Dale Murphy in the batter's box is a process--he takes a position in the middle and backs up to the edge, his big feet sliding. A small tremor begins just below his knees and shakes up to his shoulder. He sinks gently into a crouch. The bat--your power hitter's Louisville Slugger, a thin-handled, 33-inch B-310--moves slowly back and cocks, and a slow smile spreads across Murphy's face.
Dal Maxvill, the Atlanta Braves' third-base coach, who is throwing batting practice, watches all this down to the smile, a bit impatiently. "Come on, come on," he says, kicking the mound. "Two more." As soon as Murphy is ready, Maxvill winds up and throws. The smile disappears as the left foot strides forward and the knees and wrists rotate. Contact is what we're after here, not batting-practice home runs--situation hitting, protecting the plate, cutting down the strikeouts, in which he's led the league twice. Murphy watches the ball cross the plate, then snaps out at it. The ball shoots just over the screen in front of the mound that Maxvill has just gotten himself behind. "That don't scare me," he says. "One more."
Murphy grins, which is something he does quite often, and begins the process again. Again the ball flies in as soon as he is set, and this time he slams a screaming, letters-high line drive that ricochets off the screen and back nearly to his feet, where, yes, he grins at it fondly.
"That don't scare me, either," says Maxvill, nearly prostrate behind the screen. He takes his place on the mound, and grins, too. "Next."
What's scary about Dale Murphy is how good he is. His numbers are the numbers heroes are made of. He put together a 1982 season in which he played in every game, hit .281 with 36 homers, tied for the league lead in RBIs (109) and was named Most Valuable Player, then followed it in 1983 by playing in every game, hitting .302 with 36 homers and a league-leading 121 RBIs, and again being named Most Valuable Player. If that's not enough, he also stole 30 bases to become baseball's seventh 30-30 man. And also played a stylish, shallow centerfield, where he won his second consecutive Gold Glove--not half-bad for a converted catcher--and had then-Mets manager George Bamberger wondering out loud how the league's Most Valuable Player could be the league's most improved player.
"He's just a great player," Braves manager Joe Torre says. "Remember, he's 28, and just gaining experience. He'll hit for more home runs and a higher average, and he won't strike out as much. But he doesn't have to beat you with the home run, he's a complete ballplayer--he can beat you with the stolen base, or the great catch. And he'll get better."
Goodness. Which is the way you begin to think after hanging around Murphy. Raised a Presbyterian, but a devout convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, he does not drink, smoke, chew or cuss. He has a handsome wife who is a former BYU cheerleader, and three small boys he calls "my outfield." It would do the cynical well to report otherwise, but Murphy is exactly what he appears to be--a genuinely nice man with an appealing modesty who just happens to be the best player in baseball, Chip Hilton come to life.
In fact, the Murphy stories have already become legendary. There's the hard-working Murphy who, immediately after receiving his first MVP award, took off for Florida and the Instructional League. There's the compassionate Murphy who, after visiting six-year-old accident victim Elizabeth Smith in the hospital, mumbled to her nurse that he would try and hit a home run for the girl--and promptly hit two. There's the historical Murphy. A fellow by the name of Jack Dunn was Murphy's baseball coach at Woodrow Wilson High School in Portland, Oregon; the fellow who discovered Babe Ruth (that other guy with the number three on his back and a bit of power in his swing) on the sandlots of Baltimore was also named--you guessed it--Jack Dunn. And, finally in an age when agents are thought of as serpents, Murphy's is named Church.
"Dale Murphy is going to be a unique individual in America for a long time," says Murphy's agent, Bruce Church. "He's believable because he's believable. And the public wants that kind of hero."
But does it?
Murphy is caught in a time warp--he is a hero stranded in a world that is only interested in celebrities. He may be invincible, incorruptible and indestructible--but he's also invisible.
In an era of declining public image of major league baseball players, Murphy has all the trappings of the perfect hero for a new generation of Little Leaguers to look up to. He should be out there telling kids to help fight tooth decay. But he isn't. He isn't even selling dandruff shampoo or video recorders or pimple cream. Murphy doesn't have one national advertisement. And the simple truth is, advertising and marketing executives will tell you if you have captured the public's imagination, not a kid begging for an autograph.
