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Murphy: No More Mr. Nice Guys? Not So Long as He’s Still Around

Times Staff Writer

Well, beat the drum and hold the phone,

The sun came out today.

We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field.

A-roundin’ third and headed for home,

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It’s a brown-eyed handsome man.

Anyone can understand the way I feel.

“Mornin’!” Claudell Washington says, stopping by Dale Murphy’s locker, sticking out his hand.

“Mornin’!” Murphy says back.

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They shake on it.

“Mornin’!” Washington says to Bob Horner, who is dressing next to Murphy.

“Mornin’!"Horner says.

They, too, shake hands.

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Washington looks around. There is only one other human being in the vicinity. It is 11 a.m. and the Atlanta Braves are straggling back to work, eight hours after getting home from a rain dragged-out loss to the Dodgers. It is not an easy time to be cheerful.

Washington fixes a stare at a stranger who is seated in front of him, talking to Murphy. The look in the outfielder’s eyes reveals nothing. He is not smiling. He is either going to walk off without a word or fling him to the floor like an old resin bag.

Washington thrusts out his hand, businesslike.

“Mornin’!” he says.

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At his locker, Murphy is all smiles. It has been a good morning all around. It’s a wonderful life.

Once in a while, a walking Wheaties box comes along. Tall. Trim. Broad-shouldered. Wholesome. Naturally sweet. Dale Murphy even goes good with milk. He did a dairy TV commercial once.

Fact is, he can even be a little flaky.

In the Atlanta clubhouse the other day, Murphy and another guy were discussing “The Natural,” a movie about a baseball player, a too-good-to-be-true player, who swings for the fences and stands for goodness. It is a plot line that might as well be Murphy’s biography.

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In the movie, the hero uses a homemade bat, on which he has emblazoned “Wonderboy.” The guy asks if it is true, as he has heard, that Murphy has been calling his own bat the same thing.

My bat?” Murphy says. “No way.

“Lately, my bat’s been more like the dog.”

“The dog? What dog?” the guy asks.

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“You know,” Murphy says. “Superman’s dog.”

Superman’s dog?”

“Aw, I don’t know what I mean,” Murphy says.

The baseball people who appreciate Dale Murphy, which is just about everybody, appreciate him because they consider him genuine. There is no pretense about him, no superficial self-effacement, no slick veneer, no hint that his good-natured behavior and aw-shucks demeanor are anything but real. It was a rival outfielder, Andre Dawson of the Montreal Expos, who made the observation: “Some guys try to make you think they’re one way, but you can see they’re not. With Murph, everybody knows he’s true.” Not phony, he means.

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“You want to know what his teammates think of him?” Braves pitcher Bruce Sutter volunteers. “In this room, he’s the greatest guy in the world. How’s that?”

They like him because he is, well, natural. He is a hero, an All-American Boy, dressed in a baseball uniform of red, white and blue. He is sweet, but not sickening. He is religious, but not preachy. Dale Murphy may be a two-time National League MVP, but he is also an ordinary guy. When Murph is in a slump, the first player to get on his case is Murph. He kids himself a lot. He also blames himself a lot. Because he Atlases so much of the load for Atlanta, Murphy takes it hard when he isn’t hitting. He slumps under the weight of slumps.

Murphy is a great player, but not yet a great hitter. “Not enough consistency,” he sizes up himself. An impatient hitter, he strikes out on too many bad pitches. He is no Dave Kingman, but he often goes fishing on 0-and-2 or 1-and-2. Then again, Murphy is eager to deliver the big hits because it is expected of him. It is essential for the Braves that he do so.

One night last August against the Dodgers, Murphy badly wanted a big hit. Ken Howell struck him out. Showing a temper theretofore hidden, Dale Murphy, the perfect gentleman, returned to the dugout and did a Lou Groza impression on the water fountain. He kicked the heck out of it.

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But later that night, after a heartfelt talk with his wife, Murphy made up his mind that that sort of tantrum was behind him. It was a bad way to behave and a bad example for kids. It was Murphy, after all, who, after a series of childish brawls with the San Diego Padres last season, instigated by the inside pitches of Atlanta’s Pascual Perez, said: “How can I go home and tell my children I play baseball?” It was Murphy who, having heard quite enough from a loudmouth heckling the umpires, called across to him: “Say whatever you want, but stop the swearing!”

Murphy thinks of kids because he thinks like one. To him, baseball is a game, not a business. He has fun. He has played in 563 consecutive games, longest streak of any active player, because he cannot stand to sit. Were he a lesser player than he is, Dale Murphy would be a great example of the nice but antsy bench warmer who keeps springing up to plead: “Put me in, Coach! I’m ready to play!” Logically, he knows he should take it easy--"Yeah, I probably could use a day off,” he says--but his heart keeps telling him to get out there.

