It was the middle of the third inning Thursday evening at Fluor Field. The Greenville Drive was leading the Ashville Tourists 1-0, and Trey Murphy was about to hit a home run.
Murphy isn’t a member of the Drive, a Class A professional baseball team. He is a crew chief for F-16 fighter jets. As far as his mother, Sarah Murphy of Forest Acres, knew, he was still at an air base in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Sarah, her other son, Ben, and husband, Don, were invited to the game as part of the team’s USO night to talk about their son’s service. But during the on-field interview Trey was in the first base coach’s box just a few steps away, dressed like a Drive player.
“Oh my God! Trey!” Sarah shouted as her son grabbed her by the shoulders, gently turned her around and gave her a tremendous bear hug.
She burst into tears. “But I haven’t baked for you yet.”
Murphy is one of 300 members of the S.C. Air National Guard’s 169th Fighter Wing who had just returned from Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. He returned Wednesday with his unit to McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover.
The wing is nicknamed the “Swamp Foxes.” And Murphy, a 2004 Heathwood Hall graduate now living in Greenville, is a crew chief for one of the wing’s 18 F-16 fighter jets.
Murphy said he had planned the surprise since the Swamp Foxes deployed to Afghanistan in April. An avid baseball fan who played second base for Heathwood Hall in high school, Murphy said he was sitting in the stadium at a Drive game a couple of weeks before he deployed and the idea hit him.
“I had seen it done every once in a while through the years,” he said. “I thought it would be a pretty cool thing to pull off.”
So as the deployment began to wind down, Trey called the Drive from Afghanistan and asked if it would be possible to arrange something. The team, which had dedicated their season to supporting the USO, was happy to comply.
And he enlisted the help of his father, Don.
“I brought him on board before I left,” Trey said. “He knew too many people at McEntire. He would have smelled this coming a mile away.”
Don said he felt a little bad about having to lie to his wife. “But when all was said and done, I looked at the greater good.”
So Don floated the story to Sarah and Ben that Trey was being delayed for two days to help with the transition from one fighter wing to another and wouldn’t come back with the rest of the group.
“At first I was very disappointed,” Sarah said. “But then I thought: if they needed help with the transition, he was the right man to get the job done.”
When the Swamp Foxes returned to meet their families Wednesday, Trey made sure he was the last one off the bus and pulled his cap down tight to stay out of the view of waiting television cameras. He knew his mother would watch the ceremony on the evening news, and she did.
“I was focused on Sunday,” she said. “I thought: I hope the news people will be there on Sunday when my son comes home.”
Trey arrived at the stadium about 4 p.m., three hours before game time. The Drive, which called Columbia home as the Capital City Bombers before it moved to Greenville in 2005, rolled out the red carpet for the returning airman.
They let Murphy, who hadn’t swung anything but a softball bat since high school, take batting practice: “I was a little rusty,” he said. “It took me a little while to get into the swing of things, but it came back.”
Then he was introduced to the team in the locker room before the game and got a standing ovation. “It was a once in a lifetime thing to be such a baseball fan and be able to hang out with the guys who do it for a living,” he said.
Trey was in the dugout for the first two and half innings with his family seated a few rows behind. As Trey discreetly walked out to the first base coach’s box, his family was ushered on to the field.
The surprise was complete, even though Ben, 22, saw his older brother walking up behind his mother. “I was shocked,” he said. “I was speechless.”
The crowd gave the family a standing ovation. Many fans had tears in their eyes. “It was awesome,” Drive spokesman Eric Jarinko said. “I don’t know how you could watch that and not choke up.”