"On Headlines And Homers"

By Don Hudson

Dale Murphy's swing is big; an awesome lever of muscle, tension and hardened ash. The movement is looping; the lumber loose in his giant hands. Our hero's major flaw, possibly his only one is the low, outside hook. But when Dale Murphy is hot, neither curve nor splitfinger nor slider nor scroogie can destroy the rhythm.

Back in mid-June, San Francisco Manager Roger Craig wanted to keep left-hander Keith Comstock in a 2-1 game. Craig spun the managerial wheels, inserting Comstock in right-field while bringing right-handed reliever Randy Bockus on to pitch to Murphy.

Alas, Craig's chicanery backfired.

Bockus put a split-fingered fastball on the outside corner, and Murphy put it in the right-field seats. For his trouble, Comstock had the best seat in the house for Murphy's 20th homer and the Braves' third run on the way to a 6-1 rout.

Back inside the clubhouse, Murphy sits alone as reporters crowd around winning pitcher Rick Mahler. Above Murphy's head, on the top shelf of his locker, is a navy baseball cap that reads "Captain." This is the new Murphy, captain of clubhouse calm, commander of the Atlanta Braves' espirit d' corps.

This season has brought a noticeable change to Murphy's personality. He is more outspoken, more likely to engage in verbal banter with teammates. He has even learned to say "no" occasionally, leaving even more time for baseball and teammates.

Don't worry. Murphy is as polite as ever; still a candidate for sainthood. But now he seems more of humanity, more of baseball, more of the clubhouse. No longer is he such an icon that his own teammates can't talk to and tease with him.

Now he take his stands and lets the chips fall.

Where once Murphy merely spoke out against women reporters in the clubhouse, now he refuses interviews with anyone inside the Braves' clubhouse until all ladies are gone.

If a woman sports writer has a request, Murphy simply steps outside to speak with her. For Murphy the locker room is a private place, and he is of the mind it is his right to keep it that way.

There are other, more subtle changes in the 1987 Murphy. While he still goes out of his way to answer every question and honor every request, interviews now are more formal and less like rap sessions.

"I learned you have to say 'No' a couple years ago," Murphy said. "You have to have time to yourself and your family. You just have to turn some things down. You can't do everything.

"I still try to do all the interviews. But even those you have to limit."

The extra time is spent with family, with baseball and with teammates. Where once Murphy seemed more carefree and easy-going, now he is more protective of his time and privacy.

Yet there is no begrudgement in saying goodbye to the old Murphy. The change has been gradual, a graceful maturation. Where once he was more cooperative than seemed humanly possible, now he has settled in as more a person that a phenom, a person who needs peace and space like everyone else.

Title this "the greening of Murphy." The scary part of the script is that Murphy has already won two MVP's and is just now reaching his prime. Maturity has made even better the ballplayer Manager Chuck Tanner already calls "the best player in the whole league."

This year's move to right field has helped even more. No longer does Murphy have to chase down every outfield fly or back-up every play. Right field is his domain, and already he plays it like a Clemente or a Kaline.

"It's not like moving from centerfield to shortstop," he said, shrugging off his gold-glove, burning-bat start with his usual humility. "Everybody that is out here (in the outfield) could switch positions.

"I very rarely think about center," he said. I enjoy playing right field.

"And no, I don't miss catching. I can tell you that for sure."

A five-time Gold-Glover in center field (1982-86), Murphy laughs about the days at catcher when his father teased him that no one would ever "steal center field on you."

Now enemy baserunners hesitate rounding third, knowing full well that the howitzer formerly stationed in center is now located in right.

At bat, Murphy is off to his best start ever. Through late June, Murphy was at or near the top of the league in average, homers, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, walks, and runs.

Why the fast start? Murphy attributes it to better concentration at the plate. Then there is the maturity.

"For most athletes, it's usually mental," Murphy said. "It's more that going out there swinging as hard as you can and running as hard as you can.

"It's concentration. And I'm trying to improve on that. But you've got so much built-in failure in this game. We're not machines, we can't go out there and play 162 games at that level."

Maybe that's the answer. The Superman stage is behind him. Let Eric Davis deal with it now, the hype and celebrity. Meanwhile Dale Murphy can take a day off now and then, letting someone else live in the glass house awhile.

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