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FACING A TRADE-OFF : Best Deal for Murphy Might Be New Team

Times Staff Writer

As message pitches go, this one was unreal.

Dale Murphy didn’t take it as any kind of sign that he was no longer wanted around here, but maybe he should have.

The automatic pitching machine turned on by itself the other day and started throwing baseballs at him.

Murphy was standing by himself in a batting cage at the Atlanta Braves’ spring camp, hitting balls off a tee. The machine was off.

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Suddenly, the iron arm of the pitching machine began to move. It swept in an arc until it scooped up a baseball. With a snap, it threw the ball toward the plate . . .

. . . where Murphy was looking down toward the tee, paying no attention . . .

. . . and whap! Instead of crossing the plate, the ball smacked Murphy right on his bare forearm, leaving a greenish bruise.

If Stephen King can write novels about old Plymouths that murder people, imagine what he could do with a killer pitching machine. Iron Mike. No one could stop him. No one could touch him. “The Beaning.” Now in paperback.

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Murphy suffered only minor discomfort and embarrassment, and even those went away a few days later, when he discovered something.

“I felt better when I found out it also happened to somebody else,” he said. “That machine’s got ghosts.”

Just the same, since February alone, Murphy already has undergone arthroscopic surgery on one knee, has slammed a door on one of his hands, and then has been hit by a mechanical pitch.

“Kind of unusual for a coordinated baseball player,” Murphy said. “I’ve told anybody who’s standing next to me to watch out, because I think the sky’s falling.”

Well, maybe somebody up there is trying to tell this young Brave man something.

Maybe it really is time to go play someplace else.

Maybe Atlanta really is the Amityville of baseball.

Maybe Murphy doesn’t need to be traded, so much as rescued.

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Rescued from a franchise that has finished below .500 five seasons in a row. Rescued from a club that lost 106 games last season. Rescued from a city that hasn’t won a championship in professional anything that we can recall--baseball, football, basketball, hockey--and never even seems to make it to the finals.

The Braves themselves haven’t taken the National League pennant since 1958, when their state was Wisconsin, not confusion.

Thing is, Murphy doesn’t look at life that way. For one thing, Murphy loves Atlanta, and it loves him. He has never asked for a trade. Probably never would.

Yet, he has been prepared, all spring long. All winter, too. Murph to the Mets. Murph to the Padres. Murph to the Angels. He has heard them all. And he has braced himself--even for New York, if that happens, although picturing Dale Murphy living in New York is a little like picturing Little Red Riding Hood living with the wolf. You know what we mean. Mister Rogers in Beirut.

Still, this is one nice guy who must be getting tired of finishing last.

Murphy, who turns 33 Sunday, still has time to make it to the winner’s circle--assuming his minor miseries have healed, as he says they have. Chances are, Murph himself will bounce back nicely from last year’s disappointing .226 batting average, a 69-point drop-off from the season before.

But when will the Braves bounce back?

“We’re getting there,” Murphy says, sunny as springtime, as usual. “We’ve made some nice new additions, and I’d definitely be surprised if we went through another of those seasons like last season.”

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Forecasters disagree. It is difficult to find one who does not believe the Braves will remain right where they have been since 1985--in fifth or sixth place.

The only question seems to be: Will Murphy be there with them?

“I’m not afraid to be traded,” he says. “It’s not something I’m hoping for, but at the same time, it’s not something that has me tearing my hair out. I’ve reconciled myself to the possibility that it could happen.

“There are places I’d rather not go, yes, but I’d rather not comment publicly on where. I haven’t even told (General Manager) Bobby (Cox).

“New York would definitely be a culture shock, but I’m not saying I couldn’t be happy there. I haven’t accepted it or rejected it. It’s not Atlanta, I know that, and Atlanta’s given me a chance to play and a good place to raise my family. But I understand business, and if Bobby feels he has to make a move, I’ll deal with it. If the phone rings and I’m traded, I won’t faint.”

Practically the whole show for Atlanta in the mid-to-late ‘80s, Murphy won consecutive most-valuable-player awards in 1982-83, and, the first year, led the Braves to a division championship. For four years running, he put together homer totals of 36, 36, 36, 37, then fell off slightly, then came back to belt 44 in 1987.

