BOURNE, Mass. -- "This is not a sad story," Cathy Donlin, A.J. Murray's mother said. "This is a happy story."
It's Sunday night at Doran Field in Bourne, and the best players in the Cape Cod League are gathered for the circuit's annual all-star game. The Cape Cod League is the kind of place where scouts from all 30 teams gather -- placing 10 of the top 21 and 21 of the top 74 in this year's MLB draft didn't happen by accident. Murray, draft-eligible in June as a college junior, didn't get selected, and is here in part to rebuild his stock for his senior season.
But it is also, to feel the surroundings, a family place. One player on the West team excitedly points out a couple in the crowd to his teammate: "Those are my parents!"
It's the kind of place where Sal Annunziata, a powerfully-built Seton Hall undergrad, can launch enough home runs to win the pregame competition, and minutes later, genuinely enjoy the chance to sign one of his long balls, caught and retrieved by a little boy who'd caught it among the crowd chasing them out beyond the left field stands.
For an event like the all-star game, families or friends routinely make the trip. Luke Lowery finished second in the home run competition, and his father threw him his pitches. Reilly Hovis, North Carolina's closer, had his parents fly in for the day.
Accordingly, there is universal cheering for both East and West, but some localized, higher-energy shouting when a batter or pitcher gets announced into the game. Mom's shrieking. Dad's yelling. It's small, but identifiable.
Then there was the geyser of sound that came from the A.J. Murray supporters section, extended adulation complete with homemade signs. 19 people.
"Your grandmother's name, how is it spelled?", I asked A.J.'s brother, Michael, once a starter in an earlier Cape League all-star game, now a thrilled spectator, trying to identify the full complement of what one of their signs identified as "Murray Pride".
"Which one?", he responded, and chuckled slightly that this support group included multiple grandmothers. It's a huge, inclusive, non-traditional family. A.J.'s mother sat next to Audrey Murray, A.J.'s stepmom. No red lines in this family.
I'd been referring to Katherine, A.J.'s paternal grandmother. She's the one whose son, Michael Sr., A.J.'s dad, died last December, at just 51 years old. He'd beaten cancer years earlier. And then, suddenly, he died of a heart attack.
Everybody gathered because they loved Michael Sr., and because they love A.J.
"That night in December when he passed away, I met the ambulance when it got there," Michael Jr. told me as we talked up on the hill along the first base line at Doran Field, surrounded by fans camped out in portable chairs and blankets, watching the game. "He was at a Christmas party with his friends -- a lot of guys I know, Little League coaches, guys I play softball with. They said, 'There's a problem. You've got to get there.'"
Of course Michael Murray, Sr. was surrounded by friends who loved the game of baseball on the last night of his life. It was the game that dominated his life, and a conduit for love he passed on to his sons. Murray, a Jersey boy, wound up at Kean University, and managed to get drafted by the Chicago White Sox in 1984. He played one season of minor league ball at old Sal Maglie Field in Niagara Falls. But the game meant so much more to him, and ultimately to his children, than a single minor league campaign.
Before baseball, it took the collective action of Michael Jr. and the rest of the family to help navigate Michael Sr.'s death. He'd been the one who checked on everyone, made sure the family was OK. And now he was gone.
"It was sad, but my first reaction, and this was something my dad always told me, was 'If it happens, you make sure everybody else is good'," Michael Jr. said. "I think everyone was able to deal with their own sadness, but it was seeing everyone else, my grandparents -- to be honest, we've been a lucky family. My dad was the first real loss. My great-grandparents were in their 90s when they went. And so I hadn't seen those people deal with a loss of that magnitude. And that was even harder than losing my father. And that's why it's nice that they have days we can all look forward to."
One of those days was February 14, A.J.'s opening game of the season this past year at Georgia Tech. But the baseball season schedule was not calibrated with grief in mind. And it had been just three weeks after Michael Sr. died that A.J. drove down to second semester with his mom, Cathy, and his sister Brittany.
"Right when we brought him back to school, Brittany said to him, 'A.J.' -- something about this year," Cathy said. "And he was like -- it's over, I lost the drive now. It was for Daddy. I don't care anymore. I go up, I just hang up my bat.' And then I think that, when he was struggling, it was like -- wait, I do love this game... I think he was confused whether he loved it for him, or he loved it for his dad. And I think he figured out -- you know, I do love this game!"
