Dale Murphy in 1989

Rifling through piles and stacks and clumps and lumps of old newspaper clippings in my book-cluttered Fort Myers condo dubbed The Hovel I invariably find evidence of a long sportswriting career. 

Many of the yellowing clips document brushes with greatness. There have been so many over so many years the memories of the encounters sometimes dissipate, vanishing into the ether like the squeak of a sneaker on an outdoor basketball court.

A case in point is my 1989 story on legendary Atlanta Braves outfielder Dale Murphy, one of the most revered players in that franchise’s history.

I recall some of the circumstances. At the time I was a Fort Myers News-Press sports writer. In 1989, Fort Myers did not have a spring training team. This was after the Kansas City Royals moved away and before the Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox moved in.

My mission, which I chose to accept, was to visit every spring training camp in Florida and write stories about players and stadiums and also critique the hot dogs.

I don’t recall if I put the hot dogs on my expense account.

I tooled around the state for a bit more than a month in a rented red LeBaron convertible. It’s hard to believe now that small newspapers once did such things. But in 1989 they did, before the Internet came along and sucked away advertisers and readers.

Anyhow, one March day 30 years ago my journey took me to West Palm Beach’s Municipal Stadium for a Dale Murphy profile.

The story ran one the front page of The News-Press sports section on March 12, 1989, which was Murphy’s 33rd birthday.

The dateline was West Palm Beach and this is the top of the story:

Dale Murphy, jogging from the Atlanta Braves’ batting cages to their dugout at Municipal Stadium, screeched to a halt midway to his destination. Fans eager for his autograph and a brush with greatness lined a fence of the right-field bleachers.

Murphy could have ignored the fans. He didn’t.

He could have breezed past them, pretending not to hear their requests and good wishes. He didn’t.

He could have signed silently, sullenly and swiftly. He didn’t.

Murphy, one of the premier baseball players of the 1980s, took his time, stuck his bat under his right arm, held his glove and batting helmet in his right hand and signed autographs with his left hand. He smiled. He asked, “How you doing?” He backed up for people he missed the first time by.  There was plenty of time to pose for pictures.

In a nutshell, this is Dale Murphy, Mr. Brave, truly one of the nicest and most sincere people ever to play baseball. Not to mention, one of the finest players, too.

I think I did a nice job on feature, putting Murphy’s career in context and describing his character, which has never been sullied by a hint of scandal to this day.

I talked to Braves broadcaster Ernie Johnson, who attested to Murphy’s stature in the game.

“It’s an unbelievable stature,” Johnson told me. “I think some people believe he’s too good to be true. He is what you see.

“He’s the All-American kid, not only on the field, but off the field. He’s just a good person.”

I talked to future Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, who also raved about Murphy.

“I’m a Dale Murphy fan,” said Niekro, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997. “Always have been. Always will be.”

All through Murphy’s prime, though, the Braves were usually awful. He never reached the World  Series. 

In his only playoff appearance in 1982, the Cardinals swept the Braves in the National League Championship Series. In spring training in 1989 the Braves were coming off a 106-loss season, the most in franchise history since 1935.

He longed for a chance to play in a World Series.

“I think everybody in this room relishes that,” Murphy told me in the clubhouse. “My energies are focused on doing that here.”

He sounded optimistic.

“I don’t think we’re as far away as people think,” Murphy said. “As to when, I don’t know.”

It never happened for Murphy. The Braves didn’t reach a World Series until 1991, a year after Murphy was traded to the Phillies.

Murphy was one of the best of the 1980s but could not sustain his brilliance as he aged. In 1989, he hit .228 with 20 homers and 84 RBI. In 1990 he hit .245 with 24 homers and 83 RBI. Those were respectable totals, but by 1993 he was done, playing in 26 games for the Rockies and hitting .143.

He never came close to reaching the Hall of Fame. Murphy’s best year on the ballot was 2000, when he garnered only 23.2 percent of the vote.

This is how I closed that 1989 story: “But it hardly seems likely that a player with the skills of Dale Murphy could be a has-been on his 33rd birthday.”

Alas, by time I interviewed Dale Murphy in West Palm Beach in 1989 his best years as a baseball player were behind him.

I haven’t driven a red LeBaron convertible since 1989 spring training.

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