The 1980s were pretty bleak for Braves fans. There was the miracle year of 1982, when the Braves started the season with thirteen straight wins and never really looked back. Though they lost to St. Louis in the playoffs, the incredible run after so much badness gave fans hope for the future. But it was pretty much a false hope.
1983 saw the Braves finish three games behind the Dodgers, and the slide back to the bottom had begun. Then management made one of its worst decisions ever, trading two quality players (Brett Butler and Brook Jacoby) for Len Barker, a pitcher from the American League that didn’t pan out, but whose uber-slow delivery was great when you needed a nap.
By 1985, it was like ’82 and ’83 had never happened, and the Braves were again firmly ensconced in the cellar, where they would remain until 1991. But in the dark decade of constant defeat, there was one bright light.
Born in Portland, Oregon on March 12, 1956, Murphy arrived at baseball’s top level as a catcher…and not a particularly good one. But his terrific arm and deceptively good speed made him a natural for centerfield, where the mid-20s youngster blossomed. He won the National League’s MVP award in 1982 and ’83, was a 7-time All-Star, and a 5-time Gold Glover.
In his prime years (1982-87), Dale was one of the most (if not the most) feared hitters in all of baseball. His power to all fields was prodigious, he could hit for a reasonable average, he could steal bases, and his defense was outstanding. In an era when 25 homers a year was a lot, the Braves centerfielder was in a class largely by himself.
But what really set Dale Murphy apart had little to do with his baseball prowess. He was a class act. Not in any kind of superficial, I-act-like-this-because-I’m-in-front-of-the-camera way, but through-and-through class. Dale didn’t drink alcohol, didn’t smoke, and didn’t swear. He was a deeply religious, devoted family man (with eight children) who didn’t slap his wife around behind closed doors and didn’t cheat on her when he wasn’t home.
There were no tattoos, no temper tantrums, and no tabloid pictorals. There were no rumors, no heresay, no innuendo, and no raised eyebrows. Dale Murphy was (and still is) just as plain-white-vanilla good as a person could be.
“The Murph” was my first real baseball hero. As a baseball player myself, I tried to mimic his batting stance and his swing. As an outfielder (I didn’t pitch until high-school ball), I watched how he played his position and tried to copy that, too. And as a man, I’d like to hope that somebody respects me as much as I respected him.
Baseball’s ultimate prize, enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, has eluded Dale Murphy. Murph’s career numbers are borderline Hall-worthy and look, by today’s standards, little better than average. But today’s game is different than 20 years ago, as expansion has watered down pitching staffs to the point of mediocrity and hitters feast on minor-league pitchers throwing at the major-league level. What we can safely assume is that Dale cares little about whether he’s given entrance or not. His (lack of) ego simply doesn’t demand it.
But more than a few people, including myself, believe that Dale Murphy’s character, demeanor, and integrity should count for something, particularly with greats like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and now even Alex Rodriguez under the shadow of performance-enhancing substances. If players who cheat are Hall-eligible (some have been, and some could be), surely Dale Murphy, one of baseball’s most upright players, deserves a bronzed bust, too.
Happy Birthday, Dale Murphy!!