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Starting Nine: A study in No. 3, Dale Murphy

A series of facts, stats and stories about the Braves retired numbers begins with the franchise’s 1980s icon

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Atlanta Braves
With his 1983 season of a .302 average, 36 home runs and 30 steals, Dale Murphy joined Hank Aaron and Willie Mays as the only players to hit at least .300 in a 30/30 campaign.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Braves aren’t short on icons. From one of the greatest players in history — Hank Aaron — to the superhero for 1980s kids across the country in Dale Murphy to the foundation pieces of the run of division titles, the franchise has retired 10 numbers, trailing only the Cardinals and White Sox (11 each) and the Yankees (a whopping 22).

With so much uncertainty surrounding the game and, frankly so many other facets of life right now, it seemed an opportune time to celebrate and dissect the legacies of those Braves legends.

These upcoming weeks, the Starting Nine will serve that purpose, with facts, stats and stories on the franchise’s retired numbers, in numerical order. So we start, as a generation of fans in the TBS days did, with Murph.

1. The BMOC that could have been

When the Braves took Murphy out of Portland’s Woodrow Wilson High School with the fifth pick in the 1974 draft, he had already inked a letter of intent to go to Arizona State. Scout Bill Wight of course lured Murphy to sign, with the two sides settling on $50,000, but it is an interesting thought exercise if Murphy had kept his commitment to the Sun Devils. His sophomore season, Murphy would have been teammates with a player he’d come to know very well in Atlanta, Bob Horner; and as a junior, he would have been part of Arizona State’s 1977 national championship team.

2. Braves collected talent from 1974 draft

To dive in a little more into the top portion of that 1974 draft ... infielder Bill Almon went first to the Padres, followed by right-handed pitcher Tommy Boggs by the Rangers, outfielder Lonnie Smith (Phillies), righty Tom Brennan (Indians) and Murphy. All five signed and, ultimately, the Braves would wind up with three of those players, as Boggs pitched in Atlanta from 1978-1983, going 19034 with a 4.15 ERA in 75 starts and 16 more appearances in relief and Smith was a Brave from 1988-92 (including a season that was an all-timer in terms of Atlanta left fielders).

3. Faith and a friendship forged

Murphy’s faith as a devote Mormon became part of the narrative of his too-good-to-be-true image, and it was founded on those long, sleep bus rides during his time in the minors. With no lights on the bus, Class-A Western Carolina League teammate Barry Bonnell would turn on a flashlight to read The Book of Mormon, and if a teammate asked, he’d answer their questions. He’d notice Murphy paying attention, but never engaging. Eventually, he sat down next to Murphy and when he began reading, the questions came. At the end of that season, Bonnell baptized Murphy. The two would spend the 1977-79 seasons together as teammates in Atlanta and later on, Bonnell would name a son after Murphy, while Murphy gave one of his children the middle name Bonnell.

4. Hype, the yips, and a golden position change

Originally a catcher, when Murphy went to spring training in 1977, he did so with talk that he could be the next Johnny Bench — because of his arm. But Murphy developed a mental block to throwing out runners, and it came to a head against the Reds that spring, when a runner broke for second base and Murphy threw it into the outfield; on the next pitch, the runner went for third and Murphy threw it into the outfield again. Manager Dave Bristol yanked Murphy and he spent the rest of the day at the minor-league fields to try and get things right, and returned to the clubhouse hours later caked in mud and sweat. He barely treaded water in the minors at the position, and because of his bat got a September call up that saw Murphy commit six errors in 17 games and throw out 17 percent of runners (18 percent below league average). Murphy didn’t know what he was going to do. Luckily, new manager Bobby Cox did. He called Murphy that next offseason with an idea: a move to the outfield. Murphy would go on to win five consecutive Gold Gloves from 1982-1986. “To think a couple of years before that, that I was going to be around? I didn’t really see it,” Murphy recalled. “I didn’t really see it. But I’m glad they did.”