Put me in, Coach.

I’m ready to play

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Today.

Put me in, Coach.

I’m ready to play

Today.

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Look at me.

I can be

Center field.

The morning after the rain-delayed Dodger game, the one that lasted until 2 a.m., the perfect gentleman, Dale Murphy, didn’t really feel like talking. He was tired, sore and slightly slumping. Worse, the Braves were still in a spin. They were settling toward the bottom of the National League West. Murph the Perf had carried them for more than a month, smashing home runs, playing his usual impeccable center field and tying a major league record with 29 runs batted in in April.

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Suddenly, though, he was at the end of a 1-for-16 rope, so he hoped a visitor from Los Angeles understood if he felt like temporarily clamming up. “I’m not doing anything, so I shouldn’t be talking,” he reasoned. This from a man who still led the league in homers and RBIs, a man whose batting average didn’t dip below .330 until May 28, a man whose average wouldn’t go below .310 until June 13.

As usual, lines formed outside the Fulton County Stadium players’ entrance before the game, just so folks could get a glimpse of their favorite player as he pulled into the tunnel in his silver Corvette. Later, during batting practice, children cried out his name--"Murphy! Murph! Murph!"--beseeching him for an autograph or a wave. Murphy, for the moment, paid them no mind.

He leaned against the batting cage, waiting his turn.

“Murph!” a voice rang out.

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It was Tom Lasorda, the Dodger manager.

“Murph!”

“Mornin’!” Murphy replied.

It was then that a guy behind the cage could not resist saying to Murphy: “Oh, sure. You won’t talk to an L.A. writer, but you’ll talk to Lasorda.”

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Murphy laughed. “Priorities,” he said.

A few minutes later, Murphy launched himself into Kiddieland, signing autographs for dozens and dozens of kids. “Be careful,” he told a big one who was leaning on a small one. “You’ll squash somebody.”

Murphy signs his name and eats left-handed, although he does nothing else that way. “I wish I did. My sons want to play ball, so I’ll try to get them to bat left-handed. You’re closer to first base and you face more right-handed pitchers than lefties.” Again, he cannot help thinking of kids.

Murphy grew up in Portland, Ore., except for a couple of years spent near San Francisco. The Giants were his team. He liked Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, even Jim Davenport, the man who now manages the Giants. The Portland Beavers also were his team. They were Cleveland’s Triple-A farm club, and Murphy admired Sam McDowell, because he could really throw a fastball, and Chico Salmon, “because I loved that name.” All he remembers about the first major league game he ever saw was that he hoped it would go into extra innings, because then there would be more to see.

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As a kid catcher, Murphy fantasized about the big time. “One day, when we lived in California, me and my dad drove past Candlestick Park. And I told him, ‘I’m gonna work there someday.’ I didn’t remember saying it, but he did. When Nancy and I got married, and we had the reception, all the parents got up to say something, and my dad got up and said, ‘Dale once went past Candlestick Park and said he was gonna work there someday. And I said, yeah, selling peanuts.’ ”

Got a beat-up glove and a homemade bat

And a brand new pair of shoes.

You know I think it’s time

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To give this game a ride.

Just to hit the ball, and touch ‘em all

A moment in the sun.

It’s gone and you can

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Kiss that one goodby.”

Dale Murphy had to give up being a catcher because he couldn’t throw the ball back to the pitcher. Well, he could, but not every time. He also led the league in strikeouts in 1978, which was the year the Braves first tried him at first base.

He led the league’s first basemen in errors with 20.

The Braves had to find a position for the big, 6 foot 5 inch, kid with Babe Ruth’s number, 3, on his back. In 1980, in desperation, they moved Murphy to center field. That year, he made the National League All-Star team. He made it again in 1982, when he played all 162 games, hit .281 with 36 home runs and 109 RBIs. Defensively, he used his good speed and long limbs to make diving catches and pluck extra base hits off the tops of fences. (Look at me. I can be. Center field.) “It just sort of came to me naturally,” he says.

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Once he found a position, he was set. There was a time, when he tore cartilage in his knee trying to catch a Phil Niekro knuckleball in 1979, when Murphy wondered what he would do if he couldn’t play baseball. All he ever wanted to do was play. He was prepared for nothing else.

“I guess I would have gone back to school,” he says.

There is an eight-foot, 3,200-pound statue of Niekro in the hallway near the Braves’ clubhouse, waiting to be stationed outside the park, in honor of a man who is still playing ball in his mid-40s. At the rate Murphy is going, there might be a statue of him at the park someday, so a guy asks him what he expects to be doing in, say, the year 2000.

“Wow,” Murphy says. “What year is this?”

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The guy fills him in.

