Craaack! Another Murphy line drive is away. This one scurries across the dirt to the fence. Pow! Another. This one poses a clear and present danger to the leftfielder, who, being the family dog, quickly takes its leave before...Biff! A third Murphy smash, this one lefthanded, no less, and that should be all for the pitcher, Vin Scully.
"Goooooood," Dale Murphy hollers while giving chase to that third screamer, which may end up in Lake Murphy if he doesn't hustle. Switch-hitting Chad Murphy, a phenom at the age of 4, giggles over this newfound power to make his father scamper off madly across the lawn. Of course, there is a heavy price to pay for all this laughter—pictures, always more pictures. Murphy is constantly dragging that camera out now that times are worth keeping again.
Click. Chad, swinging at a changeup. Click. Travis, swinging at Chad. Click. Travis, swinging at the dog.
"Gosh," says Murphy, looking up from the viewfinder, "we are really happy here."
Click. Dale Murphy and the Murphettes, smiling again.
ASK DALE MURPHY
When I play baseball, almost everyone seems to swear and cuss a lot. Is this true in professional baseball, and if so, how do you handle it?
Allan Farr, 11
If there is some language that is objectionable to you, then you should try to avoid it if you can. Leave if it's something that doesn't agree with you. That is what I do.
—"Ask Dale Murphy"
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Dale Murphy sets your calendar back 35 years. He is the right star plunked headfirst into the wrong time warp. He still blushes at big league blue streaks. He catches the ball with two hands. He turns fellow players into unabashed fans. As Bob Dernier of the Cubs puts it, "The ground looks smaller under his feet."
The '80s are just half over and Murphy has already won the National League MVP award twice, and he's on his way to his most Murphyesque season yet: At week's end he had a .325 average, 11 home runs and 34 RBIs. The man is emerging as the planet's best player in a decade he can't quite figure out.
"Maybe I am naive about certain things," says Murphy, who resembles John-Boy Walton in all things, even to the mole on his cheek. "But I'm glad. I know all I want to know."
The TV lights don't come on in Murphy's cubicle until he's fully dressed. "If somebody in the dugout hollers, 'Check out that girl in Section 36,' " says teammate Bruce Benedict, "Murph won't even look." Murphy also won't allow a female admirer to so much as put an arm around him for a snapshot. There are other things Murph just can't see fit to approve: bitching, brooding, bragging or backing out of games. Murphy hasn't missed one since 1981.
"If you're a coach, you want him as a player," says former Braves manager Joe Torre. "If you're a father, you want him as a son. If you're a woman, you want him as a husband. If you're a kid, you want him as a father. What else can you say about the guy?"
If you're a National League pitcher, you want him to move back to Walton Mountain. Murphy's numbers extrapolate out to 43 homers and 134 RBIs for the year.
You want testimony? We've got testimony. "I can't picture Joe DiMaggio being any better an all-around player than Murphy," says Houston pitcher Nolan Ryan. "He's one of the toughest guys I've ever pitched to."
In April, Murphy, or "the Heat," as teammate Claudell Washington calls him, was one of the toughest guys in history. He knocked in 29 runs, which tied Ron Cey's April record. Except that Murphy did it in 19 games, while Cey took 20. Murphy drove in three more on May 1—his 20th game—for a total of 32, exactly double the next highest total in the NL at the time. Even through the Braves' disastrous May slump, Murphy kept alive a 15-game hitting streak. "When Murphy hits a ball in Georgia," says Pittsburgh pitching coach Grant Jackson, "I get the idea it might land in Florida." This is not the way Murphy sees it. To listen to Murphy, every home run he has ever hit was owed to odd and lucky circumstance. Speaking of a home run he hit in the Houston Astrodome, where he has belted two already this season (six last year, more than any visitor and all but one Astro), Murphy explained to the press what happened, in his usual postgame guilt conference—head down, size-13 feet pawing at the carpet, heavy into his Jimmy Stewart stammer. "Ah, well, uh, you seeeeeeee, that wouldn't have been a home run if they hadn't moved the fence in."
He once actually apologized for a home run he hit off Bruce Sutter in Atlanta when Sutter was with the Cardinals. "What can I do?" he groaned. "If it goes over the fence, I guess it's a home run." Yes, well, those are the breaks.
