Minor-league Baseball is Hard: Why Kyler Murray is Likely to Wind Up in the NFL

For Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray of Oklahoma, choosing between a pro baseball career and playing quarterback is something of a family tradition.

His father Kevin Murray faced the same choice, first picking baseball, then deciding on football. And I am guessing Kyler is going to follow in his father’s footsteps and spurn baseball after being drafted and signing for a bonus. If it happens, I hope events don’t take such an ugly turn as they did with his father.

The circumstances are slightly different. Of course, there is a lot more money involved now. And the spotlight is much, much brighter on Kyler. But I predict Kyler Murray’s reason will be similar to his father’s: Baseball’s difficult apprenticeship can’t compete with glamour and excitement of a full football stadium.

After the Oakland Athletics took Murray as the No. 9 pick overall in last June’s Major League Baseball Draft, agent Scott Boras negotiated a deal for Murray to play one season of football at Oklahoma. That one season went as well as anyone – except maybe the Athletics – could have hoped. Murray led the Sooners into the College Football Playoff and won college football’s greatest individual award.

Minor-league baseball can destroy the career of a talented young player, and Kyler Murray is no different. The uncertainty of the development path with the @Athletics will likely lead Murray to choose the NFL.Click To Tweet

Murray had been firm that he would be playing for the Athletics beginning this spring. After he won the Heisman, speculation began that Murray might go to the NFL instead.

Commentators began parsing his words. If you listen or read closely, you realize he’s always left a little opening. And maybe he’s giving himself more wiggle room since he won the Heisman. For his part, Boras has sounded less definite – post-Heisman – that Murray will resist the siren song of the NFL.

At 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, Murray is considered on the small side for an NFL quarterback. Then again, the man he succeeded as Oklahoma quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner, Baker Mayfield, is considered undersized (6-1, 215) for an NFL quarterback. Mayfield has breathed life into the Cleveland Browns this season.

Dual-threat quarterbacks such as Murray, who rely on running the ball, have been viewed with suspicion in the pro ranks. That perception seems to be changing some.

If Murray were to go to the NFL, it would cost him some money. Ken Rosenthal wrote in The Athletic that Murray has received about $1.5 million of his reported $4.66 million signing bonus. Jon Morosi of MLB Network reported that Murray would have to repay “a very large portion if he opts to play in the NFL.’’

But Rosenthal points out that if Murray went in the first round of the NFL draft, he would be guaranteed at least $8.75 million. So if Murray were a first-round NFL pick and he signed, he would practically double his money without playing a down.

And he would probably play at least one down at the NFL level next fall. Certainly, he would play in the preseason. Most likely, he would be an important part of any team’s plans and see some action in a game that counts in 2019.

And that is one area where baseball can’t compete.

Yes, baseball players have fewer injuries and often longer careers – although a top quarterback can play into his late 30s.

Yes, baseball players generally make more money than football players – although the exception to that would be quarterbacks.

But if Murray opts to play baseball, he is at least two or three years away from “The Show.” He will be playing night after night in front of a few thousand or even a few hundred fans, a good portion of whom might be more interested in getting an autograph from a retired pro wrestler who is making a promotional appearance on the concourse, or wearing the 3D glasses the team is giving away, or awaiting the post-game concert, or voting in the grandmother beauty pageant.

And two or three years in that environment is a best-case scenario.

Murray was just the second-best hitter on the Oklahoma baseball team last season. The best was Steele Walker, drafted in the second round by the Chicago White Sox. After signing, he started in the Arizona League, where basically the games draw smaller-than-your-average high school game, then was promoted on to the Pioneer League and to the South Atlantic League with mixed results. He hit .455 in the Arizona League and .206 in the Pioneer League and .186 in South Atlantic League.

Collegiate success does not guarantee quick success in the pro ranks – not even in the low minors. Murray is considered to have a much higher ceiling than Walker, but Murray is less polished. Given his status, Murray will probably begin the season in low-A and work from there.

It can be a tough climb – as his father knows. Kevin Murray was a football quarterback/baseball star who graduated from North Dallas High School in 1982 after signing a letter of intent to play football at Texas A&M.

He was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 11th round that June and signed a contract with a $35,000 bonus, a lot of money for an 11th round pick back then. The average signing bonus for a first-round draft choice that year was $82,615.

