ESPN writer explains what made Dale Murphy special, on and off field, and sort of avoids a ghost

For any baseball fan who remembers Dale Murphy, this is a fantastic read from ESPN the Magazine.

The in-depth piece by Wright Thompson — titled "Where Have You Gone, Dale Murphy?" — makes the case that the former two-time National League Most Valuable Player should be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

That induction would emphasize the fact that the retired Atlanta Braves star did not use performance-enhancing drugs, even though he ended his career in the steroids era.

Thompson writes:

If baseball wants to wash itself clean from steroids, the best way to do it isn't to keep [Barry] Bonds out of the Hall but to let Murphy in. Induct cheaters but also celebrate Dale Murphy for his 398 home runs and for the dozens he did not hit.

While the article is pegged on the Hall of Fame argument — noting that Murphy will be eligible again next year — it's the personal story that makes this such a captivating read.

That story revolves around what a good guy Murphy is. A moral guy. A family guy. Dare I say a religious guy?

ESPN hints that faith might be at play in Murphy's character. The writer emotionally describes how a generation of boys who grew up within reach of the TBS cable station idolized the Braves' star:

Our letters arrived at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, 50 or more a day for a decade, as Murphy perennially battled Mike Schmidt for the NL home run title and won back-to-back MVP awards, one of four outfielders in baseball history to accomplish that. We read the stories about Murphy's kindness and charity, how he didn't drink or smoke or curse and how he signed every autograph. We imagined meeting him over big glasses of milk and talking about his moonshot home runs. 

A few paragraphs later, readers learn more about the Murphy of present day:

Generation Murph has grown into middle age. We are 35 years removed from his peak as a player. He lives mostly anonymously in Utah with his wife and eight grown children. 

Utah, huh?

Is there any prominent faith group there known for its large families?

Keep reading, and roughly 1,400 words into the story, ESPN gets to why Dale and Nancy Murphy are the way they are:

Their Mormon faith helped them navigate the chaos.

Later, the writer mentions that the Murphys, after Dale retired from baseball, managed Mormon missions in Boston before they settled in Utah and he faded from the spotlight.

A quick aside: I interviewed Murphy in 2001 for The Oklahoman when he came to Guthrie, Okla., to motivate Mormon missionaries. He told me then that he didn't worry about earthy matters like whether he got into the Hall of Fame: "Baseball and sports and those things are a lot of fun. But it really doesn't provide any lasting happiness."

As the ESPN story keeps going, the writer makes two more passing references to Murphy's Mormon background.

One is here:

Turns out, Dale liked those records he bought to find a common interest with Chad. Today he is a huge indie-rock nut, which surprises no one more than his own children. On his old blog, he wrote about mashing together Abbey Road and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. He's gotten to know the guys in Wilco and R.E.M., and Chad once sat at a Mexican restaurant in New York with his dad, Peter Buck and Michael Stipe, trying to process how his square Mormon father now ran with rock stars. The members of R.E.M., of course, came of age in the late '70s and early '80s in Georgia, which makes them prime Generation Murph. Bassist Mike Mills wrote a song about Murphy's failure to get into Cooperstown: "Forget all the liars, all the Sosas and McGwires ... I wanna see Dale Murphy in the Hall of Fame."
"He said it's a great punk rhythm," Murphy says.

And here:

They tell a story about one of the granddaughters with Dale, who loves inventing activities. He took her to the store to buy seeds, and then they came home and planted marigolds together, a little kid and a lanky ex-ballplayer. Taylor follows with his own story about seeds his father planted. He's old enough to remember the end of Dale's career: the father-son games when they wore matching uniforms and spent long hours in the clubhouse. "Growing up, I thought my dad was cool," he says. "Also, and this is a religious part, but as someone who is LDS, sometimes you feel like, Will people think I'm weird because I'm Mormon? And then I would go in there and everyone loved my dad. Everyone was his best friend. That's what I always tell people. If I can be halfway like that ..."

So, as you can see, ESPN doesn't ignore Murphy's faith. But it doesn't really engage it either. 

Would the piece be better with a little more religion content? I'd love to know what you think, dear reader.

My opinion: Definitely, it would. I don't think you can present a full picture of Murphy without hearing from him, in his own words, on what he believes and how his faith affects his approach to life. 

Obviously, though, we're talking about ESPN — a frequently haunted outlet. Perhaps we should just be happy that the word "faith" made its way into the story, with four mentions of "Mormon."

Overall, it's a terrific feature, if not a grand slam. Thompson makes an excellent case for Murphy's Hall of Fame admission. I don't have a vote. But if I did, I'd give it to him.

Go ahead and read the story.

Read it all.

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