Dale Murphy stood on the J.I. Clements Stadium concourse Friday afternoon, eyes squinting, watching the baseball team practice and reminiscing about the only other time he visited Statesboro.
“I was actually here 40 years ago, right here on this bank,” Murphy said, looking behind the third-base dugout.
His eyes looked at the Wiggins Building which houses the coaches’ offices and meeting rooms. But he was looking through the building, not at it. Picturing what it used to be.
“That tree was there, but not much else,” Murphy said. “I got to learn about the program here, this is a legendary place to be able to play baseball.”
Murphy was in town to talk to the Georgia Southern baseball team, coaches and boosters at the annual Dugout Club preseason banquet, An Evening with the All-Stars.
Murphy was 19 or 20-years-old at the time of his first visit, on his way from spring training in West Palm Beach, Fla. to his minor-league assignment in Greenwood, S.C; totally unaware of the success he was about to have for the Atlanta Braves.
Serious Braves fans know what Dale Murphy accomplished in his time in Atlanta during the 1980’s. The two-time National League MVP, seven-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glover played excellent baseball for the Braves in a decade when the teams, and baby-blue uniforms, were mostly anything but excellent.
For more casual Braves fans, an interaction between Murphy, a young fan and his dad about five years ago sums up what Murphy meant to Atlanta in the 1980’s.
“I went to Spring Training when Chipper was still playing and I was signing autographs and a kid looks up at his dad and goes, ‘Dad, who is this?’ And his dad goes, ‘Well son, this is Dale Murphy. He played outfield for the Braves. He kind of used to be like Chipper Jones,’” Murphy said.
“Then the kid looks up at his dad and goes, ‘Well can he go in the locker room and get Chipper’s autograph for me?’” Murphy joked.
In an era when athletes are answering media questions simply so they won’t face a fine, Murphy is, and always has been, the kind of guy who will have a 10 minute conversation with an awestruck 22-year-old journalist.
He was oddly honest when talking about today’s MLB. He likes how the game is getting back to its balanced roots, with speed and contact hitting beginning to matter as much as the long-ball.
“Murph” is a big guy standing at 6-foot-4 and even now, in his 50’s wearing jeans and a sweater, looks like he could stroke a few balls over the fence.
He has faced some of the great pitchers in MLB history: Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Fernando Valenzuela. But there is one pitcher in today’s game he doesn’t think he could hang with: current Braves closer Craig Kimbrel.
“People don’t believe me, but I don’t think I’d make contact against Craig Kimbrel,” Murphy said. He thinks he’d have a chance against 2014 NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw because he’s a lefty, “…but Kimbrel? No chance.”
In his prime, Murphy was a 30 HR per year player and a talented outfielder. But early in his career when he was struggling to break into the major leagues, hitting barely over .200 and making the most errors by any first-baseman (1978), Bobby Cox made a decision for him that changed his life.
“Bobby called me one winter and said, ‘Murph what about the outfield?’” Murphy said. Murphy remembers asking his manager if he had any choice. Cox said no.
Murphy talked about what made Cox a great manager and leader, and how the GSU baseball team could apply those traits while they are here. Cox routinely got thrown out of games just so his players, and the umpires, knew he didn’t think his players got a fair hand.
Cox respected his players, and treated them well. Murphy urged the team to do the same – to encourage each other and to respect each other.
“I wouldn’t have a career if it weren’t for Bobby Cox, and I’m not the only guy who can say that,” Murphy said.