Kevin Murray played 41 games for the Brewers’ Appalachian League (short-season A) team in Pikeville, Kentucky and batted .161. He then spent a few weeks in the Arizona Instructional League. He was discouraged by his poor performance and decided to quit, his lawyer later said.

Murray thought he would give the quarterback thing at Texas A&M a shot. While NCAA rules allowed Murray to play pro baseball and be eligible for college football, his contract with the Brewers barred him from playing football.

The Brewers sued him for breach of contract. They not only sought to get their bonus back, the team asked for an injunction to keep him from playing until the lawsuit was decided. A Houston judge refused to grant the injunction, saying that what the Brewers wanted was in essence involuntary servitude and violated the 13th Amendment.

The Brewers also dragged in charges that Murray had received improper benefits that would make him ineligible for college football. Dan Duquette, who worked in the Brewers front office at the time, testified that Murray told him that he received money and a car from Aggies alumni while he was in high school. Murray denied the charges in testimony.

Kevin Murray became a star at Texas A&M, despite severely breaking his ankle. In his final two seasons, he led the Aggies to the Cotton Bowl twice, including a victory over Auburn and Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson. Murray was named to the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame in 2012.

Murray caught on for a short time with the San Francisco 49ers, though Pro-Football Reference does not list him ever getting into an NFL game. No shame there. The top two quarterbacks on the team were named Joe Montana and Steve Young.

Murray now runs a quarterback academy. TexasHSFootball.com called him the “Texas High School Football’s QB Whisperer” in a profile.

33 years after his father was mulling the pros and cons of baseball and football as a high school senior, it was Kyler Murray’s turn. But Kyler Murray was a much bigger deal as a high school athlete than his father.

In football, Murray was Gatorade’s and Parade Magazine’s national high school player of the year and led Allen High (Allen, TX) to three Texas Class 6A, Division I state titles (guys, they won 57 straight games during Murray’s tenure there). And he was nearly as good in baseball. He was the first to play in the Under Armour All-America football and baseball games. ESPN’s Keith Law ranked Murray as the No. 32 prospect for the 2015 MLB draft; Baseball America had him No. 26.  So Murray might have gone in the first round.

Murray signed to play football and baseball for Texas A&M, making it clear he wanted to play college football and opted out of the MLB draft. As a freshman, he replaced sophomore Kyle Allen as the starting quarterback late in the season. Not surprisingly, Allen decided to transfer. But what was surprising was Murray wanted out, too.

He went to Oklahoma. In 2017, his first season of college baseball, he batted .122 with no extra-base hits in 49 at-bats. Murray had a breakout season in 2018, hitting a robust .296 and slugging .556. He did it while competing for the quarterback’s job at Oklahoma in spring football.

That season, paired with Murray’s athleticism, caught the attention of the Athletics.

Could Murray play pro baseball and pro football at the same time? In the 1980s and 1990s, it was done famously by another Heisman Trophy winner, Bo Jackson (a running back), an All-Star in baseball and Pro Bowl player in football, as well as Deion Sanders (corner back). Brian Jordan played safety for the Atlanta Falcons while making his way through the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor-league system.

But Murray is a quarterback, which requires more preparation than other positions in football. It is doubtful any NFL team would be amenable to an arrangement that involved less than a full-time commitment.

For his part, Jackson offered this advice in June during the baseball draft telecast: “The sporting world’s a little different now than it was when I played. They have more talent, way more talent. The talent pool is deep. I can’t tell the young man what to do, but whatever sport he chooses, concentrate on it.”

Kyler Murray, incidentally, is not the highest MLB draft pick of his extended family. His father’s younger brother Calvin Murray was drafted twice in the first round and was the seventh overall pick of the 1992 June draft.

Calvin Murray played five seasons, mostly with the Giants. You may not remember him, but you have probably seen him on video. He was the batter in the spring training game when Randy Johnson accidentally obliterated that bird with a fastball. Where is Calvin Murray now? For the past several years he’s worked for a well-known player agent – Scott Boras.

Regardless, like Bo Jackson said, and like his own father proved, Murray will have to pick one sport. And the path to the NFL is, from both a financial standpoint and a time standpoint, a significantly easier one. Minor-league baseball can be troubling for talented young guns, and Murray will find out soon that football is his best option.

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