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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."
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.