"It's been definitely a learning experience, what's happened," A.J. told me when we talked by the third base dugout prior to the game Sunday evening. "In the beginning, I was struggling with just how to deal with it -- before games, after games. So I mean, I've played over 90 games since it happened. You get used to the good days, you get used to the bad days eventually, not having someone to talk to you like him... I know what he'd say to me, and it helps me each day."
Michael Jr., according to A.J., assumed that role Michael Sr. had once occupied -- the call A.J. would make before, and after, every one of his games. He's certainly qualified. He was a catcher, good enough to play at Wake Forest, get signed by the San Francisco Giants and play two years in their system. His proficiency at the position came from Michael Sr.'s takeaway from his own professional career.
"My dad, actually, being a little bit self-aware, taught us all from what he had trouble with," Michael Jr. said. "He was a pitcher/third baseman/outfielder by college trade, got thrown into the fire at catcher in minor league ball, competing against guys who'd caught their whole lives. He said, 'I'm teaching you guys how to catch. There wasn't much choice to it, I just started doing it. And then there was competition -- A.J. wanted to be better than I was, my sister wanted to be better [she eventually caught at University of Maryland] -- you know, that's kind of the everyday grind that we like."
It wasn't a grind A.J. could enjoy this spring. Simultaneously, A.J. needed to figure out grief from sudden loss while engaging in the activity that most closely bonded him with the man he'd lost.
"My dad always had a way of speaking with A.J., and I always had a way of speaking with him," Michael Jr. said. "So then, to have to be both of those guys, to have to have both parts of those conversation was tough.
"So I went to see him, they were playing Wake Forest, my alma mater. He was hitting about .160. And really struggling, wasn't having any fun. And I was like, 'A.J., I don't care if you never get a hit again. I want you to be OK. Tell me you're OK.' And he was like, 'I don't want dad to be the reason why I'm struggling. He was the reason, so much of the reason, why I'm here.' And I told him, 'That's all I needed to hear. Let's go hit.'"
Murray's year picked up -- his slash line at Georgia Tech ended at .271/.366/.394 -- but he still hadn't found the kind of form that made his the Star-Ledger New Jersey Player of the Year back in 2011.
As for Michael Jr., his career on the field was over, but his professional life has just begun -- a Master's Degree from Columbia in Sports Management has led to some consulting work for Major League Baseball, while he continues to run East Coast Conditioning, an Edison, N.J. baseball school he had been running with his father. But the change in routine allowed him to be present for more of A.J.'s successes, and yes, his struggles as well.
"You know, as a brother, the best part about stopping playing minor league ball for me was, I didn't get to see all these great things he was doing in high school," Michael Jr. said. "You know, he was the Gatorade Player of the Year, and I'm just getting texts from my sister while I'm in a minor league ballpark somewhere. Which, the chance to play minor league baseball was wonderful, I hope he gets the chance to, but as a selfish brother, I'm finally getting the chance to see it.
"It was something where, when there were tough times, we could grab a bat and just say, let's go... I think a lot of lessons we learned, talking to our dad, everything has helped us get through all this stuff -- loss, grief, all of it. It all circles back to getting back out here. I know a big thing was, a month-and-a-half after my dad passed, was going down to the opener [at Georgia Tech]. That's something this group can always rally around, a game to go to."
Back when their father was still alive, it was going to a game that helped the three of them heal following the breakup of Cathy and Michael Sr.'s marriage.
"When I was 14, A.J. was 9. Just after my parents got divorced, my dad had just been through his first bout of cancer. Just a tough time for our family. And we took a little vacation up to Newport, Rhode Island and Boston. And then -- it was right after Summer Catch came out -- I said 'Dad, I have to check out a Chatham game. You've got to take us there. So we went to see Chatham-Orleans, in Orleans, and it was just a great night. It was just a night our family needed at that time."
Michael even sent A.J. A baseball-style, three-quarters length t-shirt, as a reminder of what the game could, and should be.
"It was just this nine-dollar t-shirt," A.J. told me. "But I kind of wore it like a good luck charm for the rest of the year, under my uniform, to remind me to be that little kid in the stands who loves baseball."
Still, it was the return to the Cape that allowed A.J. to finally find that emotional space. And just the man to lead him through this time in his life happened to be coaching the Chatham Anglers: John Schiffler, Michael Jr.'s former coach.
