The finalists shuffled into the room. A boombox sat on the table in front of them. Once they had all filed in, one of the seated Phillies staffers reached forward and pressed play.
Dance, they said.
Gregg Murphy danced. Recalling the moment now, he breaks into a two-step with snapping fingers, a move reserved for dads on wedding dance floors.
Stop, they told him.
Following the retirement of the original Phillie Phanatic’s inhabitor, Dave Raymond, in 1994, the Phillies needed someone with all the energy, coordination, and nonverbal communication skills that the job required. So far, they hadn’t found that person. But they did have all day and a boombox full of dance music.
Murph, who had found himself in the room by answering an ad for an ambiguously-worded baseball position, didn’t get the job.
But he’s still working Phillies games to this day. Instead of dancing on the dugout or chasing Noah Syndergaard to get his keys back, Murph stands in a slim concrete camera well on the first base side of Citizens Bank Park. From here, he stages in-game reports and stories, participates in other features conceived by his producers, and banters with his fellow broadcasters. Occasionally, he’ll stop talking in mid-sentence and seem to gaze into the distance, as if struck by the Voice of God. Typically, it’s just the Voice of John Kruk in his ear.
“He’s saying the ball girl down the third base line has played the best defense tonight,” he conveys.
Having worked this beat since 2012, Murph knows what to watch for from his bunker. He knows Alec, the security guard most closely adjacent to his spot, and he sort-of knows how to use the gate to gain access to his office, but it is tricky, and Alec is always willing to help. Most importantly, he has received lessons in foul ball evasion for over five years—lessons that can be moving at over 100 m.p.h.
“In that moment, you have to make a decision,” Murph instructs, “because if you go for it and miss it, everybody’s gonna let you know. I’ve only made one catch. It was a Cody Asche one-hopper.”
The Brewers’ Christian Yelich steps into the batters box to face Vince Velasquez. “It’s the lefties you’ve got to watch out for,” Murph advises.
One night prior at Wrigley Field, Murph was almost tagged by an errant throw from Tyler Chatwood of the Cubs. But beyond awareness and athleticism, Murph’s job includes a litany of responsibilities as he and the rest of the broadcast team put together four or five spots throughout their programming: He talks. He reports. He updates. He interviews. He ziplines. He goes for a swim. He kayaks in McCovey Cove. And between innings, he’s on the move.
“Skill-set wise, I don’t know how to describe it,” Murph says. “You have to know how to speak? I guess? B.S. a little bit? The ability to, kind of, [be] knowledgeable about things that maybe you’re not... and a lot of that’s preparation. I have to prepare for an interview with an actress I know nothing about. Or a singer I know nothing about. I love music, but I don’t know anybody. I don’t know celebrities. I’ve interviewed so many of them, you know? But I’m always doing research and hopefully I come off somewhat knowledgeable.”
He does not, however have to dance. Though Murph had reached the ten or fifteen finalists to be the Phanatic, he didn’t land the gig. But even without a hot dog cannon, his work ethic indicates how lucky he knows he is.
“I always want to do more,” he says.
Tonight, as the Phillies face the Brewers during a rough stretch of increasingly sweaty proportions, it’s nineties night. Pop culture references will be appearing all evening, including a guy dressed like Waldo in the background of Murph’s segments. His first piece of the night is mere moments away, but the problem is, sometimes the game doesn’t care what Murph has planned.
Tonight’s first piece? “How well the Phillies are playing at home.”
By the fourth inning, they’re down 11-0. Ryan Braun has homered twice.
“Mmm,” Murph says, shaking his head.
It’s all right. He can save that one for tomorrow night. More importantly, he’s got to read the NBC Sports promo about the Belmont Stakes and not lose focus as the guys in the booth ask him about the increasingly ridiculous cast of nineties references gathering behind him. A bunch of guys dressed like the Jamaican bobsled team from Cool Runnings have quietly filed into the shot as a cameraman arrives for Murph’s spot on Brewers stater Jhoulys Chacin.
“Hey Matt,” Murph casually greets him, gesturing to the scene behind them. “You hear about Waldo?”
