Pride of Pennsville puts it in perspective Chris Widger is back in the majors. His biggest fan - his sister - is missing from the stands.

Posted: July 09, 2002

Catcher Chris Widger, the pride of South Jersey's Pennsville High, dresses now in the uniform of the most famous team in professional sports history - the New York Yankees.

If there is pressure that accompanies wearing the same pinstripes as Ruth, DiMaggio, and Mantle, Widger is immune.

Losing a loved one, you see, has a way of putting things in perspective, a way of making baseball - even playing for the Yankees - seem oh, so trivial.

"It makes the game seem not as important," Widger said the other day.

Widger's sister, Toni Murphy, whom the catcher called "my biggest fan," died unexpectedly last year at age 36. She left behind a husband, Mike Murphy, and five daughters, 15-year-old Lyn and 3-year-old quadruplets Kelly, Casey, Erin and Rachel.

About three weeks ago, Widger and his wife and two young children moved out of their house in Pennsville to a 6,100-square-foot house that sits on 18 acres, also in the Salem County town.

Murphy and the girls moved into Widger's old house. Widger says his brother-in-law and nieces can live in the house "as long as they want. He would do the same thing for me."

Widger, who was called up to the Yankees from the triple-A Columbus Clippers on June 30, stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 215 pounds. His sister stood 5-2 and weighed perhaps 100 pounds. Yet it was Toni who was the protective one.

If a fan criticized her brother from the stands, Toni - who over the years traveled to some of her brother's big-league games in Seattle, Atlanta, Miami and New York - took it personally. "Nobody could mess with her brother," said Theresa Widger, Chris' wife. "If you said something about her, she wouldn't care. But you better not talk about her brother."

"She wasn't afraid to tell anyone to mind their own business," Chris Widger said. "She didn't like anyone saying anything bad about me or anybody in our family. It was funny seeing someone that small stand up for you. She always took care of me."

Widger, 31, paused.

"She was like my second mom and my biggest fan in baseball," he said. "She was my defender. She would baby-sit me when I was growing up, and she always looked after me all the way through high school. She was always in my corner.

"The only time she got mad at me was if I didn't call enough."

For more than 20 years, Toni Murphy battled Crohn's disease, an intestinal inflammation. Last year, she also had a staph infection in her arm that left numerous specialists baffled. The infection was caused by an intravenous line that was replenishing fluids she had lost, her husband said. The fluids were needed because she was vomiting from migraine headaches.

According to Mike Murphy, the Crohn's disease was being controlled. However, Murphy said, doctors told him the mixture of the medication she was taking - some for her stomach ailment, some for her arm infection - apparently triggered a toxic reaction that caused her heart to stop beating.

"It was a freak thing," Chris Widger said. "She was doing good."

Toni Murphy and her family had been living in Groton, Conn., where her husband, a chief petty officer in the Navy, was assigned. The family was packed and about to move to her husband's new assignment in New Hampshire when she died on Memorial Day 2001.

The Navy reassigned Murphy after his wife's death, allowing him to move his family back to New Jersey. He and the girls lived with Widger's parents in Pennsville for 13 months. "We had eight people in a little three-bedroom house," said Doris Widger, Chris' mother. "If you don't think that's crowded, you should try it sometime."

Toni's death has caused Chris Widger, already a low-key guy, to appreciate life and to scoff at so-called problems.

"We all complain about things - getting stuck in traffic, ailments . . . but when you lose someone this close to you, it makes you realize that those things don't matter in the big scope of things," he said. "When I look at her five girls and Mike [Murphy] and my two kids, I know what's [important]."

To return to the majors, Widger had to recover from two shoulder operations that caused him to miss the 2001 season. "It's been a long road to get back here," he said, "and now that it's over, it was worth it because this is where I want to be."

Widger, who helped coach the Pennsville High boys' basketball team before reporting to spring training, signed a one-year minor-league contract with the Yankees in the off-season; his goal was to get his right shoulder into shape and join the big-league club in midseason. He had a clause in his contract that enabled him to become a free agent on July 1 if the Yanks did not promote him to the majors.

A day before the deadline, the Yanks called up Widger and demoted Alberto Castillo.

Widger, who was hitting .244 with 10 homers and 39 RBIs at Columbus, backs up all-star Jorge Posada.

"My job is to give Posada a rest when he needs one," said Widger, who was the Montreal Expos' starting catcher from 1998 to 2000 and also spent time with the Seattle Mariners. "My job is to try to go out and keep this machine going and try not to mess it up. I'm not a big part of the machine; I'm just a little part who is trying to help them."

Being back in the majors "almost felt like the first time I got called up," said Widger, a career .240 hitter who went 1 for 4 in his first start with the Yankees in Thursday's 7-1 win over Cleveland.

He said his sister, who used to phone him all the time and help him through ups and downs when he played in Montreal and Seattle, would have been ecstatic to see him in a Yankees uniform. "I know she's watching and happy for me," Widger said. "She knows how much I went through . . . The two surgeries last year. I know she's rooting for me as much as ever."

Added Widger: "My wife always says that everything happens for a reason. We haven't found out the reason yet, but the girls are doing great and they'll continue to do great."

His big sister, he said, would want them to stay strong.

"We all miss her," Widger said, "but we think of her every day. She's watching over us."

When Widger played with the Expos, his infant nieces watched him play at Shea Stadium. "We strapped them into car seats on the subway in New York and went to the game," said Mike Murphy, smiling at the memory. "Now, we're all planning to go to Yankee Stadium some weekend."

Chris Widger is still being protected.

Contact Sam Carchidi

at 215-854-5181

or scarchidi@phillynews.com.

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