"Dale Murphy Turned Into Mere Mortal Last Season"

By Robbie Andreu, Fort Lauderdale News & Sun-Sentinel (March 15, 1987)

For the first time since the early days, when he was a farmhand catcher with a comically erratic throwing arm, baseball's real-life "Natural" became fallible, and vulnerable.

The mystic and the magic seemed to abandon him.

He popped up with the bases loaded. He looked bad fishing for pitches low and away. He winced in pain with each whiff. When the situation called for a dramatic home run, he could not find one in his legendary bat.

Injuries even forced him to miss a game for the first time in more than four years.

Many will remember 1986 as the year that Dale Murphy became a mere mortal again, a fragile man playing a game that can be harsh and unforgiving.

Murphy, who had mastered the game with awesome power and grace, rediscovered what it means to struggle like everyone else.

"Things just weren't there for me last season," said the Atlanta Braves All-Star outfielder. "I went into a slump and I never really got going. I had too many bad streaks in there.

"It was frustrating and disappointing. But I really don't have an answer for it. It's just one of those things that happens in baseball."

Murphy's numbers - .265, 29 home runs and 83 RBI - were by no means embarrassing, but they fell well short of adding up to a typical Murphy season - 30-plus home runs and 100-plus RBI.

"I really can't explain what happened," Murphy said. "I haven't spent any time trying to analyze what happened. It just happened."

The contributing factors were a season full of nagging injuries and fatigue. At 6 feet 5, 220 pounds, he is an atypical center fielder. His size and weight wore him down.

The injuries, though, took the biggest toll, according to Braves manager Chuck Tanner.

"He played hurt all season. The injuries had a great effect on his season," Tanner said. "His hands were a mess. They were cut up and beat up. He was like a prizefighter who's had his hands all banged up.

"The only way to get them better was rest. But he never said anything. He just kept playing. Everyone knew he was hurting, though. He'd swing and miss some times and you could see the agony in his face. He played with a lot of pain."

Last season's experience made Murphy realize age is becoming an important factor in his career.

"Chuck and I have talked about it, and we both agree that a few days off during the season will help me physically," Murphy said. "If it helps me and the club, we'll do it."

Tanner has told Murphy not to play with pain this season.

"If he's hurt this year, we're not going to play him," Tanner said.

In another move that should ease the physical burden, Murphy will switch to right field if someone else - most notably newcomer Dion James - shows he can handle center.

"It hurts my pride a little bit that I have to move to a new position to save me physically," said Murphy, 31. "I'm not over the hill yet. But if it means I can stay in the lineup longer, then I'm all for it. I've always gotten tired at the end of the season. I've always maintained that I'm not a center fielder.

"I'm excited about the move. I think it will work out for me and the team."

One factor in Murphy's planned resurgence that cannot be controlled is the absence of Bob Horner, the power-hitting first baseman who would normally hit behind Murphy in the lineup. Horner is an unsigned free agent who cannot sign until May 1. There is a strong possibility that he will not rejoin the Braves this season.

There are many who believe that teams will be able to pitch around Murphy without Horner hitting behind him.

But Murphy and Tanner do not believe Horner's absence will prevent Murphy from regaining his MVP status in the National League.

"You can't say one player makes another player. Murphy is going to be a great player no matter who is playing with him," Tanner said. "Horner helps, but someone else will help this year.

"Dale Murphy was a great player before Horner came along. He'll be a great player after Horner's gone."

Murphy said he will miss Horner's friendship more than his bat.

"Whether Bob is hitting behind me or someone else is, I'll always try to play the same way," Murphy said. "Whenever he wasn't in the lineup the past several years, I still got pitches to hit. The pitches will still be there. What I'll miss most is not having him around. He's a hard worker and a leader. He's a great guy to have around.

"I have to make sure I don't try to do too much without him. When you put too much of a load on yourself mentally, that's when the game is no fun anymore.

Murphy was recently named team captain by Tanner, taking over Horner's role. Murphy is sort of the old man in what has become another youth movement in Atlanta.

"The Braves want to be competitive right now, and I don't know why we can't think in those terms."

And about his chances of regaining some lost magic.

"No matter what I've done in the past, I know I can do a lot better," Murphy said. "I would like to get back among the top players in the league. There are a lot of good players out there, but I'm confident I can get back on top.

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