"Hero Murph Comes Home"

By Thomas Stinson

With the big guys, you remember the little things. The way they settled in at the plate, how they wore their socks, what might have gone down on a random summer night lost somewhere in the 80's. Dale Murphy was like that, for a near eternity the lone profile on a city's empty landscape, when Brave's baseball would all but end by Memorial day, when Atlanta was Losersville.

The record will reflect Murph settled in on his right toe, twisted it like crushing a smoke, then the long neck snapping up toward the mound and the slow first practice swing, the bat barely stirring the air. The socks - stirrups tight, plenty of white showing. And what went by on those nights, strung together amidst the losing, came to compromise a generation's memory of baseball here, lasting long after he'd taken the big one for the team and gone off to Philadelphia.

"I just want to get home," he said Thurdsay afternoon.

After 16 years - sure, maybe a couple too long - he's earned that much. Home, where they remember a whole world of things about him.

Like the opposite-field home runs, magnificent long flies that appeared to be destined to die short of the warning track. But they carried and carried until they simply disappeared behind the wall.

Like keeping track of the line of Murphy kids, which one was just born and which one was now in the oven.

Like never seeming to swing too hard.

Like becoming the worst catcher the franchise ever tried at the major-league level. His arm such a rank instrument of long-range misfire, his father Charles atta-boyed him with, "One thing's for sure, Dale. Nobody will be stealing center field on you."

Like standing 6 feet 4 inched and weighing 220 and stealing 30 bases.

Like Billy Conners, the Cubs pitching coach who said once, "He's the best I've ever seen, and I've seen Willie Mays."

Or how Murphy would agonize whenever women reporters entered the clubhouse, fretting like Jimmy Stewart, modern propriety lost amongst the jock straps.

All the answers, no matter how thoughtful, that started out, "Gee I don't know..." Like the way he went to bat, making the balky little steps a schoolkid makes on his way up front to recite a poem.

How he could eat enough food for two, no matter the circumstance. Or the food.

The trademark mole on the right cheek, and wherever it finally went. The night in 1986 when he sliced his hand on the plexiglass fence in center, taking the nine stitches and then pinch-hitting a home run the very next night off Doc Gooden.

The five Gold Gloves.

The raised voices of children in the stadium whenever his name was announced, no matter the score.

The biggest strike zone ever. And that dead zone, low and outside, where your aunt could slop a curve, and he'd still swing at it as if by some moral obligation.

Like being more religious than anyone in the clubhouse and yet never having to bring it up.

And like 1988 when the statistics strangely fell and never got back up.

The eye tests, the extra instruction, the experimental stances. And none of them working.

The way he knew he had to leave Atlanta, where a herd of young outfielders needed the space. And when the time came how he departed with a smile.

Like Dale Murphy Night when he came back a Phillie, and then the brawl later on. Amazing.

How odd he looked in Phillies Red, and worse limping off in Rockies Gray.

And the buzzard's luck. Leaving two franchises, both of them instant contenders the very next season.

Finally now, hoping against some odds that the 398 home runs and two MVPs are enough for Cooperstown.

And being thankful for working around the kindest, most decent athlete you'd ever known.

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