Quarterback Kyler Murray will lead the Cardinals into Foxborough Sunday for a date with the Patriots, but it won’t be his first trip to Southeastern Massachusetts.
Murray, a two-sport star at Oklahoma, spent three-plus weeks as part of the Cape Cod Baseball League in 2017, playing for the Harwich Mariners.
“I was there for like a month,” Murray recalled this past week. “If you know about the league, it’s the best college baseball league in the summer, so there’s a lot of great talent. It was different: [I] didn’t have a car, slept in a basement, showered outside.
“It was an unusual start to the summer for me. But honestly, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It was part of the experience, and it was a great experience.”
As a college athlete, Murray was still weighing football vs. baseball. After transferring from Texas A&M to Oklahoma in the spring of 2017, the outfielder hit .122 with six RBIs and 12 stolen bases.
If you’re a college baseball prospect, the best place to sharpen your game remains Cape Cod. Murray was recommended to the Mariners and manager Steve Englert by Oklahoma’s then-coach Pete Hughes, who pushed Murray as a raw prospect but an electric presence on the basepaths.
“He wasn’t really an outgoing type of kid, but he was very, very coachable. He was open to anything you would throw out there,” recalled Englert. “He came to us very raw — to that point, he hadn’t played a heck of a lot at Oklahoma, but the coach there was a friend of mine, and someone who has always been spot-on with his recommendations.”
That summer, he had yet to take a snap with the Sooners, as he sat out the 2016 season after transferring. Despite a stellar high school football career, the Heisman hype was still a few years away — he was backing up Baker Mayfield at the time — which meant he could operate relatively anonymously on the Cape.
Some of his former teammates were unaware of Murray’s two-sport background.
“He was super focused all the time. Just always looking to get better,” said infielder Ryne Ogren. “Coming in, I didn’t know who he was as a player — he was under the radar as he could be, keeping his head down. But as soon as you saw him swing a bat, it was like, ‘Who is this guy?’
“He was an excellent athlete, but it was clear from the start that he could play some baseball. Later on, we find out, ‘Oh, lo and behold, he’s a stud football player too?’ ”
Under the radar
Murray showed up to Harwich in mid-June. As is the custom on the Cape, players live with host families in spare rooms, and Murray spent his time living with Barbara Ellsworth, who had previously housed Hall of Famer Craig Biggio. The legendary Ellsworth — who died in 2018 — was known for her stringent rules, including no baseball caps at the dinner table and no leaning back in your chair.
Murray hitched a ride to practices and games with his teammates because he didn’t have a car, and feasted on postgame spreads — pasta, salad, pizza — provided by local families and businesses. He showed up at team get-togethers, and signed autographs before and after games. (While Cape League players usually get summer jobs to have a few extra bucks in their pocket, Murray didn’t get a job because he knew he had to return to Oklahoma early for football workouts.)
In the end, Murray’s teammates recall him as the type of guy who was focused, but that didn’t detract from him having a good time.
“You spend a lot of time building friendships and bonds over the course of the summer, and everyone has their friend groups,” recalled pitcher Teddy Rodliff. “I remember him coming over to our house a lot to play Wiffle ball in the backyard after games.”
“We only had him for a short time, but he was a humble college kid,” said Harwich general manager Ben Layton. “You wouldn’t know he was a Heisman candidate by the way he carried himself when he was here. He just came in and fit in and was nice to just about everyone. He just took it all in, like every player who comes up here does.”
“He couldn’t have been nicer,’' said Ogren. “When we were hanging out that summer, he was just one of the boys.’'
But Murray’s anonymity ended when he stepped on the field.
“You just saw him run, and there was something different,” said Rodliff. “In the blink of an eye, he’d be 20 feet away.”
“I remember him beating out a routine ground ball once, and just saying, ‘Wow, that’s some crazy speed,’ ” said catcher Nick Dalesandro.
“The speed, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Englert. “He could steal a base on a straight hit-and-run. I told him, ‘Any time you get on, I’ll cut you loose. Don’t be shy.’ Speed never slumps and it always defends. We like to recruit speed in our outfield because we probably have the biggest field on the Cape.”