You know Gregg Murphy. He’s the smiling face the Phillies broadcast will cut to, providing you with injury updates, changes in the standings, and interviews with former players, celebrities, and prospects parents. Does your stadium have a fun quirk, signature food, or brand new feature? Murph will do/eat/talk about it, all while drawing the abuse of people on social media who don’t like his face.
“It’s a new world for folks doing this kind of job,” Murph says with a vigorous nod. “People can come after you, they can come after you anonymously; they can be really, really nasty sometimes. A guy just the other day told me he hates my face, and every time it pops on, he has to change the TV.”
“It used to bother me when I was much younger, when it was chat boards and viewer comments via mail,” he laughs. “That used to bother me. I would literally be up at night—Why doesn’t he like my face?? But now I think it’s hysterical. And invariably, you fire back at them, and—like this guy who hates my face—came back with ‘Oh no, it’s just, I think you’re really good at what you do, it’s just sometimes…’ It was like, come on man. Do you hate my face or not?”
It’s 2 a.m.
This is the rough stretch for sports programming, hours from both prime time and sunrise, a block in the schedule reserved for test patterns, smiling salesmen, and calls of “limited supplies left!”
A pair of sports merchandise hawkers appear on screen. Can they interest you in a piece of Dale Earnhardt’s tires? No? How about one of Shaquille O’Neal’s shoelaces? Only 500 in stock.
A Sports Illustrated writer named Austin Murphy (no relation) once tried to watch 24 hours of sports programming for an article, at a time when such a concept was a novelty and not a monotonous reality. As he composed his piece in the morning following this twisted experiment, he saved his harshest critiques for a 22-year-old Gregg Murphy and his colleagues on their early morning program, “A Piece of the Game.”
“There’s a blurb in this column where he says, ‘It’s 2 a.m., I can barely keep my eyes open, I’m watching two slime-ball hucksters try to sell me a Pete Rose [souvenir],’” Murph recalls. “And he just basically calls us out for being the worst human beings ever.”
It wasn’t exactly how Murph envisioned himself breaking into sports coverage; the victim of a red-eyed, sleep-deprived columnist’s ire. It was the nineties, though, and the internet didn’t make everything accessible, so who knows if Murph would have ever seen the hazily scrawled mention of his work in SI?
That was why someone made sure that he wouldn’t miss it.
“I got into work the next day and that article was photocopied and plastered all over my desk,” he says. “And I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to be a real sportscaster, I don’t want to do this.’ And it made me in the next day or two start searching jobs--back then it was in newspapers and magazines--and that’s where I saw a job posting for a sports reporter in Allentown at WFMZ.”
The days of shilling Joe DiMaggio bats for $500 a pop were over. Despite going to bed with another long night’s work behind him and waking up to being bashed in a national sports publication, Murph, as is typical, found the positive.
“I credit that article for giving me the kick in the ass I needed to say, okay, you put your face on television, now get the hell out of here and go do something for real.”
Murph headed to Allentown, where he was offered and took a sports reporter position. Building from that experience, he was able to land a job at Comcast Sportsnet. When his boss would depart for CN8, Murph joined him; when CN8 eventually folded, Murph had just signed a long-term contract, and he was shifted back to CSN Philadelphia. In some form or another, Murph has been at the game, or at least watching the Phillies, with you since they were yearly contenders. At the end of the 2011 season, Murph was doing his taxes when his boss gave him a call on his day off.
“She says, ‘Hey you need to come in, we need to talk to you,’” Murph recalls. “I said, ‘That doesn’t sound good.’ I came in and the GM, my news director and the VP of sports programming were in the room and within ten seconds they were like, ‘do you want to be a part of the Phillies broadcast team?’ And I didn’t even know the job was… I didn’t even know. I was like, ‘Uh, yeah, all right.’ And that’s how I got this.”
Regardless of how other people define him, Murph’s job is more than any one thing. He doesn’t want to be called a reporter, because he’s “just regurgitating what other guys write,” and he doesn’t want to be called a performer because he “doesn’t like that term.” But he’ll acknowledge there’s a level of entertainment that goes into his job, and that he’s hammed it up on occasion in order to make something work. And while he doesn’t seek to be the center of attention, he says the version of himself you see slowly zoomed-in upon from remote parts of the stadium, is the same Murph he is when the cameras aren’t rolling.