Thanks to Ted Turner and the WTBS SuperStation in Atlanta, Murphy performs his many good deeds before a national television audience, playing before an average of a million and a half fans per game. Dale Murphy is as much a cable hero as Michael Jackson and Boy George. Only those fellows are more recognizable--and that's the catch. There is a difference between being seen and being recognized. Dale Murphy can be seen daily, but he is rarely recognized. His most recognizable feature, a mole on his right cheek, is often air-brushed out of the photographs that accompany his few endorsements, making it difficult for even the most hard-core baseball fan to recognize exactly who that clean-cut kid is in the picture. Murphy does not have candy bars named after him, and his grin does not grace the cover of cereal boxes. This real-life American hero has just two local endorsements. The sad truth is, he may be just too clean to sell.
"Dale Murphy just doesn't have an image that comes across," says George Lois of Lois Pitts Gershon Incorporated--the man who gave you the "I Want My Maypo" commercials. "He's a great player and a nice guy, but he's a clean-cut American kid, and being a clean-cut American kid is not enough. The boy next door is too close to home, he doesn't thrill Americans. Dale isn't controversial and he doesn't have a cartoon face, the way Yogi Berra and Muhammad Ali had cartoon faces; Murphy just goes out there and does his job--professionalism keeps him from being interesting."
"Day in and day out, Dale Murphy is a wonderful player with a great personality," says Jerry Della Femina, head of Della Femina Travisano, the New York agency that has run advertising campaigns for the New York Mets and that might handle President Reagan's campaign advertising in 1984. "But Dale is a guy from 1954. And I don't think that that kind of heroism is important any more--the country would have to change. Who is the person you want to hear about from Atlanta today--Dale Murphy or Ted Turner? That you can even ask that question is revealing, because who knows who owned the Yankees when Mickey Mantle was in centerfield in the Fifties. Dale Murphy," says Della Femina, with the slightest trace of sorrow in his voice, "is the right player in the wrong time."
So what makes Reggie Jackson or Jim Palmer so right for this day and age? Why can they convince us to buy, buy, buy, while Dale Murphy can't?
"There are four things that I think are important for making someone a marketable commodity," says Mike Trager, president of the advertising firm Robert Landau Associates' international sports division. "The first is location, by which I mean New York or Los Angeles, and maybe Chicago. The advertising communities are there and if you get somebody from one of those two towns you automatically get 18 to 20 percent of the viewing audience. Now Murphy is on TV five nights a week, but he's still not the hometown guy. One hundred miles away from St. Louis they watch the Braves and they root for Murphy, but they're still Cardinals fans.
"The second ingredient is notoriety. It doesn't necessarily have to be negative, but you still have to capture the national press--which Murphy hasn't done.
"The third ingredient is positioning. The World Series is bigger than life, and the ballplayers who are heroic in the World Series become bigger than life themselves. Reggie Jackson is making commercials today because he's hit a couple of home runs in the Series.
"The final ingredient is superstar status. The people we think of as superstars have done things over a longer period of time than Murphy; he is what I call a theoretical superstar. The numbers are there, but we are really just talking about two years.
"The only player comparable to Murphy in impact who made commercials early in his career," says Trager, "is Fernando Valenzuela, who played for a pennant winner in Los Angeles. But Fernando Valenzuela still only did ethnic commercials. It's very tough to have these four things working for you--especially after only a few years in the game."
None of this, of course, seems to bother Dale Murphy. He is incredibly popular in Atlanta, where he spends his off-days at work for Cystic Fibrosis and Huntington's Disease, and where he spent his very first day of this season addressing an Explorer Scouts banquet. "I wasn't a scout," Dale Murphy says thoughtfully, "but I wish I had been. My church thinks it's a very good program. We're very strongly behind it. I'll tell them what I usually tell banquets--to prepare for what lies ahead and not to be afraid to take a stand. The big decisions aren't light years away."
The selling of Dale Murphy amuses him more than anything else. He is, after all, doing very well, thank you, happily getting by on his $1,531,000-a-year-salary (12 percent of which goes to the Mormon church), which makes him the fifth-highest-paid player in baseball.