Last season, however, everything went to seed. Certainly many players would not consider an off-year to be one in which they struck 24 home runs and 35 doubles, but Murphy considers it an altogether write-off. Among other things, he batted .194 on the road. His season average was his poorest in 10 years.

Even so, Murphy placed in the league’s top 10 in four offensive categories--extra-base hits, homers, doubles and walks--and had more assists--15--than any outfielder in the league except Kevin McReynolds.

Also, even though he was hurting, Murphy sat out only four games. The guy has missed 13 days in nine years. Let’s see George Brett or Kirk Gibson or Paul Molitor say the same.

Can Atlanta afford to lose him?

Maybe, if the price is right. Obviously any club that wants Murphy would have to supply a package of prime stock. The Braves need help all over the place, and particularly need outfielders, even though Murphy happens to be an outfielder.

Manager Russ Nixon plans to move him back from right field to center, assuming Murphy stays.

“Murph’s the best we’ve got in the outfield,” Nixon conceded. “What we need are people to put around him.”

How bad is the Braves’ outfield situation?

“I don’t even want to talk about it,” Nixon said. “Most of the guys out there, we know they can’t play those positions.

“Can I just play one guy?”

At the moment, Atlanta’s starting left fielder is Lonnie Smith. That’s how hard times are. The right fielder is anybody’s guess.

Atlanta is unsettled at every position except Murphy’s--wherever that might be--and Gerald Perry’s, first base. So, who did the Braves sign in the off-season? Darrell Evans, a first baseman, who might have made some American League team a nice lefty designated hitter.

In advertisements this spring, the Braves are trumpeting their rotation of Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and the Smiths, Pete and Zane, no relation. Combined last season, they won 21 games. And the staff’s ace reliever, at this writing, is Bruce Sutter, who has won three games in three years.

Murphy can’t explain why or how Atlanta has lost 96, 89, 92 and 106 games the last four seasons. No more than he can explain why no Brave team has won 90 games since 1969.

It certainly hasn’t escaped any Atlantan’s attention that some able players, still active, such as Steve Bedrosian, Brett Butler, Brook Jacoby, Bob Walk, Duane Ward, Doyle Alexander, Ken Dayley and Claudell Washington have slipped through the cracks.

Bad deals and bad decisions have left the Braves in their present predicament. The very thought of trading Dale Murphy is unappetizing to some fans who respect him not only for his playing efforts, but for his general cleanliness and godliness.

Although Murphy makes it clear that he doesn’t wish to impose his own behavior guidelines on others, it hasn’t escaped his attention that baseball camps this spring have been rife with controversies over sexual and alcohol abuse, fistfights between teammates and an MVP who flouts traffic laws from Florida to Arizona, then complains that the police are picking on him.

“I do feel there is a certain responsibility on our part, other than just playing baseball,” Murphy said. “I understand their position when they say, ‘It’s just my job. It shouldn’t be any different from anybody else’s.’ And it’s true that no matter what your job is, you have certain responsibilities with regard to how you behave.

“But, truthfully, baseball’s a little different. At least that’s how I see it. I feel I’m playing baseball for more reasons than to just hit a ball.

“We’re in a unique position in that we can influence others, that we can have some impact on young kids. I don’t want to preach. I don’t put myself above other people. But when I hear some of the stuff that’s been going around around baseball this spring, well, it’s kind of sad. I hate the thought of kids copying some of this behavior, just because they admire the guy who’s doing it.

“It’s a tough situation for everybody concerned, including the athletes, because when we have a problem, it’s public. If I had a problem, you’d probably know about it sooner or later. If a bank president has a problem, you might not. His influence is every bit as strong as ours, only ours is larger.”

A team hates to trade a person who represents it so well. Moreover, the Braves have to be sure they don’t blow this deal, because any trade involving Murphy is going to be examined and re-examined in Atlanta--heck, in the southeastern United States--for years to come. Butler and Jacoby for Len Barker was one thing, but this, this is Dale Murphy we’re talking about. Not just Mr. Baseball down there, but Mr. Clean.

Oh, and since the franchise moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta, the man who hit the most home runs with an A on his cap was Hank Aaron, who hit 335 of his record total of 755 on Atlanta’s behalf.

Murphy has hit 334.


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