If Murphy needs a postgame speech-writer, his game speaks for itself. "I think it will be virtually impossible the next three or four years for anybody to be a better player than Dale," says San Diego infielder Jerry Royster, a former teammate of his on the Braves. The Expos' Andre Dawson, hitting merely .261 as of Sunday, figures Murphy has this year's MVP iced. "He's a shoo-in," Dawson says. If Dawson's right, Murphy might be a shoo-in for Cooperstown, because it would be his third such selection in four years (though he hasn't found time to hang the plaques yet). He would be the third man in National League history to win it in triplicate. The other two were Stan Musial and Roy Campanella. In the AL four men have done it—Yogi Berra, Jimmy Foxx, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Murphy is 29.
Murphy has already hit 211 career home runs, won three Gold Gloves and become only the sixth member of the 30-home run/30-stolen base club, a feat he performed in '83. He is a masterpiece, and his canvas is half complete.
Even more amazingly, Murphy has pulled it all off as a majority of one. With his strict Mormon beliefs, he is a moral Weight-Watcher in a House of Pies. Murphy will pick up teammates' dinner checks, but usually won't buy their beer, on moral grounds. Often, on team plane trips, cards and obscenities fly while Murphy reads the Bible. But he stays true to himself without sticking in everybody else's craw. "The guys love Murph," says second baseman Glenn Hubbard. "They respect him for what he believes, and he respects them."
Not that Murphy is running for canonization. He has his peccadilloes, mainly involving his six squares a day. Murphy invented the power lunch. And dinner. And snack. One night on the road last season, the Braves lost another game as part of a dreadful losing streak. Torre, desperate for ideas, told the players to forget about curfew and go tie one on. Most of the Braves headed for their favorite dispensaries of fine spirits. Murphy headed for his favorite all-night ice cream shop and drowned his sorrows in banana splits. A maraschino cherry, bartender. And leave the jar.
Sartorially speaking, Murphy is baseball's answer to Tommy Newsom, despite being named to Atlanta's 10 Best Dressed List, the source of no end of compatriot ridicule. "Ten best?" Benedict hooted. "Murphy's lucky to get a blue sock on with a gray one. And his hair—he looks as though he combs it with a firecracker."
Undaunted, Murphy beats on against the current. "I'm getting there," he says. "Check this out." Gray slacks, blue coat, blue shirt. Snappy, Murph. "Well, I'm trying. But some of the clothes today, gosh. Have you seen what the kids are wearing in California?"
In the Braves clubhouse, pitcher Terry Forster, the paunchy and sometimes raunchy pundit, is sharing some intimate moments with a Budweiser. He nods his head across the room toward Murphy, and swallows. "Just look at him over there," he says. "Doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, doesn't take greenies, nicest guy you'd ever want to meet, hits the hell out of the ball, hustles like crazy, plays a great centerfield and isn't trying to get anything from anybody."
"Doesn't he just make you sick?"
Just look at him over there and you would believe that nothing in this world could be more splendid than waking up every morning as Dale Bryan Murphy, immune to sorrow, Chip Hilton for the '80s, the hero we've all been waiting for. Just looking at him over there you would have no idea what he's been through. But then, who would think to ask?
Who was your hero when you were a kid?
Jay Sanders, 9
When I was a youngster, I loved Willie Mays. When I got into high school, I started to catch, so I followed Johnny Bench.
My heroes now are...people who are working hard and trying to make a good living for their families. My heroes are the people who put their families first.
Murphy found out that that is easier said than done.
He springs from mid-American stock, fresh off a Norman Rockwell print. His great-grandfather was a semipro baseball catcher, a bronco rider, a trick rodeo roper and head pickle-fetcher at his own general store in Cozad, Neb. Folks say he could spin one rope in each hand, one in his mouth and one off a wire that came off his backside. Murphy's grandparents on his mother's side, Ledger and Pearl Bryan, were children of ornery Oklahoma farmers who wouldn't budge from their farms even through the dust bowls. Ledger, better known as "Popo" to his grandchildren and the stewardess pool at Eastern Airlines—he has a "Get-Up-and-Go Passport" for senior citizens—was a centerfielder in his youth. "Better in the field than at the plate," Popo laments. Popo was baptized by Dale into the Mormon church on his 67th birthday. Now 78, Popo gets up and goes somewhere every month to watch his grandson wreak havoc on National League pitching.
