Nice guys finish first. Dale Murphy of the Atlanta Braves proved that last year. He also proved that nice guys can drive in 109 runs, hit 36 homers and bat .281. And what did he do in the time between the end of the 1982 season and the announcement five weeks later that he was the National League MVP? He went to the Instructional League to work on his hitting.
Here's a guy who doesn't drink, smoke, chew or cuss. Here's a guy who has time for everyone, a guy who's slow to anger and eager to please, a guy whose agent's name is Church. His favorite movie is Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. He's a wonderful ballplayer.
Here's a guy who's chasing the Triple Crown. Through last Sunday, he shared the National League lead in home runs with 19, ranked second in RBIs with 55 and fourth in batting average at .326. His 69 runs put him on course to challenge the modern league record of 158 set by Chuck Klein of the 1930 Phillies. Here's a guy who failed as a catcher but ended up winning a Gold Glove in 1982 while playing centerfield. Here's a guy who's 6'5", 220 pounds, and he's going to steal at least 30 bases this year. "He's scary," says Reds Manager Russ Nixon. "Do they have something above MVP?"
And here's a guy who, after almost every home run, says something like, "Well, I just happened to get good wood on the ball, and the wind was blowing out to rightfield tonight...." When asked if he feels he has improved on his MVP play of a year ago, Murphy will say, "I can't say for sure, I've been a little lucky this year. I hope I'm progressing." Here's a guy who is Jimmy Stewart—the actor, not the former utility player.
"Aw, he's just a guy," says Murphy's friend and foil, Atlanta Catcher Bruce Benedict. "Except when he eats. Then he's a superstar."
Like the mole on his right cheek, even his faults have their charms. While it's true that Murphy has never met a doughnut he didn't like, he carries not an ounce of fat on his sculpted frame. He's occasionally late to practice only because he's giving his time to someone else. Says Manager Joe Torre, "I've had to fine him, but many times I don't know he's been late until I find his money waiting for me on my desk." And it's because Murphy has so many friends in so many cities that he's won the coveted Ticketron Award, given to the Braves player who uses up the most passes, four years in a row.
"Believe me, I have many more faults than that," says Murphy. "I don't want to give people the impression that I'm an almost perfect human being."
Now it can be told. In the early winter of 1978, Murphy was pulled over for speeding. It happened on the campus of Brigham Young University, which Murphy, a Mormon since 1975, was attending briefly. He was doing 35 in a 25-mph zone. Where was the fire? "Well, I was late for a speech before a church group," Murphy says.
If Murphy sounds too good to be true, rest assured that he is for real. "There is nothing, absolutely nothing fake about him," says teammate Jerry Royster. Murphy certainly has been proving this year that he's for real on the field. He wasn't an overwhelming choice for MVP last year, and he would be the first to defend his doubters. "I really owe the award to my teammates," he says. "If we hadn't won the division, I wouldn't have won the award." Of course, the Braves themselves were thought to be something of a fluke last year when they won the National League West title. But as of Sunday, Atlanta was 43-29, matching its 1982 pace; the only trouble with that was L.A. was eight games better than its pace. No other team in the majors had a better record, which left the Braves second in both the division and the big leagues.
There are two sure signs that Murphy has arrived. Boos now greet him on the road, although they are more respectful than nasty. And the mythologizing of Murphy is under way. Before a home game against San Francisco on June 12, Murphy visited in the stands with Elizabeth Smith, a six-year-old girl who had lost both hands and a leg when she stepped on a live power line. After Murphy gave her a cap and a T shirt, her nurse innocently asked if he could hit a home run for Elizabeth. "I didn't know what to say, so I just sort of mumbled 'Well, O.K.,' " says Murphy. That day he hit two homers and drove in all the Braves' runs in a 3-2 victory.