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I Never Saw Him Play: One Last Shot for Dale Murphy

January 5, 2013

I Never Saw Him Play will be a new feature that spotlights some of the greatest baseball players of decades past.  I love baseball stats, and I hope you agree.

Dale-Murphy

No, he doesn’t hold a lot of major league records.  He didn’t hit any postseason walk-off home runs.  He didn’t even win that many games as a player.  But when I got the chance to go see the All-Star Game in Atlanta in 2000, there was a fanfare event that included the likes of Bob Feller, Phil Neikro, and Don Sutton, among others.  And none of these drew the praise and gratitude of the attendees more so than Dale Murphy.  I stood there and shook his hand as my dad snapped some photos.  Dale was a really nice guy, and he stopped and chatted for a minute before moving on.  I was 13 at the time, and fully entrenched in Braves lore.  I knew of all the greats: Chipper, Phil, Mathews, Aaron,  Spahn.  I’d seen my team win a World Series and cried like the baby I was.  I’d seen the greatest pitching staff ever assembled.  I’d heard stories of Bob Horner hitting balls 900 feet into neighboring Cobb county and marveled at Greg Maddux’s minuscule walk rate.  But I didn’t know a whole lot about Dale Murphy.  Sure, I knew who he was.  But I didn’t actually know what he meant to my beloved franchise, nor did I fully grasp why he conjured such emotion in old-school fans, especially while in the company of so many Hall of Fame players. On the ride home, I asked my dad what was so special about this career .265 hitter we had  met that day.  “Well,” he said, “I guess you kinda just had to be there.”

To fully understand what Dale Murphy meant to baseball, I guess you did have to be there.  The man notched exactly 11 career postseason at-bats, all in one underwhelming 1982 sweep at the hands of the Cardinals.  He played on some of the worst teams of the 80’s in Atlanta.  He never made over 2 million dollars per season, a far cry from the superstars (can you say Vernon Wells?) of today. But to loyal fans of the Atlanta Braves, he is of the most revered players to ever put on the uniform.  Dale was a spectacular player.  He had a beautiful swing and he just looked like a baseball player, as if he couldn’t have done anything besides play the game.  But the Braves have had more successful players and better all-around players before and since Dale Murphy.  His glove was not great and he struck out a lot.  He struggled at catcher and first base before finding a home in center field of spacious Fulton County Stadium.  Once he found his stride in the mid-80’s, however, he became an elite player in Major League Baseball.  He won the MVP award in ’81 and ’82, and he made 6 straight all star games beginning with that ’82 season.  By all accounts, he was a superstar in his own right.  More importantly, he was Atlanta’s superstar.  He played on many bad teams, and most nights he was the only thing in Atlanta worth watching.  Fulton County Stadium was normally 3/4 empty and talks of moving the team swirled through the late 70’s and 80’s.  In an age before 24/7 sports coverage, Dale went out and did incredible things on the diamond that only a handful of people ever saw.  Sure, the Braves were on WTBS, but they were awful.  No one was watching.  And just as the Braves turned the corner in the beginning of 90’s and people began to take notice, Dale was shipped to Philadelphia in the middle of the 1990 campaign.  It was as if he was never even here.