"Amazing to me," Popo says. "For the longest time I just thought of him as a big, awkward boy." Amazing to most people, except for Murphy's baseball coach at Woodrow Wilson High in Portland, Ore., Jack Dunn. It was Dunn who, as early as Murphy's junior year, warned Dale's father, Charles, "Have you given any thought to your boy being a pro prospect?" Nope. Who had? As a catcher, Murphy had a lethal arm behind the plate, but wasn't much standing with a bat beside it.
But Dunn was prophetic. Murphy was picked in the first round of the 1974 June draft by the Braves. He turned down a scholarship to Arizona State, where he would have teamed 'with Bob Horner, and headed for the club's farm system, where no pitcher would be safe.
Not from his bat, from his arm.
Murphy began suffering what might today be called Sax Attacks. Murphy's bat was spraying the ball all over the field, but so was his arm. If the ball didn't wind up in centerfield, it often ended up buried in the rump of some unlucky hurler. At one point, recalls Braves pitcher Rick Camp, "Eight or 10 coaches were watching him throw, all telling him something different to do. I believe that if they hadn't messed with him, Murph would have worked it out and still have been a catcher today." Says Murphy, "It was like being an artist and then suddenly waking up one morning and not being able to sign your name."
By 1978, the club had practically given up on him as a catcher. The Braves tried him as a first baseman, and in 129 games there he led the league in errors. Worse, without a mask, the folks in the stands could see who they were booing. Says Murphy's father, "I thought he was done."
In 1980 the Braves' manager at the time, Bobby Cox, moved Murphy to the outfield and crossed his fingers. Three Gold Gloves later ('82, '83, '84), Cox looks like a genius.
Once Murphy was centered in center, all heaven began to break loose. In 1980 he had his best year thus far as a pro, hitting .281 with 33 home runs. The strike of '81 distracted him mightily, and he hit only .247, which, of course, he felt terrible about, which inspired him to start hot in 1982, which then became the first of his three monster years. In '82 he hit .281, with 36 dingers and 109 RBIs, all while playing 162 games. Who else could you make MVP? Murphy, however, was not satisfied and went to the Instructional League to work on his hitting. And when he became the most improved player in the league the next year, hitting .302, with 36 homers and 121 RBIs, again without missing a game, the writers were helpless. There would be times in the next two years Murphy wished they had voted for somebody else.
What is the strangest thing anyone has ever asked you to autograph?
Brandi Branson, 15
A few years ago, I hit a foul ball and this guy in the stands tried to catch it. But it hit him right in the chest and he wanted me to autograph the bruise. And that's the truth.
The kicker to the story is that Murphy autographed it. But, then, Murphy is just a boy who can't say no. And during both post-MVP off-seasons, especially the second, the Murphy family nearly went nuts. "Dale wouldn't say no to anybody," says his wife, Nancy, a bright and blonde ex-BYU cheerleader. "He was doing speeches all the time. He'd agree to anything anybody wanted. He was speaking at little things, like flower clubs." Or, as Dale describes it, "I guess you have to get used to the ups and downs. But that was the first time I'd ever had any ups."
At the time, they were living in their dream house in Lawrenceville, a suburb just outside Atlanta. Since the home was built just the way Nancy had always wanted, it was huge and gorgeous and stuck out like the Peachtree Plaza. "The place looked like a hotel," said one friend. Once people found out it belonged to Dale Murphy, cable-TV star, it practically became one. His fame began to clash with the furniture.
Fans would knock on the door and ask for autographs or tours of the estate. Once, after a long road trip, Dale, Nancy and their three boys finally had two hours to themselves before Dale had to get to the ball yard for a night game. They decided to spend it out by the pool. Minutes after they sat down, a nose could be seen peeking over the backyard hedgerow. "Hey, Dale?" came a voice. "Dale, my mother drove a long way down here to see you. Would you mind coming out to the car and talk to her for just a second?" Murphy spent the better part of an hour talking to somebody's mother.
