Peter Handrinos is a frequent contributor to Scout.com and author of the upcoming ‘The Best New York Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Fans'.
Dale Murphy was dangerous.
As friendly and accommodating as he could be off the field, Murphy was a terror when he stepped up to the plate. The young Atlanta Braves star scorched National League pitchers from 1982 to 1987, scoring back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards (1982, 1983) and six straight All-Star appearances in the process of winning two NL home run titles (1984, 1985) and leading the Senior Circuit in everything from slugging (1983, 1984), and on-base plus slugging (1983) to runs batted in (1982, 1983). No NL player, including Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, hit more RBI or gained more total bases in the decade from 1980 to 1989.
One of the great ‘What if's' of the era came from the fact that Murphy played his last healthy season at age 34. Could he have made it to the Hall of Fame if he'd managed to avoid the knee problems that curtailed his later career? We'll never know for certain, but there's every reason to believe it would have happened - from age 28 on, his career statistics closely resembled those of Reggie Jackson. Even as it was, in 2000, Murphy joined Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron as the only Braves hitters ever honored with a retired number.
Injuries effectively cut off Dale Murphy's Hall of Fame chances, but not before he established himself as one of the most dangerous power hitters of his time. Recently, he discussed how he did it:
What did baseball mean to you when you were growing up?
It was just another sport, really. I didn't get started until I was eight years old. I enjoyed it but I played a lot of football and basketball, too. For the longest time, baseball was just another season.
When did that begin to change?
I was fortunate enough to meet with a great coach in Jack Dunn, and he helped me learn more about the intricacies involved in the game. I'd compare baseball to chess in that, the more you learn about it, the more interesting it gets. In my teenage years, that's when I started picking up on the subtleties, and the more I participated, the more I grew to like it.
When did you get a feeling that you might have a future in the Major Leagues?
Oh, pretty early in high school,
At 6'5", 215, you were a big guy by any standard. Do you believe size generally helps in the development of power hitting?
It's funny. It's both an advantage and a disadvantage. There are pro's and con's.
The good news is that longer arms and legs help you generate more leverage than a smaller guy. The bad news is in the bigger strike zone and the longer swing, in the greater coordination needed to put together consistent mechanics. Basically, a big guy can hit the ball farther, but he can get fooled more often.
Personally, I think my size helped at the end of the day, in that it forced me to bear down on eyesight, hand-eye coordination, bat speed, knowledge of the pitchers.
You struggled to hit home runs in your first couple of years in the Minor Leagues. Why do you suppose that was the case?
I hit some home runs in high school, but I took a big step back in the low Minors and it took me some time to get back to a good level. It was a matter of confidence and physical development, more than anything else. I tried to abide by the old cliché - ‘Don't think about home runs. Think about hitting the ball hard'. Once I did that, my [batting] average went up and, in time, so did my home runs.
When you first entered the Braves organization in 1974, you were a catcher. When you developed throwing problems from behind the plate, did that hurt your confidence as a home run hitter?
Not really. The beauty of baseball is in overcoming failures with your best mental and emotional resources. No one's immune from that, including Ted Williams and Hank Aaron. If anything, the Minors weed out those that have athletic skills but not quite enough mental toughness to acknowledge their failures without getting too down on themselves.
The throwing thing wasn't particularly hard; at least, it wasn't any harder than any other aspect in playing a very, very tough game. I just saw that as another challenge, same as a hitting slump. I was glad to find a new position, eventually, in center field, and just worked to make the most of that.
From what I understand, even in those early years, you were incredibly respected and well-liked on a personal level. Do you think the Braves were more willing to stick with you for that reason?
It was great to have guys like [Scouting Director] Paul Snyder and [General Manager] Bill Lucas pulling for me in those days. I knew that the Atlanta Braves wanted quality people, the kind they wanted to invest in. I appreciated that they saw me that way and I certainly saw Paul in Bill and many others in those terms. They were great baseball men and great men.
That being said, I'm not sure that the personal relationships were the deciding factor in my career development. I always asked the team to judge me based on performance. Baseball is a tough, tough game, and I always concentrated on being the best possible ball player. I always saw the off-field or character stuff was a plus for that foundation.
Well, within a few years, you were winning the National League's Most Valuable Player Award. Then, immediately after the 1982 season, you went down to the instructional league to work on your swing.
You realize you'll always be famous for that.
I did win the MVP, but that wasn't announced for a few weeks after the season. Sometimes I joke, ‘If I knew I was going to win, maybe I wouldn't have gone'!
Seriously, though, it was because I wasn't swinging the bat well in the last few weeks of the season. [Braves manager] Joe Torre saw something I could work on and said, ‘We can erase some of the negatives and work on some of the positives'. I was actually down there with his brother, Frank.
And it was very helpful. It helped reinforced the idea that I could hit to all fields.
Still - there was the sight of a reigning MVP in the instructional league.
I guess we were in
By that time you were, along with Mike Schmidt, the premiere power hitter in the National League. Were you consciously looking for home runs at that point in your career?
I once heard a story about Mickey Mantle. Someone once asked him, ‘Did you ever go up to the plate trying to hit a home run?' And he turned around and said, ‘Every time'! (chuckles)
I know that other hitters have gone up thinking ‘home run', and that's worked for them, but it wouldn't have worked for me. My approach was - get a good pitch to hit, make solid contact. Joe Torre told me, I don't know how many times, ‘Trust your mechanics. Trust the process, and you'll get the home runs'.
Did you usually go up to the plate looking for particular pitches?
I didn't consider myself a guess hitter. I did, probably, the most common thing, which was to look for the faster pitch, then adjust to the off-speed pitch as needed. To me, fastballs, no matter what the speed, were easier to hit.
