(At the MLB All-Star Game in Cincinnati in 2015)
I have known Rob Murphy since the winter of 1984. We met in the old Keeneland library, which, at at time, was still connected to the old main frame and sat just above the clubhouse entrance to the historic track.
We sat quietly at two separate tables, across from each other, doing research. My task was to dig deep into the history of barn fires and the horrible circumstances that had caused them and the awful situations surrounding them in the Bluegrass. It was for a story that I had been commissioned to write for The Keeneland Magazine. I have to admit that it was not one of my most favorite subject matters. Horrible, to be downright frank.
Rob, a young man in his early 20s at the time, was there doing research on Thoroughbred stallions, trying to find the pin in the haystack; the theme or vein that ran through all the great sires of the industry’s past. His passion for fact finding was only surpassed by his desire to know more about what genetic traits truly make great Thoroughbreds run faster than their counterparts.
It was cold in Kentucky that wintery day. Snow laid on the ground outside, and the wind whipped so hard that it cut through the old Keeneland windows of the stone building about as fast as one of Murphy’s 95-mile-per-hour fastballs. The howl was about the only sound that resonated in those halls for those hours spent reading and digesting.
As I was preparing to leave, I wrapped in my winter coat about the same time that Murphy was getting up from his pile of paperwork and microfiche, too. I saw him slip on a “Member’s Only” jacket that covered him to his waist. They type of garment meant for a June rain. Not for a winter in Kentucky.
I asked him if he needed a ride. Politely, he declined. Said his car was parked just a few spaces from the front. That was about the summation of our first meeting.
Now, speed forward about 21/2 months, and set the location at Tampa’s old Al Lopez Field, on a sunny spring day. The Cincinnati Reds were in the midst of Spring Training. And, the sights and sounds of baseball beginning anew were enough to warm the heart and soul as much as the sun kissed the skin.
A group of us writers were hanging out in the bullpen discussing what we would write for the day when my good friend Paul Meyer, from the Dayton morning newspaper, suggested that I look up a young pitcher and do a story on him. He told me that he once attended the University of Kentucky, although he never played there, and that he was somehow connected to the horse business. I asked if he had a chance to make the big club, and Paul suggested that he was at least a year, maybe two, away. And, my interest waned.
But an hour or so later, with no real story in sight, my interest peaked. More out of necessity than fact. And, I went to the cramped, musty, pungent-smelling locker room in search of this kid. I was looking at the names posted above every cubicle searching for the name Murphy, when I rounded the corner and ran — literally — smack into the same young man that had spent that wintery day at the Keeneland library.
It took a second, but we recognized each other and renewed that two sentence conversation with earnest. Salutations. Greetings. Names exchanged. And, sure enough, I did my first interview — of what would turn out to be many — with Rob Murphy that very afternoon. And, I wrote that my first story about the kid. That night, we went to eat dinner at an all-you-can-consume buffet joint by the name of “Po Folks” and talked more. We both could eat and talk. And, I’m sure it is one of the reasons why the restaurant is no longer in business.
It didn’t take long before Rob Murphy became one of my best friends. We both loved baseball and horses. We both liked beer and Gold Star Chili. We both read The Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse magazine. We travelled together to each Breeders’ Cup. I stayed with his mom and dad when in Miami. He visited my mom and dad for lunch at a little country table when he came up for the horse sales.
We owned and bred horses, together. We had some good ones, too. Like, Platinum Tiara, whom we bred, raised and ran. She was a game second in the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies race at Churchill Downs. I found her mother, Michelle’s Monarch, in a claiming race at The Fairgrounds one day and got an old acquaintance, Henry Cochran, to get her for Murph and me. The rest, they say, is history.
And, we built stories and memories that will last a lifetime. Like the night of Rob’s bachelor party. Tom Browning, “Mr. Perfect,” is still trying to get the oil out of his hair. But we don’t want to divulge too much, although Gonzo may just now be getting off that Mary Kay cruise liner.
Like the day that Sunday Silence nipped Easy Goer in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 1989 at Gulfstream Park. Like the day his first daughter, Grace, received her first baptism. Like the day when a Kentucky boy hooked two sail fish in one hour and the lifelong resident of Southern Florida was still a maiden.
Like that night that the two of us, along with friend and cohort in racing, Dr. Robert Palmer, spent much of the late hours at the “100-to-1 Club” near the Santa Anita backstretch, picking up racing tips for the Breeders’ Cup; and the after-hours explaining how we were asked to leave a Denny’s breakfast eatery when a mustard fight ensued.
Like the night that we spent sleeping on the couch, floor and tile entryway at our friend, Amy Zimmerman’s, beautiful condo in Arcadia. Like the day after the 1988 Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs, when the two of us didn’t have enough money to buy one breakfast. While I wrote follow-up stories one after the other, Rob hit the Pick 6 on a dreary, snowy day. Thank goodness for ATMs, and the fact that we ignored the sage advice of Rob’s dad, Robert Sr., who always told us to not bet on a sloppy track.
