Dale Murphy's third season of professional baseball covered a lot of territory. The 6-4, 185-pounder started this year with Atlanta's Savannah (Southern) club, moved up to Richmond (International) and progressed to Atlanta for the last three weeks of the 1976 campaign.
His performance in 19 major league games led Braves' officials to proclaim Murphy as their No. 1 catcher for 1977.
So, what was the Portland, Ore., native doing catching with the Richmond Braves at the start of the current season? There was this little problem during spring training. He had trouble throwing out base stealers. The throws from his powerful arm were well ahead of the runners, but were scattered all over the field--some hit in front of the pitching mound and others went on one hop to outfielders.
Several observers described it as being like the Steve Blass mystery. Blass, the 1971 pitching star for the Pittsburgh Pirates, suddenly was unable to throw strikes in 1973 and wound up walking the world with Charleston (International) in 1974.
Everyone on the Atlanta staff was baffled and, finally, Murphy was dispatched to the minor league camp. Veteran catchers Wes Westrum, Smokey Burgess and Bob Didier, all instructors in the Braves' farm system, observed and had suggestions.
"It's just a mental thing," said Richmond Manager Tommie Aaron. "There was so much pressure on him this spring. He made a few bad throws and then tried to compensate.
"Murph wasn't himself during spring training," continued Aaron. "He wasn't joking and wasn't happy."
After 104 games in the Southern League with Savannah a year ago, Murphy was brought up to Richmond. He had a few defensive problems at first, but hit his way out of them. An extra-inning, pinch-hit grand slam helped the R-Braves to one of 12 victories in their last 16 games and earn a playoff berth on the last day of the season.
Once the playoffs were over, Murphy was summoned to Atlanta to finish the season. The No. 1 free-agent pick by the Braves in 1974 was their No. 1 catcher.
However, from season's end to spring training, there was another twist in the life of Dale Murphy. He almost gave up playing baseball to do church work.
"I'm a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints," offered Murphy. "And I was thinking about quitting baseball and becoming a missionary."
Spring training was less than two months away before Murphy could be talked into continuing his baseball career. "It's (religion) really important to me," he added. "But I decided it was best to stay in baseball. By so doing, I would be able to reach a lot of young people."
As the Richmond Braves prepared to head north for their season opener, there was talk of who would be roommates. An obvious matchup was Murphy and center fielder Barry Bonnell.
Bonnell also is a Mormon. It was Bonnell who baptized Murphy the day after the 1975 season closed in Class A at Greenwood. Dale said, "I still want to do missionary work, but I feel like I made the right decision."
Murphy's religious beliefs have been put to the test this spring.
"I'm not happy about my baseball, but I'm trying not to let it bug me and let it get everything else in my life down. I try to forget (the problems) off the field, but it's hard.
"It's come around," he said. "It's got to be in my head, not physical. It's been discouraging, but something I've got to forget."
Was the pressure of so much praise too much? "I might have put the pressure on myself," he responded. "I've got the talent and it's no reason they shouldn't say so.
"Everybody was trying to help during spring training. I'm not really looking back, now. I know that isn't me. I'm trying to look ahead."
Suggestions were coming from every corner, almost enough to make the soundest veteran begin to question his own ability, much less a 21-year-old young man with three minor league seasons under his belt.
"I admit that there was some pressure, but it's always going to be there. It's just something I've got to learn to live with. I didn't really relax during spring training. I was a little keyed up and didn't let things take care of themselves.
"Instead of channeling my adrenalin in one place, I let it fly out all over the place. I'm confident. I know I have the potential. I know I can play."
The Braves know he can play, too. In the spring of 1975, Murphy was called on to catch for Richmond in an exhibition game with Atlanta. Runners were sent to second just to see if he could throw. He could. None made it.
But in Richmond's '77 season-opening series against Toledo, the Mud Hens were successful in their first five steal attempts. In fact, Murphy's initial throw bounced in front of the mound and struck pitcher Al Autry in the tailbone.
Then, in the eighth inning of the second game, Murphy threw out his first man. He appeared to be back in form in the first inning of the third game by nailing two runners trying to steal.
The Braves plan to just let Murphy play out his problems and, when he does, there is little doubt that he will be back in Atlanta as the No. 1 receiver.