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