“I sit on the end here most nights and I think, ‘I’m sitting in the Phillies dugout watching a baseball game, getting paid for it. That’s pretty darn good.’ I know how lucky I am. People tell me, ‘You have the best job in the world.’ I’m like, ‘I know it, please keep it down. Don’t tell anyone. I’m afraid they’re going to take it away.’”
Just the opposite is happening, really, as his employers keep giving him more to do. From his “A Minute with Murph” interviews with players this spring to producing John Kruk’s podcast, Murph’s handiwork is all now over the airwaves and always growing, forcing him to constantly upgrade his broadcasting instincts. He describes instances in which he’s enjoyed watching something cool unfold on the field, then turned around and seen young players or staffers with their phones out, recording, captioning, and posting it.
“And I’ll just think, ‘Oh yeah. I should probably have done that.’”
The role of the play-by-play announcer, especially in a city known for its prickliness, must be tiresome. As the link between the fans and the game, they serve not just as narrators, but frequently executed messengers, often held accountable for everything that happens in the game, from the weather to the way their faces look. When enthusiasm gives way to frustration, there tends to be a spike in unsolicited broadcast critiques, and with the dawn of social media not too far behind us, the anonymous commentators have plenty of avenues to reach Murph or any members of the Phillies’ broadcast team, whether they want to be reached or not.
Add to that the fact that there is no more thankless seat than the one that used to hold the incomparable Harry Kalas, and providing play-by-play commentary in Philadelphia baseball becomes a loftier task in context.
“I grew up here. Like most of us, I grew up idolizing Harry, Whitey, Wheels, those guys,” Murph says. “And just never, never in a million years thought I would ever get a chance to do what they did. Never, not once considered it, until the day they asked me to fill in for Tom.”
Murph, always trying to do more, always adding to his resume, knew what his answer would be when the play-by-play chair was offered to him: “And my answer was, ‘No.’”
A window opens on the upper floor of a house in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. After a moment, out of it crawls two young guys carrying a couple of beers and a radio. Anchoring themselves into nonlethal positions, one of them turns on the Phillies game and Harry Kalas’ voice comes pouring over the neighborhood.
This weapons-grade Americana was the actual life of Gregg Murphy as a young Phillies fan; one of the countless many who listened to Kalas and Ashburn growing up. Reaching his current level of broadcasting, in the former seat of one of its most treasured and distinguished members, was no easy feat, and to hear Murph tell it, it took more luck than anything else.
But the first time he locked down a broadcast job, all he’d had to do was raise his hand. Conceive, if you can, the electric, fluorescent vibes on St. Joseph’s University campus in the early nineties.
“My freshman year, a buddy of mine fancied himself this radio DJ,” says Murph. “St. Joe’s was starting a radio station. He was like ‘Come on, come to the meeting, we’ll have our radio show.’ I was like, ‘All right.’ I like music, but I’m not a big music guy.”
Regardless of his interest, a couple of minutes into the meeting, they were playing Murph’s song.
“So we went to the meeting and they said, ‘Does anyone want to do play by play for the men’s and women’s basketball teams?’ And nobody in the room raised their hand. I was like, ‘I’ll do that, I love sports.’ And I became the play-by-play guy for the Hawks my freshman year.”
Murph’s next play-by-play gig would come in 2014, when he would casually turn down an offer to fill in for Tom McCarthy while the Phillies’ regular announcer was away. Radio broadcaster Scott Franzke couldn’t believe it. He sat at the table, exchanging flabbergasted expressions with McCarthy as the meeting continued.
“I think it was Tom who finally said, ‘I think Murph should do it.’ And I was like, ‘Get the hell out, I can’t do that.’ My boss was like, ‘What do you think?’ And I just said. ‘No. No.’”
The topic was abandoned and the meeting went on. But Franzke couldn’t get past it.
“Scott slams his hand down on the table. ‘Are you kidding me?! You’re being offered this incredible opportunity and you’re saying no?!’ I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t know, I’ve never...’ They’re like, ‘You’re doing it.’”
