"Dale Murphy of the Braves: A Down-to-Earth Star"

He hasn't let fame affect him despite two MVP awards, five Gold Gloves, and consistent HR and RBI production

By Brian Brown, The San Diego Union

There are athletes consumed with their own importance. They adore the adoration but treat their admirers with contempt--all take and no give.

That is one price of fame. You can turn out to be a jerk.

But fame does not corrupt everyone. Tony Gwynn and Steve Garvey of the Padres come to mind. So does Dale Murphy of the Atlanta Braves. Like Gwynn and Garvey, Murphy has survived the megadose of fame these past years without damaging side effects.

Murphy is so approachable. He has a face that says: "What can I do for you?" If Dale Murphy were President, he'd never be caught racing to his helicopter out of hearing range of a swarm of reporters. Instead, he'd go over and ask them how their kids were doing.

Referring to Murphy, Braves manager Chuck Tanner said: "Every 50 years, God puts someone on this earth to show everybody how they should be living."

"If you're a coach, you want him as a player," former Braves manager Joe Torre has said of Murphy. "If you're a father, you want him as a son. If you're a woman, you want him as a husband. If you're a kid, you want him as a father."

If you're a reporter, you find it a delight to talk to him.

Murphy, in his 10th full season, has won the Gold Glove five times for his outfield work. He was named the National League's Most Valuable Player in 1982 and '83. He has averaged 35 homers and 105 RBI over the past five seasons. And, 1987 has had the makings of his finest year yet.

There are two good reasons:

Tanner switched Murphy from center to right field this season, a move destined to keep Murphy's legs fresh into September, when the sapping summer-long humidity of Atlanta begins to wear even the fittest athletes. As the theory goes, that energy savings can be transferred to more hits.

Reason No. 2: Maybe Murphy still is improving. By mid-season, he was batting around .300 with 25 homers and 60 RBI, and was avoiding his usual cycle of streak-slump-streak-slump.

To Murphy, the switch from center to right didn't have as much to do with saving his legs as it did with his lack of speed. (This line of thinking coming from the National League Gold Glove winner for the past five years.)

"I don't think it was done specifically to save my legs," Murphy said. "My legs are fine. I'm only 31. I think it was more to get some speed out there. We have Dion James and Albert Hall, and I think they can both cover more ground than I can. It may be a side benefit that I don't run as much."

About his consistency at the plate, Murphy doesn't offer a direct answer. In fact, he starts talking about how often he strikes out.

"I'm usually pretty streaky," he said before the All-Star break. "I've always tried to have a more consistent year, but I never have. It probably has a lot to do with the amount of times I strike out. I'm way up there. Gosh, I think I'm already on a 140, 150 pace for the season.

When you strike out so much, you don't put the ball in play as much. It's kind of obvious. If you put the ball in play three or four times a game, you have a chance to get lucky. A guy like Gwynn, he'll put the ball in play with authority. But us normal guys . . ."

Us normal guys?

Murphy smiles, shrugs, then finishes.

"I don't think there's any reason (for his consistency). I'm really not doing anything different. I'm still just going up there and trying to get a hit."

It is Murphy's way to suggest that the switch to right field might have had something to do with his own deficiencies. And it is his way to depict his steadiness at the plate as just another haphazard occurrence, as unpredictable as the weather.

What this guy needs is a surrogate ego.

Listen to Murphy on the subject of the juiced-up baseball. Pitchers will tell you there's some kind of voodoo going on this year in Haiti, where they make the balls. Hitters tell you the ball is fine, it's just that they (hitters) are bigger and better.

How does Murphy fall on the issue? On the side of the pitchers, naturally.

"The ball is different," he said. "I don't know what it is. But there's so many guys hitting homers. And so many guys hitting a lot of homers. I've hit some balls I was surprised to see go out. And some that have been hit . . . I thought I had a chance to get them, but they've gone over my head or out of the park for homers."

With Murphy, you never get the feeling you're talking to a potential Hall of Famer. With only his testimony, you might accept Dale Murphy as a slow right fielder who was taking advantage of a strangely energized ball.

His teammates and manager will give credit where credit is due, however.

"He's too unbelievable," said Braves catcher Ozzie Virgil. "He doesn't give me any ammo. There's nothing bad to say about him."

Said Tanner: "It's simple. He's the best player in the league. He's a Hall of Famer on the field and a Hall of Famer off the field . . . I can't think of the right words to describe him, because there are none."

Fame, as Murphy's life attests, is not always a disease.

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