you like being a head coach or a pitching coach?
MCMURTRY: I enjoy the head coach more. I have an assistant who works with the hitters. Frank Kellner. We get along really good. But as a head coach I think I enjoy that more because I just have certain ways I like to see things done as far as the way the guys conduct themselves and the things you want to promote as a person. Not to go out there let the guys play, but to teach them about the game, to respect the game, and to do the things your suppose to do them, and as an assistant coach I don't know if you can do that all the time. As a head coach, you put your foot down and set rules and then enforce them.

SHANKS: Do you see yourself getting back into pro ball one day?
MCMURTRY: Well, my youngest is in the eighth grade. He's got four or five more years of school. I think I would possibly like to get back into pro ball at one point if someone would consider it. But I kind of enjoy what I'm doing right now. I enjoy being close to home and the freedom this job gives you.

SHANKS: Tell me first about Keith Eichas, whom you coached at Temple.
MCMURTRY: Keith Eichas was a real good first baseman here for us the last couple of years. He's from Round Rock, Texas, Round Rock High School where they have a very good baseball program. Ryan Langerhans was from there. His dad was the coach there. Keith came here as a second baseman in high school and played first for us. He's a very quiet young man. He's about 6'2", 195 or 200 pounds. He has tremendous bat speed. His swing is probably a little bit long for wood bats but I think over the course of the next year or so he'll make that adjustment. But he really gets the bat through the zone. He's a very good first baseman, and I think it's overlooked because everybody we talked to and came to see him saw his bat speed. But he has a great glove. He picks the ball really well at first base and saves a lot of errors. He does a great job. I'm really excited he's getting the opportunity to play. He's got a shot. Obviously, anyone who gets drafted has a chance. But he has a chance if he'll just keep improving. He's got a great work ethic. He'll work hard. You won't even know he's on the field though because he doesn't say much. He was here for two years and didn't say much to me. But he's a good young man and I'm really happy for him.

SHANKS: Did he play anywhere besides first for you?
MCMURTRY: He only played first base. Like I say he's 6'2" and he was playing second base in high school. The other young man they had at first was limited to first base. Keith they felt could play another position. Keith is a first baseman, possibly a third baseman but I think first is probably his position. I think he could learn how to play third. To me he's a natural first baseman just because of how he handles himself around the bag so well. I think he's not limited to first, but that's his position he'll probably excel at. I don't think you want to limit someone that early in their career. If you can swing the bat, they'll find a place to put him.


Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. You can email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.

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