It's a different spring for the Pride of the Braves. Dale Murphy still walks in with a smile on his face and leaves with a song on his lips. He still says hello to everyone, signs every autograph and does every imaginable charitable event.
At a time when contract squabbles and a sex scandal have dominated baseball's spring headlines, the Atlanta Braves have a jewel - a superstar who is refreshingly wholesome, openly religious and dedicated to his wife, family and career.Dale Bryan Murphy has maintained that demeanor despite a difficult offseason, one that began with the first bad year of his magnificent career and may be one reason the Braves have listened to offers for him.
With spring training under way, Murphy's career appears to be at a crossroads: Does he stay, or does he go? At one point, it was never a point of contention because, for his first 11 seasons, Dale Murphy was the Atlanta Braves.
"It's a different feeling, I'll say that," he said. "But the way I look at it is I've been lucky to be here for my entire career. A lot of guys don't know where they'll be year to year. I've enjoyed it here, and I continue to enjoy it."
The New York Mets and San Diego Padres have made several offers, but the Atlanta asking price has been steep (a starting pitcher and three regulars). Lately, it's the Houston Astros who've shown the most interest.
Whatever is decided will have to be approved by Murphy, who has 11 years major-league service with one club and can veto any trade request.
Murphy declines to say what he'd do, only that, "We'll talk about it if (General Manager) Bobby Cox comes to me with something. I've said I'll consider any situation."
His friends say he's more than willing to consider. They say he's tired of playing for last-place teams, and that at 33 years of age with 334 homers and 1,004 RBI, the Braves may not have a winning team until he's far past his prime.
"I talked to him before spring training, and he just didn't sound the same," said Bob Horner, who spent nine seasons with Murphy in Atlanta and retired this week. "He wasn't bitter, but you could tell he's probably ready to move on."
Horner said the Braves "owe (Murphy) a trade. He has given them his best. What else can he do? They're not going to win with him, so get something for the future and let him play for a winner. He deserves to have some fun before he goes out."
If the Braves ever do trade him, this is the time. Murphy's .226 batting average in 1988 was 48 points below his career average, and his 77 RBI was his fewest in 10 full seasons. A lot of baseball people believe his '88 numbers were as much a byproduct of playing for a team that lost 106 games as anything else.
Those opinions might change if Murphy had another down season, and he suddenly may be imminently less tradeable.
"The game has never come easy for me and a lot of things mounted up last year," he said. "I've always been real streaky, and I couldn't get out of my bad streaks last year. The way the team was going could have been part of it. It wasn't a lot of fun coming out to the ballpark, and the team's attitude wasn't what it should be. I count myself among that group."
If he struggles inwardly with his attitude, he seldom shows it outwardly. He could have pouted and complained about his circumstances. He chose not to.
"I didn't have to," he said. "It goes without saying that no one enjoys losing. If I had said anything, it would have been stating the obvious, and what difference does it make what I say?"
Players have come and gone in Atlanta, but Murphy is revered because nothing - not even $2 million contracts or head-swimming batting slumps - ever has changed him.
He's the big gangly hillbilly whose wardrobe is jeans and sneakers, whose language is strictly G-rated and whose outlook is painfully positive.
Inside, Murphy's battle is not always so easy. He wants a perfect world. He wants it to read from the Book of Mormon. He wants families to be together and drugs to be for healing.
As hokey as it sounds, he says he's one guy attempting to be a good role model.
"It's part of being a player," he said. "I understand others don't believe that, but I think we're put here for more reasons than our jobs. You always influence more people than you think - no matter what your job is. Maybe a Little League or high-school coach impacts more kids than I do. I also think that your profession is about more than money. I think there's a higher reason for us being here."
Part of that reason, he said, is to be spiritually pure and morally clean, something that's not always easy in an occupation that keeps him away from home 130 nights a year, many times with players who don't view marriage as sacred or alcohol as evil.
"You look at what's going on, and it's not what you'd want," he said. "I have five boys, and the older they get, the more I worry about what is going to happen to them. There seems to be such an erosion of morality. People criticize me for not wanting women in the locker room. They say it's not that big of a deal, and that a woman deserves the opportunity to make a living. I agree with that. But I was raised to believe that it's wrong for men and women to be in that situation. It's accepted now, and that means there's a line in our society that has eroded."
As he speaks, he repeats again and again that his five boys and his wife are the foundations of his life. He says it's the eight months of travel, and not batting slumps, that will lead to his leaving baseball.
"One thing I have a real problem with is parents who say they spent `quality' time with their children," he said. "I don't think `quality' means anything. It's `quantity' that means something to kids, and you've got to be careful not to cheat them. I think when you talk about `quality' time it's an excuse because you don't really have enough time for them. It's like when you're courting your wife. Who wants to hear about `quality' time? You want to be with her because you like to be with her. It has to be the same with your kids."
His religious beliefs, as strict as they are, have been accepted in the often X-rated world of a baseball clubhouse. Murphy said he never has attempted to convert teammates to the Mormon faith.
"If they ask, I'll talk," he said, "but I just never felt comfortable talking to someone who wasn't going to listen. I'm also tolerant of other people's beliefs and have always been that way."
He adds that he doesn't "have all the answers, but I try to watch parents I think have done a good job. It looks like you raise them with the right mixture of love and discipline - if that's possible."