Dale is special to us not in spite of these things, but because of these things.  Dale may very well have saved baseball in my city.  He strapped the 1982 Braves to his 6’4″ frame and carried them into the postseason.  He dove for balls and swatted doubles and swiped bases every single night not because the Braves were fighting for championships, but because he knew no other way to play the game.  Inside of a franchise crying out for an identity, Dale Murphy was solid as a rock.  He never railed on ownership, he never decried the fans, and he never stopped hustling.  That just wasn’t who Dale was as a person or as a player.  He put his head down and he worked hard and did the right thing on and off the field.  He was the same guy on Peachtree Street as he was on Capitol Avenue.  There was no quit, no lay down and die inside of Dale.  He endured a lot in Atlanta.  He could have demanded trades or played half-speed on many steamy August nights when the Braves were already making vacation plans for mid-October.  And no one would have blamed him, really.  But he never did that.  He signed every ball a kid ever handed him, he slid face first when we were losing by 10 runs, and he was always loyal to the franchise that treasured him.  It’s easy to point to heroes in Braves history.  David Justice and Tom Glavine gave us a World Series.  Maddux hauled hardware year in and year out.  Those flashes of brilliance and triumph are what every fan base yearns for.  But it’s not what baseball means to us as a country or a region.  Baseball in the South and in America is about seeing things to the end, slogging through the day-to-day, and reveling in the glory of simply playing the greatest game man ever invented.  Dale never hoisted a World Series trophy, but somehow it seems better that way.  Dale’s Braves were just trying to hold on.  It seems that in life, your more often than not just trying to hold on.  Our greatest triumphs are few and far between, and you’d better recognize them when they come along.  That’s what Dale did for us.  He showed us what it meant to persevere when things were tough.  Dale had some great times, but he was mostly just enjoying the ride and giving it his best shot.  That’s all any of us can do.  Dale Murphy encapsulated real life out there under the lights in center field.  And that is why he is Atlanta’s most beloved Brave.

Next week is Dale’s last shot to get to the hallowed halls of Cooperstown.  He doesn’t have a great chance, and that’s a real shame.  Some people point to his .265 average, his 2,111 hits, or his 398 home runs and say, “Those are good numbers, but not all-time numbers.”  And maybe they are right, but maybe they aren’t.  Dale played his first full season in 1978 and was among the best in the game for 10 seasons up until 1987.  For some more insight as to how good Dale was during this stretch,take a look at the  sample players and their stats below:

Player A: 1,514 H, 920 R, 227 2B, 308 HR, 904 RBI

Player B: 1,451 H, 971 R, 216 2B, 369 HR, 1,015 RBI

Player C: 1,996 H, 909 R, 343 2B, 164 HR, 874 RBI

Two of these players are in the Hall of Fame.  Player B and C are Ralph Kiner and Kirby Puckett, respectively.  Player A is Dale Murphy.  These stats are for the most productive 10-year spans from each’s career.  As you can see, Dale’s numbers are right in line with each of these Hall of Fame player’s.

Now, I realize these are pretty old-school numbers.  So let’s dive even deeper.  Dale Murphy has a 44.9 WAR rating according to baseball-reference.com   .  That’s good enough for 184th all-time, ahead of the likes of Ozzie Smith, John McGraw, Edd Roush, Kiki Cuyler, Max Carey, and Brooks Robinson.  With an .OPS of .8149, he is tied with Barry Larkin and leads Roberto Alomar, Sam Crawford, and Andre Dawson.  He’s 140th in career games played.  He’s 174th in runs scored, one behind Joe Medwick and leading the likes of Jimmy Rollins, Mark McGuire, Billy Herman, Orlando Cepeda, Lance Berkman, Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, and the aforementioned Ralph Kiner.  He has more home runs than Dimaggio or George Brett.  He’s 120th in walks, 119th in EBH.  His Power/Speed number puts him at 59th all-time, around the likes of Chipper, Cobb, and Mantle.  His WPA, which calculates the change in probability caused by a batter during a game, is better than Bench, Puckett, Rice, or Yount.

No, he doesn’t lead any of these categories.  But he is very solid in most categories and downright impressive in others.  He led the league is slugging, HR, and RBI twice.  He never missed a game from ’82-’85.  Dale Murphy encapsulates what the Hall of Fame stands for.  He was so good in so many facets of the game.  He was always reliable and dazzling often.  Dale deserves a spot in Cooperstown.  But if the voters don’t agree, that’s okay too.  Because Dale saved baseball in Atlanta.  If it wasn’t for Dale, we might not know Chipper, Bobby, Smoltz, Glavine, or Maddux like we do.  Francisco Cabrera would mean nothing to us.  Sid Bream’s mustache would not be legendary.  Barry Bonds might have won a World Series in the 90’s without the Braves being what they were.  I couldn’t live with that.  And thanks to Dale, we don’t have to.  If Dale goes in, wonderful. If he doesn’t, he will always be our guy in Atlanta.  Good enough for me, and good enough for Dale.

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