Murray joined a team stocked with an impressive collection of talent, including future Red Sox draftee Noah Song. But as is the case with many prospects who are new to the Cape, there were some early struggles at the plate.
“Making it work on the Cape, it can be tough to do,” Englert said. “He didn’t get a lot of at-bats in the spring season before he joined us, and then, you come to the Cape with the wood bats and you see all these power arms, facing you day in and day out. He had a slow start, but he made his adjustments and really thrived.”
Murray didn’t get a hit in his first four games with Harwich, but he still drew walks and used his speed to put pressure on opposing pitchers. He broke through with a homer in his fifth game, one that impressed Ogren.
“I remember vividly, we were in Bourne, and he hit a homer there that just jumped off his bat,” Ogren said. “He was trotting around the bases like it was no big thing. He just smoked it.”
Murray had a pair of two-hit games in late June before leaving to head back to Oklahoma in early July for the start of summer football workouts. Murray ended his 16-game stretch on the Cape with a .170 batting average, one homer, five RBIs, four stolen bases, and only one error.
“He was driving balls by the end of his time with us,” said Englert, who moved Murray from the nine-hole in his first week to the cleanup spot for his last six games.
But football was always there. Layton recalled the bullpen almost always being able to get their hands on a football, and Murray would occasionally fling it around the outfield.
“We obviously knew what he could do with a football — that was no surprise when we put one in his hand,” said Dalesandro. “But he’s probably the type of guy who could step on a basketball court and play that as well.”
Time to choose
Murray would build on his Cape League performance — the following spring with the Sooners, he hit .296 with 10 homers and 47 RBIs, to go with 10 stolen bases. He was emerging as a legit pro prospect in baseball, even with football as part of the conversation.
“The scouts would call all the time and ask me if it was going to be baseball or football,” Englert said with a laugh. “I didn’t know, but even then, his makeup and character were off the charts. He was great — there was no concern there, whatsoever. Being able to play two sports in a Power 5 conference? That’s impressive. I think he could do both at the next level if he wanted to, and sell popcorn between innings.”
In the end, after an amazing 2018 football season that included 4,053 passing yards and 40 touchdowns and culminated with the Heisman, Murray — who was a first-round pick of the Oakland A’s — spurned baseball and went with football.
That doesn’t mean baseball is out of the conversation for good. Englert is among those who believe Murray could find his way back to the game in some form or fashion, if he was so inclined.
“If he spent full-time on baseball, he could have a very good shot at being something special,” Englert said.
But for now, Englert is just happy for his former outfielder, whatever field he’s on.
“I was thrilled for the kid — to be drafted by Oakland in the first round, and he goes on and wins the Heisman and has a great college career,” Englert said. “He’s made all the right decisions to this point. I’m just extremely happy for him — he’s a good kid. It’s one of those instances where it’s fun to watch.”
A look at other great college football players who played baseball on the Cape:
Todd Helton: A quarterback who ended up backing up Peyton Manning at Tennessee, he spent two seasons with the Vols, completing 55 percent of his passes for 484 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions. He also spent the 1994 season playing baseball with Orleans, before eventually spending 17 seasons with the Colorado Rockies. As a member of Orleans, he didn’t hit a single regular-season homer, but did win the 1994 Home Run Derby with an impressive power display.
Frank Thomas: Thomas spent one season as a tight end with the Auburn football team, catching three passes for 45 yards. He spent the summer of 1988 with Orleans, cracking five homers. A college teammate of Bo Jackson, Thomas led Orleans to the Cape League championship series before launching a Hall of Fame career in stints with the White Sox, Athletics, and Blue Jays.
Darin Erstad: The former Falmouth Commodore — who was named Cape League MVP in 1994 — was the punter on Nebraska’s national championship team that same year, averaging 42.6 yards per punt, one of the best totals in the nation. The outfielder/first baseman spent 14 seasons in the majors, playing for the Angels, White Sox, and Astros.
Christopher Price can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at cpriceglobe.