And so, starting in 2014, Murph got to add occasional play-by-play calling to his arsenal of broadcast skills. It registered with fans, who began to wonder if Murph was gunning for a seat in the booth, or if he was simply a utility player. At the moment, he’s just considering it part of the job.
“I wish I got to do it more, just because I’d be better at it,” Murph says. “I’m doing a game in two weeks and it’s the only game I’m doing this year. It’s hard to get into a rhythm when you only do nine innings a season. But you know, in my opinion, Tom’s one of the best in the business. I’ve learned a ton from him, a ton from Scott. Literally, we have two of the best guys anywhere in baseball. So I try to glean as much from those guys as I can and I try not to be incredibly nervous the first inning or two.”
The nerves still come in waves. He may have been an industry veteran capable of doing the heavy lifting of a broadcast, a quick, efficient researcher, and a natural conversationalist, but he was also a kid who used to sit on the roof with his radio. When it came time to step into the booth in McCarthy’s absence, Murph took a seat next to former Phillies broadcaster Jamie Moyer and just tried to keep it together.
“I was very nervous,” Murph recalls. It’s suggested that for a first-timer, Jamie Moyer seems like something of a calming presence to have in the other chair. “Yeah…” Murph replies with a laugh. “Here’s the thing: He didn’t say a whole lot.”
The Phillies broadcast team has evolved since the days of Harry feasting on the syllables of Mic-key Mor-an-di-ni and Richie Ashburn hating on the sacrifice bunt; Chris Wheeler’s frenzy of fist-pumps and Gary Matthews selling hats before and after Cadillac time.
After generations of staples in the Phillies broadcast booth, the situation’s been more fluid over the last decade. Since Kalas and Ashburn died, Tom McCarthy has manned the TV booth alongside the likes of Matt Stairs, Jamie Moyer, John Kruk, Ben Davis, and on the weekends, Mike Schmidt. The lauded radio team, Scott Franzke and Larry Andersen, has changed as well, with L.A. pulling back on traveling for road trips and being replaced by a series of Kevin’s: Stocker, Frandsen, and Jordan. Despite the shifting of roles and introduction of new faces, the most crucial component has remained.
“I know there are times when I’ve given it a little extra for the entertainment side of things. I don’t like the word ‘performer,’ but I’m more… I don’t know, I guess that’s the word. The ability to connect with the audience is the most important thing for any of us on television and radio. You hear people say, ‘I love Scott and Larry.’ Yeah, people love Scott and Larry because they have this unbelievably unique ability to connect with their listeners and connect with each other. It’s chemistry. That doesn’t happen all the time and if you find it, that’s when you’re successful.”
Putting together a broadcast is hard enough work without passive aggressive in-fighting. Murph and the rest of the diligent production team, of which he is endlessly flattering, have to stay ahead of the ball. In the production trailer pre-game, they scramble to find the name of a live band playing in their b-roll footage before coming back from commercial (It was “Sidearm”) and Tom McCarthy notices a typo in some on-screen copy as it’s reviewed (The Phillies went 3-7 on a road trip, not 3-6).
“You spend more time with these guys than you do with anybody else for six months. You really get to know them and I can’t imagine what it would be like if I didn’t like one of them. It would be really hard: We’re in a room together here, we’re in planes, buses, hotels, we eat virtually every meal together, and have to work together. You spend so much time with these people, you better find some common ground and guys you can get along with. We all just get along. No egos in our bunch, and I know that can’t be said for other broadcast teams.”
The chemistry prevents all of the white-knuckle edits and hours of brainstorming from being needlessly slowed by conflict. By now, Murph has worked games with past and current members of the broadcast team, which has put him next to legends like Kruk, Matt Stairs, and Mike Schmidt, who, for a Phillies fan who grew up with the team in the 1980s, is pretty close to sitting next to his wildest dreams. It wasn’t that long ago that Murph was sitting on roof tiles, listening to Schmidt power the Phillies offense, and now he occasionally gets paid to sit next to him.
“If that’s not the most surreal thing for a Philadelphia kid...” Murph reflects.