Another old quote I loved was when someone once asked Willie Stargell how to hit the curveball. He said, ‘Hit the fastball'! That made a lot of sense to me - you know, make sure that the pitcher doesn't get ahead [in the count] with fastballs. That's what sets you up for tough curveballs.
I know that Hank Aaron, for example, always looked for the pitcher's best pitch, whatever that might be, then adjusted to everything else.
He was able to do that, and that's why he was Hank Aaron! (chuckles) No, I couldn't do that. I had to do my best in picking up the fastball, then did my best to adjust to off-speed pitches as necessary.
The other thing I focused on was taking advantage of pitchers' mistakes. No matter how good they are, they'll eventually slip up just enough to give you something to drive, usually once per game. I worked to take full advantage.
At the plate, were you trying to think along with a pitcher, or were you mostly just reacting at the plate?
Reacting. I wasn't a detail guy. I wasn't. Looking back, I could have used more info, but my concern was in cluttering my mind too much. I did use more video as my career went along but, mostly, the simpler the better.
It's funny, because you have so guys that can think and anticipate - the Tony Gwynns - and others who mostly get up there to react. It's up to the individual hitter.
Did you make a lot of adjustments to your stance, depending on your power results at a given moment?
I guess it's relatively rare to make drastic adjustments to your stance during the season, though it does happen. One example was Cal Ripken, Jr., who was constantly shifting. You never knew which stance he'd try next.
I didn't make a lot of adjustments to my stance during the season, no. If I'd do anything at all, I'd change my crouch. I can still see pictures from my career and say, ‘Crouching again. That's when I thought I was too tall'.
Going back to what I said before, though, the simpler the better. Major League pitchers have too much velocity and too much control and too much movement. If you, as a batter, are taking too much time and energy wondering where your hands are, generally, you're not going to get the best results.
It's funny that you mentioned Cal Ripken just now, because you two were among the most durable players of the 1980's. What drove you to play over 700 consecutive games at one point? Was that more in your physical constitution, or in your attitude?
Well, no one ever sat down and said, ‘Here's what you do'. I can't explain it any more than this - you're paid to contribute and win, and you can't necessarily do that from the bench. If you're at all capable of contributing, you should play. Guys like Cal Ripken and Steve Garvey felt that way, of course, but I believe that most top players basically felt the same way.
Some can say that a consecutive game streak can be counterproductive, and I hear that. It did get to the point where I was really struggling and I needed a break. I was healthy enough, but I felt I needed a bit of a mental downtime, so I went over to [Braves manager] Chuck Tanner and said, ‘This thing might have to come to close. I might need a day off'.
Was it tougher to play for losing
I was grateful for the years in the early ‘80's, when we had success. Yeah, I suppose it was tougher when the club was losing. It's a challenge because, by definition, more guys are struggling to get it going.
I have to laugh when I hear about the pressure in playing for a winning, contending team. That's the easiest way to play - everyone's motivated, everyone's concentrating, the crowd's into it.
Did numbers ever motivate you, in, say, the difference between 29 and 30 home runs in the season?
Well, the better your numbers are, the more you can help the team win, usually. It helps your salary. The catch is this - playing for numbers creates a self-imposed pressure that can be counterproductive. It was definitely more enjoyable for me to focus on winning, first and foremost, and let the numbers take care of themselves in the end.
For a good portion of your career, it looked like you might be on track for the Hall of Fame. How can account for struggling in the final years of your career?
I thought I'd be around a little bit longer, too. You know, when I was in my early 30's, I thought, ‘Yeah, I'll be playing until I'm at least 40'.
One of the things was physical breakdown in my knee. I only played something like 15, 20 games in '92 and, after that, I came back in 1993, but I wasn't nearly 100%.
What it proved is - in baseball, once you lose a little bit, you lose a lot. Just a half-step or a step are enough for you to lose your effectiveness - you're not quite legging out that hit or quite reaching that line drive. And just a fraction of a second in timing is enough for you to lose out on solid contact at the plate and then you see an extra-base swing become a single and the singles become outs.
In the years when you were among the National League home run leaders, you had 36, 37 home runs on the year. Nowadays, the equivalent position would be good for 50 or more. How do you feel about the higher power numbers in the 1990's and new millennium?
I'm asked about it a lot. I accept it but, yeah, I guess it's a little frustrating. There are a lot of reasons that things are different, and we all know there's been a steroids question. I just hope we make progress on that and clean up the game as best we can.
I suppose I'd put a little more emphasis on the positive. For instance, you just have to give worlds of credit to Hank Aaron for hitting all those home runs in a pitcher's era. He still doesn't get all the credit he deserves as far as that goes. On the other side, when you're watching one of today's aces - a Roger Clemens or a Pedro Martinez - hey, you're watching a guy who really knows how to pitch.
Is baseball still a big part of your life? Are you still a fan?
Oh, definitely. I'll always be a fan.
I think there's a great place for the game of baseball in our society, one that brings great values to the forefront. I like a bunch of sports organizations, but one I really like is called ‘Right to Play', started by a gold-medal speed skater named Johann Koss. They go around to refugee camps throughout the world and use sports participation to teach kids about immunization, AIDS awareness, and health checkups. What a great idea. Kids don't necessarily want to sit in a classroom, but combined with the game, they can gain some life-saving benefits in their development.
To me, that kind of thing goes to the heart of baseball and other sports as well - it can teach personal values. Baseball's helped me get involved, and I hope that will continue for many years to come.
The complete Table of Contents for the ‘Baseball Men' interview series can be found here.