“Wow. Nobody’s ever asked me that before. Well, as far as baseball is concerned, there’s just too much traveling, too much time away from home to stay in it too long. I wouldn’t mind being involved in baseball, but I’m not enough of a student of the game to manage. I think the general manager looks like he has a lot of fun.”

What about radio? Television?

“Yeah,” Murphy says, excitedly. “I’m intrigued by radio. My favorite stuff on the radio isn’t the music, it’s talk radio. Maybe a talk show. Whaddaya think?”

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Yeah. Maybe call it “Mornin’, Dale!”

Put me in, Coach.

I’m ready to play

Today.

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Put me in, Coach.

I’m ready to play

Today.

Look at me.

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I can be

Center field.

The infectious enthusiasm of Dale Murphy makes him a pleasure to be around. He treats everyone the same. When he makes an appointment with a guy who has been waiting to talk to him, he apologizes profusely the next day when they miss connections. He makes time to talk about whatever the guy wants to talk about. He tells the guy to phone him if he thinks of anything else. A photographer introduces himself and Murphy starts telling him how much he resembles Dan Fogelberg, the singer, whereupon he starts talking about Fogelberg’s latest album, “High Country Snows,” and how good it is, and, “Do you like Fogelberg? Oh, boy, I do. His stuff is great. You ought to buy it. Really,” whereupon a guy tells Murphy about a John Fogerty album he ought to hear.

On a more serious matter, a guy is surprised to find out that Murphy, with his conservative Mormon upbringing, is opposed to Commissioner Peter Ueberroth’s proposal to test all game-related personnel for drugs.

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“Well, the way I understand it,” Murphy says, straining for the right words, “there’s already an agreement that does allow for that. . . . I mean, if the front office or whoever’s handling it has reason to believe that you have some problem, they can confront you. I don’t know. It’s such a hard question. I guess personally, I think it’s better to do it that way than blanket coverage of everybody, because why else would you want to test someone unless you heard they were having problems? I just think, uh, it’s basically . . . “

“I don’t mean to butt in,” Atlanta infielder Glenn Hubbard says, eavesdropping, “but to me it means that it goes against the Constitution because they’re just saying you’re guilty and now you’ve got to prove yourself innocent.”

“Yeah,” Murphy says. “Exactly. They can be kind of obsessive sometimes. And what happens if there’s a problem with your test? I know a doctor who told me you’d be amazed how many times you look in the lab and see all these things that need to be done and the little mistakes that get made here and there. That could happen. What am I supposed to say then? I know it’s funny, a guy like me saying something like this. It probably looks like you’ve got something to hide. But I just don’t agree with it for anyone in any occupation.”

This is not a fun subject. It is too real. Murphy loves the fun, the sun, the game. He found out the hard way, when he kicked the water cooler, what can happen when you take things too seriously. That was why he became determined never to do such a thing again. After going 0-for-8 in a recent 18-inning game with the Giants, striking out four times and ending it with a fly to the left-field wall, Murphy squeezed his batting helmet hard and looked as though he wanted to throw it. Quickly he caught himself and set it lightly on the ground.

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Next day, he opened the game with a home run.

At the moment, Murphy is still struggling. His average has been dropping steadily, into the low .290s, and during one seven-game stretch he struck out 12 times against 12 different pitchers. But he is trying to do as The Natural did in the movies, end a bad at-bat with a “We’ll get ‘em next time.”

Ah, movies. “I love movies,” Murphy says. “But I love movies that are uplifting. Some of the movies nowadays are so close to real life, you can’t watch them. I read a review the other day that said a movie was no good because it ‘wasn’t realistic enough.’ That’s not what I go to a movie for.

“I’ll tell you what my favorite movie is. Did you ever see ‘It’s a Wonderful Life?’ That’s probably 300-million people’s favorite movie, I know. But there’s just a classic example of what can be done with a movie. I don’t know how many times I’ve already seen it, but every time afterwards, I feel good about life.”

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Well, beat the drum and hold the phone ,

The sun came out today.

We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field.

A-roundin’ third and headed for home ,

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It’s a brown-eyed handsome man.

Anyone can understand the way I feel.

“Centerfield,” words and music by J.C. Fogerty 1984 Wenaha Music Co.

THE NUMBERS ON MURPHY

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Year G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BA 1976 19 65 3 17 6 0 0 9 .262 1977 18 76 5 24 8 1 2 14 .316 1978 151 530 66 120 14 3 23 79 .226 1979 104 384 53 106 7 2 21 57 .276 1980 156 569 98 160 27 2 33 89 .281 1981 104 369 43 91 12 1 13 50 .247 1982 162 598 113 168 23 2 36 109 .281 1983 162 589 131 178 24 4 36 121 .302 1984 162 602 94 176 32 8 36 100 .290 1985 67 255 46 75 13 0 17 49 .294 Totals 1105 4042 652 1115 166 23 217 677 .276


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