Dale Murphy remembered the happy beginning of another season, and the disappointing way that his successful start concluded. Murphy was a catcher and first baseman for the Atlanta Braves in 1978. He was 23 years old and full of power and promise. There was just this one problem: his throwing arm.
Murphy had not yet discovered the confidence of having a home in the outfield at Atlanta Stadium, where he would eventually win a Gold Glove Award. He had not yet developed a dangerous reputation as a defensive player, at least not in the minds of his opponents. In his early professional seasons, rival baserunners did not fear Murphy’s arm as much as his teammates did.
On the opening night of the 1977 season, when Murphy was a catcher for the Richmond Braves, he made a throw to second on an attempted steal that hit his pitcher, Al Autry, in the rump. The Richmond pitching staff learned quickly to stay as low to the ground as possible on attempted steals, but that knowledge did not always help. Later that season, Murphy struck another pitcher while his teammate was in a prone position.
“I just couldn’t throw accurately at all,” Murphy said. “It’s kind of a hard thing to pinpoint exactly what you’re feeling. It’s frustrating not being able to throw a guy out. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
The problem became so bad that a return toss to the pitcher was sometimes an adventure. “It was a regular thing for me,” Murphy said.
Even now, remembering those days, he sounds confused. “My arm was strong,” he said. “Unless it was a combination of nerves and a mental block, I don’t know. It’s kind of discouraging. I guess you’re just worried you’re going to throw it away and sure enough, you do.”
The Braves were patient with his defensive problems because so many good things happened when Murphy was at bat. He shared the designation as the National League player of the week with Dave Kingman for May 13-20, 1978. Four years ago tomorrow, Murphy hit three home runs in a game, and he was off to the best start of his career.
During that period, Murphy was spending most of his time at first base, but he still caught often enough. The physical stress involved in staying in front of Phil Niekro’s knuckleballs was no help to the aggravated cartilage in his left knee. “It was ready to be torn,” Murphy said, and soon, that is what happened. When the conditions were not right for the convenience of an arthroscopic procedure, the cartilage had to be removed by conventional surgery and Murphy could not play for a month.
The following winter, there was the telephone call that changed Murphy’s career. Bobby Cox, the Atlanta manager at the time, called to tell Murphy he should prepare to play the outfield in spring training. Murphy had last played the outfield at Woodrow Wilson High in Portland, Oregon. He played left field in the spring of 1980, moved to right field shortly after the start of the season and settled in center field.
The patience proved worthwhile. Last year, Murphy became the fourth National League Most Valuable Player in the history of the Boston-Milwaukee-Atlanta Braves franchise. This season, so far, has been better. Murphy leads the league in home runs (11), runs batted in (32) and runs scored (30). His batting average,.322, is the ninth best in the league.
His home run on Saturday night, with two out in the 10th inning, gave Atlanta a 4-3 victory over the Astros at Houston and ended a three-game losing streak. The Astrodome had been the only National League stadium in which Murphy had never hit a home run, before his homers on Friday and Saturday nights.
“It takes you at least a year to see how great a player he is instinctively,” said Joe Torre, in his second season as the manager of the Braves. “He does everything. He knows how to steal a base, to throw to the right base.”
And now, without the constant pressure to make a perfect throw, Murphy usually knows where the ball is going. “I did start to relax a little bit in the outfield,” he said. “I realized I could go out and throw it as hard as I could. When you throw it 240 feet, you’re not trying to pinpoint it. You have to get rid of it in a hurry, but you can’t sit there and worry about throwing it right to the bag. You just try to get it close.”