For Nancy, this was not at all what she had enlisted for. When she first met Murphy at BYU in 1978, she was the steady of basketball player Steve Craig. Murphy had moved in with Craig for one semester's worth of schoolwork and, he admits, wife hunting. Nancy and Dale became acquaintances. "I thought he was a semipro player," she recalls. "I had no idea he was any good." Alas, Murphy returned to Atlanta wifeless.
In May of '79 he tore cartilage in his knee chasing a Phil Niekro knuckleball. Nancy called to console him. She also let slip that she had broken up with Steve. This gave them more to talk about than cartilage. Dale called her the next day. She returned the call the day after. After a few weeks Nancy's parents reasoned that a plane ticket could be no harder on their checking account than the phone bill clunking down on the doorstep. Nancy went to Atlanta, staying with a friend. In two months she and Dale were engaged. In October they were married in Temple Square in Salt Lake City. In something of a surprise, Steve Craig was there. He would eventually marry Marie Osmond—quite a coincidence, because Nancy had once gone out with Marie's brother Jay. There being no Mormon gossip tabloid, this stuff has gone unused until now. No need to go into Steve and Marie's impending divorce.
Right off, Dale and Nancy had an argument. Dale wanted a small family, say six or seven kids. Nancy wanted 10. Their first child, Chad, arrived nine months and two days after vows were recited. Could two people be happier? Let's have another and find out. In October 1981, Travis was born. Travis, though, was not like Chad. Travis was born with Rubinstein-Taybi Syndrome, a rare disease that retards mental and physical development, inverts thumbs and causes epicanthic folds in the eyelids, giving the face and nose a flatness.
"That year was an extremely difficult time for us," Nancy says. "We'd never been taught how to face something like that before.... Dale was on the road, and I was having to fly all over the place taking Travis to doctors." Since the Murphys rarely talk about their troubles, they generally have precious few shoulders to cry on. For Dale, who is expected to look as if he just stepped off one of his milk-ad billboards, looking chipper and happy became a task. "People see the ail-American image," Murphy says. "They aren't in touch with reality."
For Nancy, it was harder still. "People have a hard time sympathizing with me," she says. "My friends say, 'Look at everything you have. You're making one-point-whatever million dollars a year. How can you not be happy?' "
But the Murphys were decidedly not happy. In one gloomy stretch in 1983, Nancy was pregnant with a fourth child—another son, Shawn, had been born in '82—Travis caught pneumonia after undergoing surgery, and Dale's phenomenal success on the baseball field had translated into phenomenal stress at home, with their privacy seemingly reduced to the hours between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. to midnight.
Nancy lost the baby in the fourth month. They talked about it, decided to try it again and then, last year, lost another, this time in the fifth month. The doctors said the two miscarriages were unrelated. "Dale took the second one especially hard," says Curtis Patton, a friend. Says Dale, "I just felt so bad for Nancy. I don't think any man can know what a woman goes through."
Dark clouds seem darker still with no time to conduct searches for silver linings. The Murphys' lives were nearly not their own. "We couldn't even go out to dinner without Dale getting mobbed," Nancy says. "Even at church he'd get autograph requests. Things were going so bad for us that Dale didn't even know if he wanted to succeed anymore. He knew what success had brought us in the past. Success had brought us a lot of trouble. We were tense most of the year. Last year, he got off to a bad start. There were times when he was kind of down. Of course, Dale's bad moods are like most people's good moods, but I can tell. He stops talking."
Maybe that was because Murphy was having to do so much talking at the park during the spring of '84. "Reporters were asking me if I could do it, you know, win the third MVP, be the only guy to win three in a row," Murphy recalls. "And maybe I began to think that it was important for me to make that a goal. That was the wrong thing to do.... I was playing for all the wrong reasons."
He had stopped hitting. On April 13, Murphy—usually a quick-flash starter (NL Player of the Month for April in both '82 and this year)—had a .152 average. "And even then, even when I was hitting so bad, they were still asking me, 'Can you do it?' "
Worse, with Horner out with a broken wrist, Murphy felt the flames flickering at his pants cuffs. "I think Dale thought he had to do it all himself," Torre says. "I knew he was thinking that way, so I'd try to kid him about it. I'd say, 'Dale, we need 'you to win this one for us tonight. I mean, it's mandatory. Can you do it?' He'd laugh, but I don't know if it helped."
