When Dale Murphy thinks deeply, he wrinkles his forehead, shuffles his feet and stammers until the words fall in place. The Atlanta Braves' 24-year-old slugger, a pillar of the franchise, swayed like a Florida palm tree trying to put his personal and professional changes in perspective.
"Basically, it's like going from being a boy playing a game, to a man with responsibilities," Murphy said. "I haven't changed, but my life certainly has."
Murphy was making the National League forget about Bob Horner last season when he tore cartilage in his knee while catching Phil Niekro's knuckleball May 21. At the time, the Braves' cleanup hitter led the league in runs-batted-in, 36, was second in homers, 13, and averaged .348. He returned at the all-star break as a first baseman and hit only eight more homers.
A devoted Mormon whose top priority is the family, Murphy fulfilled his ultimate ambition Oct. 29, when he married Nancy Thomas in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Murphys expect their first born in July.
While Dale was adjusting to marriage and making a home, he heard the rumors over the winter that he would be playing his third position in three years in 1980. Indeed, Manager Bob Cox moved the 6-foot-5, 215-pound native of Portland, Oregon, to left field, and the spring was devoted to his indoctrination.
Murphy also had to adjust to not having his best friend and road roommate around. Barry Bonnell was traded to Toronto.
Through all the changes, Dale Murphy remained a model of consistency; the same innocent, respectful and dedicated individual he was when the Braves made him their No. 1 free agent draft pick in 1974. And now he feels more confident and secure than ever before.
"While I was single, I always felt like something was missing in my life," Murphy said. "Marrying Nancy and starting a family gives me more of a purpose in life. And after an 0-for-4, she sure will be nice to come home to. It is just exciting being with someone."
Murphy's transition to the outfield was no less graceful. Cox was confident of the transition from the start, but even the manager admitted he was surprised by Murphy's natural reactions. There never was a question concerning the strength of his arm, only the accuracy.
"Maybe I've done all right," Murphy said, forever playing down his achievements, "but it was like starting over in baseball again. I hated to miss the final exhibition games because I need as much game experience as possible."
Murphy's awesome power is made for Atlanta Stadium, known fondly by hitters as "The Launching Pad." Murphy will anchor Atlanta's modern-day murderer's row of Gary Matthews, Bob Horner, and Chris Chambliss. In two seasons, Murphy has hit 44 home runs.
"I would like to think I have the capabilities of hitting 40 home runs, especially considering the park we play in," Murphy said. "But I still get fooled on some pitches. I'm not concerned with numbers as much as I am with improvement."
"I won't say I think we can win the pennant, but I definitely see improvement in the team," he said. "I have realistic optimism. That's the way I am about most things. The church and family helps me keep my life and expectations in perspective."
"You have to keep a balance. One day you are the greatest hittest since Hank Aaron, and the next day you can't hit a thing. The church has kept me on an even keel, and Nancy will add more stability. Some of the changes have been drastic, but they have been for the better. All of a sudden you realize you are a man with a man's responsibilities."