Like the day in St. Louis, Aug. 21, 1988 (just in case you were wondering) when player-manager Pete Rose, Cardinals’ announcers Joe Buck and Mike Shannon, Murph and I all decided that we loved Mill Native in the Arlington Million. And, we all bet. (Well, most of us, anyway.) And, he won at odds of 40-to-1. Pitching coach Scotty Breeden never could quite figure out why Murph was in the clubhouse instead of the bullpen that day.
Like the day in Boston, when Murph took me on a tour of the Green Monster. Like the day in Columbus, Ohio, when Murph was recalled to the majors by the Florida Marlins, at the tail end of his career, and we drove to the minor league park to retrieve his gear and rushed off to the airport.
Like the days Murph spent talking to my son and his teammates on how to play baseball. Like the Christmas Day, Murph picked up my son, traveling alone at the ripe old age of 13, at the Miami airport and took him to the Miami Hurricanes baseball camp for an entire week.
Like the many days and nights we stayed up trying to handicap the damn Breeders’ Cup Turf Classic.
In 1992, Hurricane Andrew ripped through the Bahamas on its way to Southern Florida like it was nobody’s business. It destroyed Homestead, FL on Aug. 24, 1992 as a Category 5 Hurricane. Leveled it. Too the ground. It made toothpicks out of wooden houses. Shreds out of people’s lives. At the time, Rob was playing for the Houston Astros, but he had a house in Coral Gables. So, I asked him if I could help.
A few weeks later, I paid the home a visit. Unlike most of those in his neighborhood, it was still standing. His boat, though, a bright and beautiful yellow Donzi, was resting on the roof. After the season was over, I returned to Coral Gables to visit with my good friend. A new boat was in the canal. We took a trip out to Biscayne Bay. We idled all the way. The destruction was amazing. Three houses down there was no sign of a house or life. It was like that all the way to the ocean.
Not a word was spoken. None needed to be said. It was awful devastation like I have never, ever, seen before. I stayed long enough to help pack boxes of cement tiles up to his porch and balconies. (I was a lot more fit in those days. But I had to be to carry those things.) If memory serves, I think I made 1,000 trips with those things in hand.
So, you can imagine what I thought when Hurricane Irma turned her attention towards the Florida Keys and Miami last week. When the pictures of St. Marteen, and Barbuda, and the U.S. Virgin Islands rolled across the TV screen, the memories of Andrew reappeared in my mind.
I called my friend, Rob Murphy, who now resides just north of Ft. Lauderdale in a beautiful seaside city of Stuart. I implored him to board up and come stay with me, in Kentucky; far from danger. I begged him to pack up Grace and head North. I even told him that we would go to the horse sales; something we always enjoy doing.
I had seen too much what a Category 5 could and would do. I remembered too vividly.
But, you see, Rob Murphy has never been one to back down. Not to a hitter like Kevin Mitchell, or Barry Bonds, or anyone for that matter. And, not to a hitter like Hurricane Irma, either. He decided to ride it out. In his home. Against the wind.
I talked to him throughout the ordeal, via text. I wanted to make sure he and his family were OK. We chatted about horses, some. We even exchanged thoughts about some “Hips” in the Keeneland September Sale.
Fortunately for him and his, the storm slid enough to the West to avoid a direct hit on Stuart. Still, the wind, rain and water surge were all packing a punch bigger than a Mayweather haymaker. Damage was done. But heart and soul were still alive.
This morning, I got to talk to my friend for the first time on the phone. He was at a hardware store getting supplies to rebuild. He and his neighbors have much work to do on their collective dock. Electric is slowly being restored. Cell service is still spotty, but getting better. Fresh water is now back on the grocery shelves. Getting back to life is now back on their minds.
It was so good to hear Rob’s voice. Never prone to much emotion, he was typically matter of fact. Had his “To Do List” printed off his computer in triplicate. One given to Grace. One given to his significant, Michele. One, folded perfectly and tucked neatly into his left hip pocket. His next stop already pre-planned in his map-like mind.
He apologized that he will have to take a “rain check” on the trip up for the Keeneland September Yearling Sales. But he had already volunteered to serve on a board to help restore the inter coastal waterways and other damaged buildings. A few, short minutes later, he was off to another task.
Funny how life happens. How the winds change.
Little did I know when I saw this guy in the Keeneland library some 33 years ago, that a lifelong friend would suddenly, remarkably, dramatically blow into my life. And, how much I know now, how powerful winds can turn that life upside down. Literally. Figuratively.
I am so glad Rob Murphy and Grace Murphy are safe and sound. I am happy that Michele is there to help, assist and keep my friend sane. I hope the same for the less fortunate, too. After all, they have friends worried about them. And, after all, they have friends that they haven’t even met yet, too. Friends that they meet in a library, of all places. People who will become friends and they don’t even know or have met, yet.