The meltdown occurred Aug. 9 last year at home against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Murphy came up against Ken Howell in the bottom of the ninth with the tying run on third. He struck out, for the 100th time that season. To celebrate, he drop-kicked the dugout water cooler. "Smoked it, too," recalls Hubbard. "Ice went everywhere." The players in the dugout were frozen, mouths agape. It was as though Murphy had screamed for their attention, stood up on the bench and come out in favor of MTV.
That night the loneliest Brave came home in mental dishevelment. Nancy had seen enough. "Look what you're doing to yourself," she said. "You're not even having any fun. You're miserable. You're depressed. If this line of work makes you so unhappy, why don't you just quit."
Said Murphy, "I feel like it!"
Murphy knew he couldn't quit, "but I'm glad we talked about it," he says. "It woke me up to what I was doing to myself. I was much too intense. That kind of intensity, too much up or down, ends up getting you."
From that night on, Atlas decided to shrug once in a while. The Heat vowed to take the heat off himself. He also vowed to take the heat off his family. If The Education of Dale Murphy had a name, it was No More Mr. Nice Guy (relatively speaking). Another working title: Mr. Clean Gets (Just a Little) Mean. No more interviews or autographs at the house. After the games, instead of walking outside the stadium to his car, a process that usually lasted an hour because of autograph seekers, Murphy now has his silver Corvette (now that's snappy) pulled into the tunnel underneath. For the hundreds of autograph requests that come through the mail each week, he now uses what's known as an "autograph pen," or stamp, and has it done professionally. Sorry, boys and girls.
Things suddenly came easier. "It seemed like he was lightened," says Camp, "and he was hitting absolutely everything." Murphy was the Player of the Month for September, and his hitting carried over into '85.
Murphy's law is now What Will Go Wrong Isn't Necessarily Your Fault. "Nothing is going to distract me anymore," he told Chris Mortensen of The Atlanta Journal this spring. "Whether I'm hitting .100 or .300, I have resolved to at least enjoy every game. My main goal the rest of my career is to just go out and play and enjoy every opportunity."
During the winter Murphy packed up his family and took them from the glass house in suburbia to a new hideaway 40 minutes from town—a 10-acre Xanadu with a mailbox that tells no secrets and an ominous wrought-iron gate that tells no lies. Behind it winds a long, narrow drive, which snakes past a pond guarded by two fierce swans, past thick pines and oaks standing at attention, arriving at a glorious brick mansion.
Back behind the house, Murphy has worked the rich Georgia red clay into a garden of peaches, nectarines, raspberries, blueberries, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, watermelon, cantaloupes, onions and sweet yellow peppers. Standing over his work is a scarecrow, fashioned by Murphy out of jeans, an old shirt and a retired hat. Murphy loves his scarecrow, which, as a scarecrow, is not very good. But as a metaphor for what his family has been through, it keeps away more than crows.
The new Murphy is a sight to behold. "We just had the greatest off-season," says Nancy. "He's looser now," says Camp. "He's finally relaxed, finally come into his own."
Baseball-wise, that is a chilling thought. His four-week hitting streak to open the season had the National League bumping into itself looking for new adjectives.
"These days, anytime one of my pitchers keeps Murphy in the ball park, I pat 'em on the fanny," says Cincinnati manager Pete Rose. "I told him, 'Dale, you're the best player in the league. That's all there is to it.' "
Owner Ted Turner must shudder to think where the Braves would be this year without Murphy. Is there a place below last? As of Sunday, the Braves were 6-18 in games without a Murphy RBI. They were 17-24 overall.
Even opponents are tingling about the possibility that is Murphy in '85. When he singled in an early May game against Montreal, Expo first baseman Dan Driessen couldn't wait to chat him up.
"So, Murph, is it true?" Driessen asked.
"Is what true?"
"That you might hit 70 home runs this year?"
"Get outta here!"