5. Peak Murph was in all-time kind of category

The narrative of Murphy’s career fits in perfectly that a player’s peak comes in their Ages 26-29 season. In that four-year span of 1982-85, he won both of his MVPs (‘82 and ‘83) and finished seventh (‘85) and ninth (‘84) in the other seasons and claimed four Silver Sluggers and Gold Gloves while slashing .293/.383/.533 with 145 homers, 111 doubles, 16 triples, 441 RBI and 82 steals with a 23.1 fWAR and 148 wRC+. To put that into historical perspective, only 29 players had ever hit more home runs in their Age 26-29years than Murphy and he had a better wRC+ than the likes of Cooperstown-bound Vladimir Guerrero (147), Ken Griffey Jr. (146) and the likes of Harmon Killebrew, Mike Schmidt and Dave Winfield (all at 145).

6. Anything but Atlanta (aka, The Trade that Almost Was)

In the winter of 1988, trade talk involving the Braves veteran outfielder heated up. The Padres had eyes for him, with talk of a package of Sandy Almoar Jr., John Kruk and Greg Harris; while the Mets dangled Lenny Dykstra, Howard Johnson, Keith Miller and David West. But here’s how the mere thought of joining a team that had been fifth or sixth in the NL West over the three previous seasons can be summed up: Knowing Braves scouts were in town to watch them, Johnson took the first grounder that came his way at third base and launched it over the first baseman’s head, then grabbed his arm to feign injury and walked back into the clubhouse.

7. Still one Hall of a case as player of the 1980s

That we’re still waiting for Murphy to get the Hall of Fame call is stunning, especially on the heels of Harold Baines’ induction with a career fWAR of 38.4, who trails Murphy’s 44.3 and has neither the MVPs, three fewer Silver Slugger than the former Braves outfielder and no Gold Gloves to Murphy’s five. But we can expect the “better than Baines” argument to become par for the course in HOF conversations, so how’s this: you’d be hard-pressed to find a player who dominated the 1980s quite like Murphy. Only HOFer Mike Schmidt (313) had more home runs than Murphy’s 308, he was fourth in hits (1,553) behind three more players in Cooperstown — Robin Yount (1,731), Eddie Murray (1,642) and Wade Boggs (1,597) — and Murray’s 996 RBI make him the only man with more than Murphy’s 929 in the decade.

8. Just how steep was the decline?

Those who don’t believe Murphy belongs in the HOF will point to his final seasons, and they have a point. He was on a trajectory, with his 1983 season of a .302 average, 36 home runs and 30 steals making him only the third player ever with a season of hitting .300 with at least 30 homers and 30 steals, joining Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. But the down years had Murphy in some completely different company. From 1989-93, which includes his last two seasons in Atlanta, two-plus with the Phillies and 26 games with the Rockies in that final year, Murphy had a .692 OPS, which had him just below Tim Wallach (.693) and equal to Vince Coleman, another 80s star who had a dramatic falloff. After falling off the BBWAA ballot, Murphy’s HOF case is now in the hands of the Modern Era Committee, which kept him out this past December. His next chance at enshrinement comes in 2022.

9. Some expectedly honest perspective

Plenty of former players will say the game was better back in their day. But count Murphy in the camp that just doesn’t believe that, he’s adamant that today’s MLB player is on a completely different level than when he suited up. During an appearance on Chopcast LIVE at his restaurant, Murphy’s, I asked him about seeing monsters like Aaron Judge, who at 6-foot-7, 282 pounds, is is three inches taller and more than 70 pounds heavier than Murphy when he played. “These athletes today now, and these baseball players, which I can compare, are better than we were,” he said. “Maybe it takes a guy from yesteryear to say that, but these guys are better. They’re doing things that I don’t understand how they’re doing it. I’ll give you a great example. Ozzie Smith was the best shortstop when I was playing and he did some really remarkable things, but ever shortstop and every second baseman with all these organizations that sometimes In ever saw Ozzie do. They’re remarkably athletic, ready sooner and better baseball player. I love watching this generation play.”

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