"But what's most interesting to me is that Murphy is the highest-paid player outside the New York or Los Angeles metropolitan area," says Skip Lane, a sports representative at the William Morris talent agency. "First, there's Steve Garvey, who made his name in L.A. Second is Mike Schmidt, who's in Philadelphia, which is in the New York-to-Washington metropolitan corridor. Third is George Foster of the Mets, fourth is Dave Winfield of the Yankees and sixth is Fred Lynn, in Los Angeles with the Angels. You almost have to pay Murphy as much as he gets because of his talent alone, but cable TV is also part of the answer."
Both Murphy and Bruce Church are convinced that the numbers Murphy is receiving now are just the beginning. They do have a game plan and it does include a specified number of endorsements--somewhere down the line.
"We felt that the contract Dale signed two years ago was the equal of those being signed by the Mike Schmidts and Steve Garveys, and they are all 7 to 10 years older than Dale," Church says. "Now Dale has been married for just four years and has three small children that he wants to be at home with as much as possible and still have time for his church and charitable responsibilities that he feels are his. The plan is not to be in a hurry, because we can afford to be very cautious. We turn things down all the time. The companies we have signed with are highly regarded regional firms, located in Atlanta, that supported the Braves before it was popular to do so, and have minimum requirements in the way of time commitments."
It is possible that Madison Avenue will open up for Murphy, advertising types feel, and that there is still a place for Chip Hilton--but he will have to start seeking the added exposure it will take.
"It all depends on what he wants," says Matt Merola, whose clients include Tom Seaver and Reggie Jackson. "But he's outside a media center, and baseball isn't Broadway--you can't tell your client to rest in Kansas City tonight because he opens in New York tomorrow. You can't create an athlete's image that way. I'm working on something for Tom Seaver right now, and Murphy's name has come up for the same reasons that this company wants Tom--the family man, that attractiveness. The same image is there."
A just-slightly different line is taken by Skip Lane: "It surprises me that he's not doing even one national ad, but think about it. Sure, numbers and kudos count to the baseball afficionados, but they don't really matter to the person buying underwear or shampoo." What makes a difference? "Prime time," Lane says, echoing one of Mike Trager's rules for marketing success. "The World Series, the whole country watching four or five nights in a row. By the way, why aren't you doing this story on Cal Ripken?"
For now, Atlanta is big enough for Dale Murphy, and the few local endorsements are just fine. "I work for Kinnett Dairies--milk," he says, so earnestly that it brings a regretted burst of involuntary laughter from his listener. "You don't understand," Murphy says calmly. "I would only want to endorse a good product, and milk is a really good product."
Okay, Dale. What else?
"Meat," says Murphy. "Sunnyland Meats."
Occasionally, it seems like the voice comes at you out of a time other than the Eighties, a simpler, less urban time. There's a hard individualism, coupled with an appealing innocence that approaches naievete. A nice image.
"Image," says Dale Murphy, firmly, "is product. You put yourself in a position in this game that's just too hard. Now, I have beliefs and certain things that I think are true, and those are what I try to go by. That's not 'image,' that's just the way I am. Image is all created.
"The challenge in this game is attitude--even if you hit .300 well, do that seven other times. Now, Joe Torre says he sees me developing into a leader. I'm never sure what he means by that, because I don't see myself changing at all, and [Bob] Horner's the captain. The leadership stuff is all image stuff. I'm part of the team."
"If Dale Murphy was a cartoon character, he'd be Captain Marvel," George Lois says, "although he's still not famous. But all it takes is one smart ad campaign to make a person famous, and what Dale Murphy is, is an incredibly pregnant marketing possibility. You do this story, then three months from now somebody will think of something for him to do. Then Dale Murphy will be famous."
"I was talking with Mike Schmidt the other night," the incredibly pregnant marketing possibility is saying in the lockerroom before a Braves game, "and he told me how it had been with after he won his second MVP. He said he'd had some difficulties handling the press, and he said to remember that it was important to get time for myself--to just say 'I have to go.' I'm not very good at that, sometimes, and it worried me. Finally, Schmidt looked at me and said, 'Hey, you can't think that it's hard to do.'" He chuckles, repeating, "Nobody's ever done it before, but you can't think it's hard to do."
Dale Murphy--unconcerned with his image, but still a little awkward about cutting off a conversation with a stranger--laughs, then stops suddenly to say, "I do have to go." Then he picks up a bat and heads for the field, thinking only about hitting a ball to right.