Get outta here yourself, says Braves hitting instructor Luke Appling, a Hall of Famer who has predicted that someday Murphy will hit 70.
"That's ridiculous," Murphy protests. "Get that in there somewhere. I'll never hit 70 home runs. I'll never hit 60 home runs. I feel stupid even talking about it.... I feel stupid talking about the Hall of Fame, too. I've had three good years. That's it. Go talk to Cal Ripken or Eddie Murray or Jim Rice or somebody."
Sorry, but it is too late now to stop the spread of Murphy Madness. "I'm going to be able to sit down with my grandkids one day and say, 'I played with Dale Murphy,' " says Camp.
This new Murphy has also revealed a dry wit. Holy Henny Youngman, Murph actually delivers an occasional punch line these days. When a writer's game story in the Atlanta paper ended rather abruptly with "Murphy rounded second and," Murphy ran up to the writer in the clubhouse that day in a panic.
"Quick!" Murphy said to him, "you've got to tell me!"
The writer looked worried. "Tell you what?"
"How did it end?"
As Braves reliever Gene Garber said to him, "You know, Murph, I knew you when you were a nice guy. But I like you better now."
I would like to know if you will be as nice and good to people several years from now when people are asking more of you and you have less time because of your family and baseball and endorsements?
Bret Johnson, 11
...Getting involved with more things means getting less involved with my family. I see the point where that is taking away from the most important part of my life. I will be polite, but, nevertheless, I will tell people that I won't be able to do some of the things that are asked of me.
The man who edits "Ask Dale Murphy" might choose to debate that answer. Born with cerebral palsy, Curtis Patton, 38, has never been told no by Murphy. Through the last five years, which is the span of their friendship, Murphy has come to Patton's bedside too many times to be thanked. Once while recuperating from surgery to relieve phlebitis, Patton was in so much agony that he could think of no one to call but Murphy. He drove to Patton's home, picked him up in his arms, put him in his car, drove him to the hospital and stayed by his bedside until the pain subsided.
For the next 10 days, every day, Murphy picked up Patton's mother—a 35-mile drive from Murphy's home—took her to the hospital, stayed with Patton for an hour or so, returned home, came back to the hospital later in the evening, stayed for an hour or so and then took Patton's mother back home.
"He has come over to my home in the middle of the night because he knew I was alone," Patton says. "One night I was so sick and so depressed that I called him and asked him to pray for me. He came over. That night, I shed tears and when I looked up I saw that he was crying, too.... You know, people are always saying, 'That Dale Murphy. He sure is a nice guy.' But it's hard to know what 'nice' means. I just thought I'd tell you."
Travis is 3½ now, still in diapers, just learning to form a few words, making slow, though steady, progress. Nancy and Dale say it's hard sometimes to watch him playing with the other kids, but they're not worried. "We believe we are all put on this earth to be tested," Dale says, "but a child like Travis, we believe, has already passed his test."
So too, perhaps have the Murphys passed their test. "We learned all about ourselves," Nancy says. "We learned that when you're married, it doesn't matter who you are or how many magazine covers you have been on, it's still not going to solve your problems." The Murphys had to solve their problems in spite of who Dale was. In the fixing, baseball learned something, too. "I think people found out I'm just like anybody else," Murphy says. "I've got problems, too."
Still, maybe it all would have been easier if Murph had played in Jimmy Stewart's heyday. Maybe then he might have kept his innocence without struggle and baseball would have embraced him without question. Mr. Murphy Goes to Cooperstown and everyone gets a happy ending. But modernity eventually strikes its deal with all of us, even the Murphs of the world. "I'm harder now," he says. "But at least I'm in control." And if that transaction is a little sad, it is the safest way for the Murphys, who are less naive about the rules of the world, but happier now inside them.
And besides, out so far from the city, past the mailbox and gate, down that long, narrow drive, past the swans and the pines, back behind the house, under a noncommital scarecrow, waits a garden, where life is just the way Murphy likes it, simple and good and all things God-given.
It seems like spring has hit the Murphy family almost everywhere you look. Nancy is pregnant once again. Everybody around the new homestead is happy, but everybody is keeping just enough watch on his heart, too. Sometimes you have to. Ask Dale Murphy.