"I got to know the family several years ago when the older brother played for me," Schiffler told me just outside the media tent following the game. "And so I got to know his dad, he and I had carried on a friendly relationship. I'm a north Jersey guy, as he is, and we had some mutual friends, and that was the bond for us. We stayed in touch over the years, through Facebook, a couple phone calls. And Michael was just a great kid. So I connected with the dad, we stayed in touch, and always talked about getting A.J. to come play for us.
"I talked to the boys quite a bit this winter, after the tragedy. And I just stayed in touch. They are fine people, wonderful people. You know, I wish Big Mike was here. He was special," Schiffler said, his voice quavering a bit.
"I can't say enough about Coach Schiff," Michael Jr. said. "When I came up here to play for Coach Schiff, I knew he was a Jersey guy, I knew about his reputation up here. And he lived up to every word of what it was like to play for him. And what he's done for our family, and taking care of A.J. The last couple of years as been unbelievable.
"I was never more comfortable than telling him, 'Come up to Chatham for a few months, and get your head right.' And that's exactly what happened," added Michael, Jr. "I didn't picture it would be this seamless, but it's been great."
"Having someone to share the experience with," A.J. explained as the key to finding solace in playing for Schiffler. "I knew he took the loss as seriously as I did. And he just treated me well every day."
Schiffler described the family's gratitude toward him as "flattering and humbling". He understood that coaching A.J. this summer would call for something different than a typical Cape player.
"When he first got here, I told him -- look, when things are rough, just give me a call," Schiffler said. "And it's just been a miracle season. And I couldn't be happier."
That miracle season has Murray at .322/.429/.469 at the Cape, with five home runs, second in the league, against better overall competition than he just faced at Georgia Tech. That healing place out on the Cape for the Murray family has worked once again.
"I saw that here," Cathy said of her son's emergence, emotionally and on the field. "I didn't see that as much at Georgia Tech. He was still figuring it out. I see a happy A.J. now. And for some reason, he came up here and it all clicked for him. Michael always says, we didn't wind up here accidentally."
Nor was the summer of healing finished for the Murray family on Sunday afternoon. Katherine, who'd lost her son, and saw her family struggle to heal, smiled through her tears when talking about how it felt to be surrounded by her everybody, watching A.J. beat out an infield single, then smack a double to left field.
"It feels wonderful," she said to me. She'd driven more than five hours for the chance to be there. "It's brought everyone together."
They all gathered, too, by the media tent up beyond that left field wall where Sal Annunziata had hit his home runs, after the game was over. In this summer of healing, this time and place of Murray Pride, of course A.J. earned M.V.P. honors on Sunday night. Aunts and cousins and grandparents and even George, A.J.'s stepbrother who plays -- what else? -- catcher for Westfield High School -- gathered for all the permutations of family photos an occasion such as this one demands.
I asked A.J. if he thought he'd figured out whether he was playing baseball for himself, or for his father.
"I mean, I still play the way he'd want me to play," he answered. "But there came a certain point where I realized, I'm playing baseball, just to play the game we played in our backyard, that I love and enjoyed since I was eight years old."
What comes next for A.J., no one can say. He actually played first base this summer at the Cape -- and for him to realize his dream of playing professional baseball, he'll need to hit the way he has this summer to stick at the less demanding position, or head back behind the plate. None of that, ultimately, is up to him.
He's ready to head back behind the plate, if it is asked of him, if his career ultimately comes to depend on it. Michael Sr. made sure of it.
He is certain, however, that he wants to someday bring his children to Cape Cod for baseball, passing on the gift his father gave to A.J. and his brother many years ago. So is Michael Jr.
"I remember being on that hill in Orleans," A.J. said. "I remember that red Orleans Cardinals hat."
"It's always been through baseball," Michael Jr. said. "It's always been our sanctuary, to get through divorce, through illness, through death. Whatever it is, it means a lot more to us than just coming out here for a game."
"He had to become a man fast," Cathy said. "And I miss the little boy in him. And when he's out here, I see the little boy again. And that makes -- that makes everything," her voice cracking.
Eventually, reluctantly, the rest of the family made their way to their cars. The brothers stayed, chatting with Schiffler. Finally, I watched A.J. and Michael Jr. walk together toward the parking lot, some audible laughter floating into the summer night.