- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Craig McMurtry was destined to be remembered merely as a good, young right-handed pitcher who flamed out quickly, one of baseball’s innumerable stories of promise gone awry. Then history got in the way.

Today, as evidenced by the baseballs mailed to his house and the reporters who call him, McMurtry is known for something other than his 28-42 career record. Pitching for the Atlanta Braves almost 21 years ago, he gave up Barry Bonds’ first major league home run, No. 1 of 745 and counting.

McMurtry, who lives a quiet life far from the limelight on a farm in Troy, Texas, and coaches the Temple (Junior) College baseball team, would prefer that the trivia question had a different answer. “But that’s part of the game,” he said.

After a brilliant rookie season three years earlier, McMurtry’s career already was in decline June 4, 1986, when he came in to pitch in relief for the Braves against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Bonds, batting leadoff and looking skinny in his form-fitting uniform, had been called up from Class AAA Hawaii just the week before.

After taking a called third strike in the first inning, Bonds singled in the second and singled again in the fourth. He later hit a double, going 4-for-5.

The Braves trailed 10-2 when McMurtry, who replaced starter Joe Johnson in the fourth, retired the first two batters in the fifth. Then the lefty-hitting Bonds came up. Catcher Bruce Benedict called for a fastball, low and away, and that’s where McMurtry put it. Bonds put it over the left-field fence.

“It probably wasn’t down as much as it should have been, and he took it to the opposite field,” McMurtry said.

McMurtry, 47, said he forgot about the homer until he saw a replay of it on TV when Bonds was closing in on No. 600.

“It brought back the memory,” he said. “I knew who he was just because of the name [Bonds is the son of former major leaguer Bobby Bonds], but I didn’t put much significance on it. I’d given up quite a few home runs in the past. That was just another one.”

Now, like it or not, McMurtry forever will be tethered to Bonds, who is nearing Hank Aaron’s record of 755 career home runs. It perhaps is the most prestigious individual record in sports but one that, if broken, will be steeped in controversy because of the steroid accusations surrounding Bonds. Fans have mixed feelings, and the Major League Baseball establishment is growing increasingly antsy over how to handle it.

A wry, affable man, McMurtry willingly — if not happily — shares his recollections of the moment and accommodates every autograph request, noting the Bonds homer on the balls he signs and sending them back.

“I don’t take any affront to that or say I wish they’d leave me alone,” he said. “It’s not a big deal, at least in my mind. If you can’t laugh at yourself, then you’ve got problems. I’ve had people introduce me and say, ‘This is Craig McMurtry. You know, he gave up Barry Bonds’ first home run.’ Hey, thanks for pointing that out.”

But where he does retreat is in talking specifically about the subject of Bonds and steroids.

“The whole issue is a big can of worms as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “It’s probably not something I want to get into. It’s something people a lot smarter than I am are gonna have to figure out how it’s handled.

“The only thing I know for sure is that he has a lot of talent. You don’t hit 700 home runs or however many he has without having great hand-eye coordination and being able to handle pressure and the controversy he’s gone through. I’m not sure that makes him right, but he’s a special talent.”

Regarding steroids and baseball, McMurtry said, “It’s given baseball a little bit of black eye. The only thing I can say is that hopefully steps will be taken to get rid of the problem. If people have used and are using, that’s certainly a problem. But any time you talk about athletics, there’s gonna be some type of cheating to some degree. Back in my day, it was spitballs and corked bats.”

McMurtry has coached at Temple for nine years. Following a 38-15 record this season, his team was playing in a regional tournament in Lubbock, Texas, a stepping stone to the Junior College World Series. McMurtry said he has talked to his players about the dangers of steroids and how being caught using them “can probably end your career.”

Meanwhile, the players know all about McMurtry’s link with Bonds.

“I get it all the time,” McMurtry said. “They’re always giving me flack. In batting practice, someone hits it out and somebody says, ‘I think that went further than Bonds’ home run.’ Or I’ll throw a pitch, and someone says that’s that same pitch I threw to Barry. After they run about five miles, they don’t say much.”

McMurtry’s own major league debut began with a flourish. At the age of 23, he went 15-9 with a 3.08 ERA and finished second to Darryl Strawberry in voting for National League rookie of the year. But things turned sour in a hurry when he went 9-17 the next season.

“It was probably a combination of things,” he said. “I think hitters had a better understanding of what I was doing the second year. Also, there was some stuff written and maybe received that way that I was supposed to be the ace of the staff.

“I won 15 games my rookie year; now I’m supposed to win 20. I kind of changed my approach. ‘You’ve got the throw harder. You’ve got to be nastier on the mound.’ I think I got out of my game and tried to do more than what I was capable of. The next year I ended up in the bullpen as kind of a middle guy. I never really got back to the same form.”

McMurtry went a combined 1-9 over the next two years before he was traded to Toronto. He underwent an appendectomy during spring training and spent the entire 1987 season in the minors. He was traded to Texas the following season but experienced arm problems and never recovered. He spent time in the San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Houston organizations, then pitched in Mexico before briefly returning to the majors in 1995 after a five-year absence. Then he called it quits.

McMurtry worked for the Astros as a pitching coach, reaching Class AAA at one point. But he hated the time spent away from his wife and three children and returned to Texas to coach at Temple.

“I wasn’t unlike a lot of other guys,” he said. “You have a good year or two, and then you struggle and hang around awhile. It doesn’t end up like you thought it would, but I was grateful for the chance I had. You deal with it, you try to do the best you can and you don’t get it done, and somebody takes your spot.”

No one will take McMurtry’s spot in history.

“It’s kind of frustrating,” he said jokingly about Bonds. “I kind of got his career started, and he hasn’t sent me a card or anything.”

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