It’s enough to give a South Jersey kid the flop sweats. But between the nerves of his first play-by-play outing on the air, Murph got a text from an old friend that helped him get his feet back on the ground:
You’ve come a long way from your grandma’s roof.
Like any job in sports, there’s a dull ache caused by Murph’s job from being on the road so much. Away from his family (“I have three kids, I’m divorced. Not because of the job,” Murph says) for six months at a time, they’ve grown accustomed to his schedule, joining him at close regional games and being permitted to stay at the team hotel and the team charter one game every season. Murph’s off-season is inevitably productive: He and Franzke took Spanish lessons for a few years to up their game before the Phillies employed a full-time translator, and last winter Murph and his girlfriend both picked up their real estate licenses.
His two sons have taken to baseball, with his youngest even displaying the presence of the broadcasting gene in a few forms:
“Like driving people nuts, doing running commentary of... what the dog’s doing. And he does it in accents, too. Which is really cool; I can’t do accents. He’ll do it in an Australian accent, and I‘ll be like, ‘You are so much cooler than me. Easily.’”
But Murph’s oldest, his daughter Quinn, wasn’t initially won over by the long nights and glacial pace of America’s pastime. Sports, in general, weren’t really on her radar at all, Murph says, until she started attending the University of South Carolina.
“She went to her first football game and texted me and said, ‘Wow, sports are fun! Who knew!’ I said, ‘Good, I’m glad you're finally on board with what dad’s been doing his whole life.’”
Once making a living by shilling the artifacts of sports celebrities, Murph himself is now a celebrated figure himself at the ball park as he hustles from spot to spot. People call to him. Pat him on the back. Ask for pictures and handshakes. One guy starts bowing. Rick, the Citizens Bank Park media elevator operator, hands him a bag of fresh chard.
This isn’t contained to CBP, either; Murph has spent enough time in other ball parks to know the names and exchange phone numbers with stadium personnel all over the league (the one stadium he’s never been to is Kansas City).
Murph can prep all the pieces, sample all the artery-clogging concessions, interview all of the celebrities in the luxury boxes, but, despite the accusations of displeased fans, he can’t make the team win. It’s no secret the Phillies have not been as formidable a presence in the National League since 2011, and as Murph has learned, even a dream job can be normalized with day to day repetition. A Phillies fan who finds themselves talking to players, sitting in the dugout, and walking on the field may cherish the experience, but an industry vet, fan or not, is going to stop seeing the big deal in walking through the media entrance. As a fan, Murph clings to the roof of his grandmother’s house, despising that his fan instincts have somewhat dulled.
“I’ve been a sports fan in Philadelphia since ‘97, ‘98. There are things that you just take for granted now. You really do,” he says. “I hate that. I hate watching my buddies go absolutely nuts over something, and me being like, ‘eh.’”
One would assume covering the team as it spirals straight out of the playoff picture and into the NL East basement would subtract from the overall enjoyment. But Murph’s not losing perspective; which is good, especially with the way the Brewers game is going as he speaks.
“I started in ‘11, and we were 81-81 my first year, and then just terrible the next,” Murph all too easily recalls. “I haven’t been around a winning season yet as a member of the organization—and I wouldn’t trade one inning for anything. Down the road, 15 years from now you ask me that, maybe I say yeah, this season’s a drag because they’re not good. But we all have to work for a living, you might as well get to do something like this.”
The Yelich at-bat set off a four-inning meltdown and the Phillies are in full-on crisis mode—eventually, Yelich gave up targeting Murph with foul balls and managed to get on base, along with seemingly the rest of Brewers. Velasquez is out of the game and Murph shakes his head; they’re already talking about a position player pitching. He’s had to throw out a couple of pieces and the hopes of a late-inning comeback are tough to conjure for even the eternal optimist holding a microphone. It seems like he’s got a long night ahead of him.
But Murph just wants to do more.
Hustling back from doing a stand-up in Ashburn Alley (Waldo lurking on the staircase behind him), disgruntled fans light up as they recognize Murph on the move.
“Hey, Murph!” an exasperated fan shouts, pointing at the lopsided scoreboard. “What are we gonna do?!”
“What do you want me to do?!” Murph yells back with a smile. “Maybe they’ll let me bat!”