"Murphy: 'This Was Saying Goodbye'"

Emotional night is final chapter

By Joe Strauss

His number officially part of the place he once owned, Dale Murphy, center fielder, walked away from Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium Monday night into a life as Dale Murphy, private citizen.

Before, during and after an emotional recognitionof his career, Murphy reflected on something more than having his No. 3 unveiled in a fitting setting behind the center-field bleachers. A year after he left the game with a raft of accomplishments worthy of Hall of Fame consideration, Monday was about completing something left undone.

"This was saying goodbye," said Murphy. "When I retired [last year], I never had the chance to tell people here. This is kind of final."

Murphy cited three people central to his success -- his wife, Nancy; Bobby Cox, the man who moved him from catcher to first base to center field; and the late Bill Lucas, Murphy's first general manager and most devoted advocate. "I wish Bill Lucas could be here," he said.

It was a night for remembrances. Longtime Braves scouting supervisor Paul Snyder recalled that when Murphy was first offered a contract as the organization's No. 1 draft choice, Murphy refused to sign.

"He told me it was too much money, to take it back and reconsider," said Snyder. The offer was cut by $5,000.

For most of two decades he has been Atlanta's "Murf". Now Murphy retires to his farm as a husband, father and homebody.

Said Nancy: "I don't see Dale as the kind of person to just hang out. He has to be doing something to make the world better."

No player hit more home runs (371), produced more RBIs (1,143), scored more runs (1,103) or took more at-bats (7,098) in an Atlanta uniform than Murphy.

Murphy spoke prior to Monday night's Braves-Rockies game just as he arrived as a rookie -- uncomfortable before large crowds unless holding a bat or wearing a glove.

"Dale loves people, but I don't think he has ever been comfortable with all the visibility," said Nancy. "But it came with his job."

For most of their marriage Nancy has shared her husband with a public that couldn't get close enough to its approachable superstar. While Murphy was traveling, his family seemingly grew each year, eventually including a girl as the most recent of eight children.

Almost 10 years ago the Murphys moved from Lawrenceville to Alpharetta in hopes of escaping the late-night knocks on the door from well-meaning strangers. However inconvenient, none was denied. "I'm the kind of person who would say something if I thought someone was trying to take advantage of him. Even if I said something. Dale wouldn't waver," recalled Nancy. "He was always concerned how that one person would feel. That's Dale."

Whatever the ambivalence elsewhere about his Hall of Fame credentials, Murphy represented more than a player to those familiar with his hair-trigger smile. During the ceremony, Braves team orthopedist Joe Chandler sat at one end of the team's dugout. There, Chandler felt the same emotion as when Murphy called him last summer with news of his imminent retirement.

"I cried," said Chandler. "Not because of his accomplishments as a baseball player but because of the person he is. Dale Murphy is one of the few people I would tell my sons is a real hero. It's true. Dale Murphy is a hero."

Before being honored, Murphy -- typically -- proclaimed himself unworthy of the honor bestowed upon only four other Braves: Warren Spahn, Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron and Phil Niekro, three Hall of Famers. He then reflected on his final frustrating playing days with the Philadelphia Phillies and Rockies in an unfulfilled quest to achieve 400 home runs. "I really wanted to do that, probably more than I let on," said Murphy, forever stuck at 398. "[But] I couldn't hit one out of Denver, so I figured it was time to retire."

The Braves had honored Murphy in 1991, the year following his trade to the Phillies. Upon his retirement, the Rockies held a day for him. But this was Atlanta; this was home; this was before those he held most dear.

Said Murphy: "This one's, like, for keeps."

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