The Major League Baseball Hall Of Fame ballot has looked awfully crowded of late. It's not actually brimming with more important or memorable players than in the past, of course, but it seems that way to me. My perception is being colored because within the past few years names have started cropping up on that ballot that I can remember watching live and in the moment. There's a huge difference between a player whose achievements you know purely from an anecdotal or statistical standpoint, and one whose most transcendent moments you can reflect on because you witnessed them as they happened.
Now that I'm seeing the same people vying for Cooperstown votes that I was excited to pull out of a fresh pack of Tops when I was a kid, I note that there's a tremendous fondness that accompanies the guys who are inextricably linked with your formative years of fandom. You get the urge to endorse their Hall Of Fame candidacies; even the guys you loathed during their playing days because they were involved in the demoralization of your team. (I forgive you, Jack Morris and John Olerud.)
And, of course, your bias inevitably swings hardest towards players who were special to your hometown team. If I were a member of the BBWAA and had a vote to cast, I would do my absolute best to suppress those feelings in the name of integrity, but since I'm not, let me take a moment to exhort those who determine Cooperstown's membership: vote Dale Murphy in.
Murphy's first ballot was 1999, making this his 13th year of eligibility. If a player has not been elected after 15 ballots, he is no longer a candidate for the vote, (though he can still be elected by the Veteran's Committee, but that could take many more years), which means the clock is ticking for ol' Dale. Allow me to make his case in three parts.
A. Achievements and stats on the diamond: While his career numbers may not seem Grade-A phenomenal in hindsight (the most glaring problem: a .265 BA), Dale Murphy in his prime was a force. He had a lifetime .815 OPS, six seasons of 30+ homers, and a 7th in which he hit 29, retiring just shy of 400 total dingers (398). Murphy earned back-to-back NL MVP awards in 1982 and '83, making him only the fourth outfielder in Major League history to accomplish that feat. The only other multiple-MVP not currently in Cooperstown: Roger Marris, who ought to be there too. As for Murphy, The rest of his litany of on-field honors reads a s follows: 7 All-Star appearances, 5 Gold Gloves, 4 Silver Sluggers, and a partridge in a pear tree.
True, Murphy's career retrospective suffers from a lack of longevity. In Rob Neyer's words, he "got a late start and suffered an early end." And yes, I know his totals pale in comparison to the gaudy numbers of many who came after him. I know his last six seasons are a statistical Scarlet Letter to HOF voters. Rarely have anyone's production and durability fallen off a cliff quite so spectacularly as Murphy's after he turned 32. We're talking Wile E. Coyote, here. Given those years of sudden and inexplicable decline, I can absolutely understand why the bleak final impression they left might negatively color the BBWAA's minds, but during his sublime apex from 1982-1987, Dale Murphy was as good a ballplayer as anyone else in the league. That level of greatness, however briefly extant, merits a plaque in Cooperstown, or at least better consideration than Murphy has been granted thus far.
B. Beyond the dugout: There have been very few men in the history of sport who have exemplified class, dignity, and basic goodness quite like Dale Murphy. A devout Mormon, a man who walked the walk of humility and service in the face of stardom, Murphy was the antithesis of everything we seem to lament about modern celebrities. There were charities, of course. The Make-A-Wish Foundatioin, The March Of Dimes, The American Heart Association, and a host of others. What set Dale apart were the extras. One of the most beloved athletes in Atlanta history, Murphy had a column for years in the Atlanta Constitution in which he responded to fan mail, always with warmth and humor. He was soft-spoken and cordial, kind and welcoming, to everyone he encountered. He always had time for the fans, for the city, for whoever needed him.
To baseball's credit, this did not go unnoticed. Murphy received MLB's Lou Gehrig Award, given to "the player who best exemplifies the spirit and character of Brother Lou Gehrig, both on and off the field ... to acknowledge an individual player’s outstanding commitment to both his community and philanthropy," in 1985. In 1987, he was one of Sports Illustrated's Sportsmen and Sportswomen of the Year, and in 1988 he received the Roberto Clemente Award, awarded to the player who "best exemplifies sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual's contribution to his team." When people use the phrase "ambassador of the game," they mean guys like Dale Murphy.
Obviously, it's open to interpretation and debate as to how much (if at all) one's off-field behaviors and personality should influence Hall Of Fame consideration. I can only say that if anyone's candidacy were to be granted a "good-guy" bump that might make up for a not-quite-as-great-or-sustained career, Dale's the guy.
C. Resonance. Atlanta sports were, for the most part, beyond terrible in the 1980s. Our supposedly "professional" football team was so awful that it's not dignified to even discuss. I'm fairly certain the Georgia Bulldogs, or even the Yellow Jackets, could have beaten the Falcons 8-out-of-every-10 times. (Sadly, that's only half a joke.) We didn't have a hockey team anymore since the Flames had moved to Calgary. The Hawks were equal parts fantasy and frustration. We were in the heyday of 'Nique and Spud Webb and Doc Rivers, but it was fairly evident that they weren't making the NBA Finals as long as Larry Bird was alive and playing basketball. The punishment The Hick From French Lick and co. dealt us every season was miserable and humiliating. Our only respite was in the joy of watching 'Nique's pyrotechnic dunks on a nightly basis. Which, admittedly, was pretty awesome.
And then there were the Braves. There is no adjective sufficient to describe the pitiful state of our baseball team in those years. You'd go to a game and here things like: "tonight's attendance: 5,138." People were ... unenthused, to put it politely. But just as we could take a little solace and a lot of pride in 'Nique's jaw-dropping talents in The Omni Arena, we had Dale down at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. People cared because of Dale. He was all we had to cling to; this incredible player whose every at-bat or play in the field was galvanizing. Fans have a history of revering two kinds of players: superstars and "hustle guys." When your most exemplary "hustle guy" also happens to be one the the best players in the game, when he refuses to phone in a single inning in even when it's late August and the team is 27 games out of first, when he suffers every loss with quiet dignity and comes back tomorrow and hits another moonshot or makes another incredible catch at the wall, that's when you have something special. That's what Dale Murphy was. Something truly special.
It still makes me sad to think that we traded Dale to the Phillies right in the middle of the 1990 season, the year before everything turned around and the Braves began their unprecedented run of dominance. I know that the trade facilitated us putting together some of that worst-to-first '91 squad, but it still seems terribly unfair that he gave his all for us time and again, and didn't get to enjoy any of the gravy years. And then, in an extra cruel twist, Dale was traded away to the Rockies traded him right before the Phillies made their own run in 1993. Dale Murphy never got to play in a World Series.
Which is why, if there's any karma or justice out there to be had, for everything he was and everything he did on and off the field, Dale Murphy ought to be in the Hall Of Fame. It's not a rational argument, but I still think it's the right one to make, and the right ballot to cast.
Vote Dale in 2011.