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Murphy still a big hit after all these years

Jeff Birchfield • Jul 21, 2018 at 6:57 PM

BRISTOL, Va. — Dale Murphy played for the Atlanta Braves through some of the club's down years. But the two-time National League Most Valuable Player remains as popular as ever a quarter-century after retiring from Major League Baseball.

A large number of fans lined up near the entrance of Boyce Cox Field three hours before Saturday night's game between the Kingsport Mets and Bristol Pirates to get autographs and have their pictures taken with the former star.

Murphy, 62, was just an 18-year-old when he first came to the Tri-Cities as a player for the Appalachian League Kingsport Braves. After progressing through the minor leagues, he played 18 seasons in the majors, 14 with the Braves, three with the Philadelphia Phillies and one season with the expansion Colorado Rockies. He credits the Braves being on the TBS Superstation for making him a superstar in the 1980s.

"The Braves weren't only big in the Southeast. They were in Hawaii and Alaska," Murphy said. "I've met big fans in North Dakota. We did OK most of those years, but it was the exposure of being on every night. It was a blast."

PLAYING IN KINGSPORT

The fifth overall pick of the 1974 draft out of Woodrow Wilson High School in Portland, Oregon, he hit .254 with five home runs and 31 RBIs in 54 games for Kingsport. While it was a drastic step up in competition, the biggest adjustment was a teenager being out on his own.

"Forty-years ago, I started in Kingsport," he said. "I thank Toyota of Kingsport and the Bristol Pirates for getting me here. It has been a great experience. A lot of good memories. When I met with the team today, the manager told me not to tell the current players how homesick I was. That was rookie league and my first time away from home.

"I had no idea where I was going, and pre-internet days, you didn't know much about the Atlanta Braves organization. I was pretty nervous, but I had a great manager in Hoyt Wilhelm, one of the great knuckleballers of all-time, and some great teammates and we made it through."

GOOD AND BAD YEARS IN ATLANTA

Murphy was a seven-time All-Star with the Braves with the highlight in 1982, when he was the National League MVP and the team advanced to the NL Championship Series, where it lost to the eventual World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.

The Braves went 88-74 in 1983, when Murphy won a second MVP award. Atlanta went 80-82 in 1984 before the bottom dropped out.

"We had three good years in 82, 83, 84, and then the next few years were tough," Murphy said. "That's why in '90 I asked to be moved. It was a tough decision. Then, they made some amazing changes and those young pitchers — (John) Smoltz, (Tom) Glavine and Pete Smith — came along. But the Braves run a tight ship and expect you to behave yourself to be a good representative, and that's what I always appreciated."

FACING LOCAL PITCHERS

Murphy faced a pair of local pitchers numerous times in his career. His most famous encounter was against former Unicoi County High School star Ed Whitson. As a member of the San Diego Padres, Whitson and Braves pitcher Pascual Perez faced off in an August 1984 game that featured Whitson brushing back Perez with a pitch and three players later hit by pitches.

Murphy made a spectacular diving catch to give the Braves a 5-3 victory after the two teams brawled on the field. It was just one time that Murphy went against Whitson, whom he remembered as a fierce competitor.

"I faced Ed a lot in the minor leagues, too," Murphy said. "It was always a battle. He was a hard-throwing right hander. We battled throughout our minor and major league careers."

He also had his battles with former ETSU pitcher Atlee Hammaker. Murphy recalled doing better against Hammaker than Whitson. He then remembered the 1983 All-Star Game when Hammaker was hammered, giving up six runs in the third inning, and Murphy struggled at the plate in a 13-3 loss.

"I faced Atlee a few years when he was with the Giants," Murphy said. "I hit left handers better than I hit right handers. That '83 All-Star Game, none of us did well. I had two at-bats. I went 0-for-2 and the American League got us."

HALL OF FAME

Murphy was one of the most versatile players in the majors, starting as a catcher but later playing as a first baseman and outfielder. His career .265 batting average, drug down in his final years, is often used as an argument for him not being in the Hall of Fame.

The argument for Murphy is a two-time league MVP, seven-time all-star, a five-time Gold Glove winner and someone who twice led the NL in home runs and RBIs. Other career numbers include 398 home runs without the speculation of steroids, 1,266 RBIs and 2,111 hits.

He was arguably the biggest baseball star in the South for a decade and the face of his franchise with his No. 3 jersey retired by the Braves. He came off the Hall of Fame ballot in 2013, but holds out hope he might still make it to Cooperstown one day.

"I knew it would take a while if it did happen," Murphy said. "The Hall of Fame has changed some of the voting for those of us now off the ballot. Some of us in the 1970s and ’80s were in that modern-era group, and now my name should come up more often. I'm thankful for the chance. Guys who go in the first ballot, it's very rare. And just to get in, it's tough. But I have some people very supportive, and we will see what happens."

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