Catching up with former NL MVP and Portland's own Dale Murphy
Baseball can be a confounding game.
Dale Murphy knows that better than most. Considered a five-tool player when he was drafted in 1974 out of Portland's Wilson High, Murphy was hyped as the next Johnny Bench when he joined the Atlanta Braves.
The catching thing didn't work out (though he was behind home plate for 87 games in the major leagues). When throwing accurately to second base became troublesome, Murphy gave first base a try — initially borrowing a glove from fellow Portlander Pete Ward, who was a Braves coach when Murphy switched positions in 1978.
Of course, it was while roaming the Atlanta outfield in the 1980s that Murphy became one of the top players in the game, winning the National League MVP award in 1982 and 1983. In the decade of the '80s, Murphy had more home runs and RBIs than any other major leaguer. A seven-time all-star, five-time Gold Glove winner and four-time Silver Slugger winner, Murphy is one of the great athletes to come out of Portland.
He also is known as one of the nicest humans to play baseball, as reflected by the Roberto Clemente Award, the Bart Giamatti Award and the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award.
It's been three decades since Murphy was the must-see player during Braves' telecasts on Atlanta's WTBS "superstation." But Murphy still shares his story when he can and hopes his journey might motivate those who listen.
"It wasn't like an instantaneous success. I had some ups and downs. I like to share with people just to kind of persevere and hang in and be resilient.
"I talk about being drafted as a catcher — I'm supposed to be Johnny Bench and all that stuff. It didn't work out, so I went to first base and then I went to the outfield. There were times when I didn't think it was going to work out. I just kept showing up. That's what life is kind of like sometimes, just showing up."
Murphy lives in the Salt Lake City, Utah, area with his wife of four decades, Nancy. The couple's eight children and 15 grandchildren keep them busy, but he has reasons to visit Portland often. His mother, Betty, still lives in the area. His sister, Sue, lives on the Oregon coast. His oldest son, Chad, is an associate professor in the College of Business at Oregon State.
Recently, Murphy showed up in town to speak at the 88th annual fundraising banquet for the Oldtimers Baseball Association of Portland, a group that supports amateur baseball in the region through college scholarships, grants to youth programs and more.
Prior to his appearance there, Murphy spoke to Pamplin Media Group about growing up in Southwest Portland, how baseball has changed since he retired in 1993, the chances of Major League Baseball ever coming here and changes he'd like to see to speed up play. His comments are edited for clarity and length:
On whether Portland will land a major league team:
"I think it's realistic. Absolutely. The Portland Diamond Project has done everything that you need to do. People probably don't realize how much work needs to happen. You've got to have a lot of money in place for these things to happen. I think the thing we're just waiting for is for baseball to expand or relocate.
"I think (Portland) is a popular spot. Even in social media, when people say 'Where should baseball go next?' People from all over the country say, 'If you've got to go to the West Coast, you've got to go to Portland.' I think people who have been here know what the sports environment is like here. It's really good, with the University of Oregon and all they do and Oregon State winning (baseball) national championships and the history of professional baseball here in Portland and .... we've got great weather for baseball. So, bottom line, I think it's very realistic."
When it happens, Murphy would like to open a restaurant like the "Murph's" he owns near the Braves' stadium.
On the Braves winning the World Series last season: Murphy said he was really happy for manager Brian Snitker, whom he has known since Snitker signed as a catcher with the Braves organization in the early 1980s.
"Well, it was amazing. But more importantly my restaurant is 10 minutes from the ballpark. So we got some business in the playoffs and in the World Series."
On the state of Major League Baseball:
Murphy said he understands that analytics help teams win, and are here to stay, but he is among the chorus calling for shorter games.
"I don't care either way as far as the shift is concerned. I'm mostly concerned with the length of the game for families and kids. I think we've got to move the pace of the game up. And I think this pitch clock will really help."
Trading strikeouts for power is in vogue these days, so does Murphy — who hit 398 home runs and struck out 1,748 times — wish he could play now?
"It would have been nice to not have anybody worry about how much you struck out back when I played. But, if you're hitting at least 30 home runs they don't really care (about strikeouts). Some of the launch-angle stuff has kind of messed up some of the guys' swings. But, when you look back, I think everybody kind of feels like they played in the era they were supposed to play in."
One change Murphy loves is the expanded playoff field.
He made the postseason once, in 1982 when the Braves won the NL West by a game over the Dodgers. The St. Louis Cardinals swept the NLCS 3-0 and went on to beat Milwaukee in the World Series. That was the season Murphy won the first of consecutive NL MVP awards.
In 1983, the Braves finished three games back of the Dodgers. They never really contended for postseason again during Murphy's stay in Atlanta.
"I only got one shot at it. It would have been nice to have a different format back then."
On favorite memories of playing at Wilson High and for Watco Electric, the summer American Legion team coached by Jack Dunn that was a force in the region and took third place at the 1973 American Legion World Series:
Murphy said playing some 80 games a year with close friends remains one of his favorite baseball memories.
"We had a lot of good pitchers on our team. I had a really good arm, but Jack never used me as a pitcher to save my arm. That's a big reason why I got drafted is I had such a good arm, but I was never worn out from pitching."
Drafted as a catcher, Murphy said his first memory of playing the position was as a 13-year-old in Babe Ruth Baseball.
"Mike Clopton (who coached high school baseball for 38 years at Jackson and Wilson) was my Babe Ruth coach. And something happened to our catcher and he said, 'Hey, Murph, have you ever caught before?' I was like, 'No, but I'll give it a try.' I didn't have a catcher's mitt. I didn't know how to put on the gear.
"I don't think anybody likes catching right away. Only when you learn what it's like, and the older you get where you're calling pitches and really involved in the game, does it become so much fun."
On Alpenrose Dairy, for decades a hub of Little League and other community activities and now the site of a proposed housing development:
Murphy spent his middle school years in the Bay Area before his family returned to Portland, but played at Alpenrose as a 9-year-old and recalls it fondly.
"It was a great, great place to play ball as a kid and just all the other things they had. I hope some remnant of that stays in place, but I know it's going to be tough."
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