Back then they were a couple of carefree Solana Beach Little League boys, splitting time between playing baseball and hanging out at the Snack Shack and the beach where they surfed and worked as Del Mar Junior Lifeguards. Now the childhood buddies are making their way as professional baseball players in the Minor League Baseball system.
Zack Zehner and Taylor Murphy are currently among the top five to 10 percent of hitters in Advanced A and AA bal l— Zehner with the New York Yankees affiliate Tampa Yankees and Murphy with the Cleveland Indians’ Akron RubberDucks.
The friends Snapchat and text, check each other’s stats, offering up encouragement after “awful” outings and celebrating the hits as they come. As Murphy says, they are part of a Minor League Baseball fraternity where one knows exactly what the other is going through.
In Solana Beach, Zehner and Murphy played together when they were 11 year olds, on All Star squads and on a travel ball team that played all over the state. Back then, Murphy was a pitcher and Zehner played catcher.
At Torrey Pines High, Murphy was a grade below but both played for the Varsity Falcons team —Murphy moving to shortstop and third base and Zehner into the outfield.
Murphy started getting attention from professional scouts in his senior year of high school at Torrey Pines.
“I talked to a bunch of clubs and I started to pursue college after I was drafted late by the Padres,” Murphy said of the Padres pick in the 40th round in 2011.
After three years of college ball at University of the Pacific, he was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the 18th round of the 2014 draft.
These days the 6’2”, 23-year-old Murphy is in Akron, Ohio. After he was drafted, he played his Short-Season A ball for the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, moved onto A affiliate in Lake County Captains in 2015 and started this year in Lynchburg with the Hillcats in the Advanced A Carolina League. He was called up to AA Akron about a month ago.
Like the teammates of a pitcher in the middle of a no-no, Murphy is hesitant to acknowledge how or why he has been so successful this year.
It’s a mixture of having success, players getting injured and a little bit of luck.
“So far this year, things are going really well,” is all Murphy would say.
Minor League life is a lot of road trips by bus and hotel living, a mix of week-long home stands and road trips —“I spend a lot of time with my teammates on the bus,” Murphy said of his Eastern League trips across three to four states, the longest trip is six hours.
Murphy averages two off days a month during the season and on game days is at the field from noon until 10:30 p.m. or 11 p.m., then he’s got to wake up and do it again the next day.
Murphy has no complaints about playing baseball for a living — “It’s a pretty good gig.”
At this level Murphy said it’s all about playing time and at bats, so the more flexible you can be, “the more you can say yes and be malleable as a player, the better chance you have to get in the show.”
“The biggest adjustment as a hitter is the pitching gets better and better as you move up,” Murphy said. “Pitchers have better command and their pitches are really controlled, you have to build an approach as a hitter and really stick with it the higher you go up.”
Murphy said he’s grateful that he gets a lot of support from his family — his parents were out visiting in Maryland last week for the RubberDucks’ stretch against the Bowie Baysox (the Baltimore Orioles affiliate) and his mom came back to Akron to check out a game at Canal Field.
The 23-year-old Zehner is adjusting to life and the sometimes wild southern weather in the Florida League — last week Tropical Storm Colin rained the Tampa Yankees out of practice.
Zehner went to junior college for three years before heading to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. By his own admission, Zehner said he was behind the learning curve and didn’t get attention from scouts until he was playing college ball.
“I did the work, I had hustle on the field, I was a good teammate and I grew into my body a little bit,” said Zehner, who tops out at 6’4”. “It never hurts to get bigger and stronger.”
The Toronto Blue Jays drafted him in his junior year but he decided not to go. His senior year at Cal Poly, he was stressing about his econ final and studying with his girlfriend when he found out he was picked by the New York Yankees in the 18th round of the 2015 draft.
“I was ecstatic,” Zehner said of being selected to join the Yankees, a team that holds 27 world championships in its storied history. “It was an honor to be drafted by one of the most world renowned baseball clubs.”
Three days after he was drafted, he was off to New York to play with the Staten Island Yankees for his Short Season. Now in his second year, he is playing high A ball in Tampa as part of the Florida League.
Like the name says, all of the league’s games are played within the state, with no bus trips longer than three hours. Like Murphy, his life is baseball day in and day out.
“The biggest challenge is it’s a 142 game season compared to a 50 game season in college. You’re living baseball 24-7…It comes at you like a fire hose,” Zehner said. “I still joke that I’m 23 years old and I’ve never had a job in my life. My first real job is playing professional baseball.”
Being part of the Yankees organization he’s been able to meet legends like Reggie Jackson and pick the brains of several players from Yankees World Series teams from the 1990s.
In baseball, Zehner takes the approach of “there’s always tomorrow,” – some days are going to go better than others but the one thing you can control is your attitude.
“You can really only worry about how you’re playing and hope for the best,” Zehner said. “You have to put the work in every day and put the time in because you can get the call at any moment to go to a higher level.”
Should he get called up to AA, Zehner could face Murphy’s team as part of the Yankees’ Trenton Thunder. However the ultimate goal is to meet each other on a Major League field some day, a long way from the Snack Shack in Solana Beach when the greatest rewards were a post-game hot dog and playing ball with best friends.
For all the guys behind them out there with dreams as big as Zehner’s and Murphy’s, the pair offers a nudge of encouragement.
“Just take it day by day, don’t get caught up in the big picture. The big picture comes into place on its own,” Zehner said.” Have fun, work hard.”
“I was never a super standout growing up,” Murphy said. “The harder you work, it’s going to pay off. Don’t be discouraged if you’re not the biggest, fastest or strongest. You can still follow your dreams.”