‘Murph’ belongs in Hall of Fame, has another chance Sunday

Dale Murphy never came close to making the baseball Hall of Fame during his 15 years on the writers’ ballot through 2013, but there’s another chance this weekend for the Modern Baseball Era Committee to correct that wrong and send the Braves icon to Cooperstown.

Dale Murphy was arguably the best player in baseball for a stretch that included back-to-back National League MVP awards and countless cover stories on national magazines.

Murphy is among the 10 who’ll be considered for election by what used to be known as the Veterans Committee before the process was changed and individuals were considered on a rotating basis according to which of four eras they played in (or managed, or owned, or whatever they did to impact the game).

A year ago, longtime former Braves GM John Schuerholz was elected by the Today’s Game Era Committee, which considered candidates from the period beginning in 1988. This year it’s the so-called Modern Era that includes those whose greatest impact came during the period from 1970 through 1987.

The candidates include the late players’ union chief Marvin Miller and former players Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Don Mattingly, Jack Morris, Dave Parker, Ted Simmons (who played his last three seasons for the Braves and scouts for them), Luis Tiant, Alan Trammell and Murphy. That’s such an esteemed group that even the notoriously demanding committee might find it hard not to elect at least a few candidates.

Electees will be part of the 2018 HOF class that’s expected to include another Braves icon, Chipper Jones, who’s in his first year of eligibility on the BBWAA (writers’) ballot and who most observers expect to be named on more than 90 percent of the ballots (75 percent is the threshold for election).

Selection by the Modern Era Committee also requires being named on 75 percent of ballots, only in this case it’s 75 percent of a 16-member committee rather than the ballots of hundreds of writers. The committee features eight Hall of Famers, three of whom have Braves ties: Schuerholz, legendary manager Bobby Cox and broadcaster and former pitcher Don Sutton.

Other Hall of Famers on the committee include George Brett, Rod Carew, Dennis Eckersley, Dave Winfield and Robin Yount, and they’re joined by five other baseball executives and three media members/historians.

People I’ve talked to about the voting think Trammell is most likely to be elected. He was named on 40.9 percent of ballots in his 15th and final year on the writers’ ballots a couple of years ago. Also considered to have a good shot is Tiant, who had three 20-win seasons, a 229-172 record and 3.30 ERA in 19 seasons, and was named on 30.9 percent of the writers’ ballots in 1988 but never more than 18 percent after that.

Simmons was one of the best catchers of his era, an eight-time All-Star who received MVP votes in seven seasons and hit .285 with 248 homers in a 21-year career. He appeared on the writers’ ballot only one season, dropped after being named to just 3.7 percent of ballots in 1994.

Another leading candidate for Modern Era Committee consideration: Tommy John, the pitcher for whom the famous surgery was named – he was the first to have it – and who won 288 games in a 26-year career, including three 20-win seasons and three top-four finishes in Cy Young Award balloting.

Despite the deep group of worthy candidates – including Dave “The Cobra” Parker, one of my favorite players as a kid – I would argue that none is more worthy of consideration than Murphy, because he checks a key box for me – Was he considered the best player in his league at any point in his career? Yes – and because he is as fine a person as there will be on the ballot in this or any other year.

First, the performance: Murphy won back-to-back National League MVP awards in 1982 and 1983, something only Hall of Famer Joe Morgan and Mike Schmidt did before him and only Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols have since. Murphy won as many MVP awards in two seasons as the combined total won by Chipper and the greatest of all Braves, Hank Aaron.

Murphy was a seven-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove center fielder who finished 12th or higher in league MVP balloting six times from 1980-87. In other words, he was great for a stretch, not simply very good.

Murphy was among the superstars whose images were featured on popular Nike posters.

The first 15 of his 18 major league seasons were spent with the Braves, a period when the modest slugger played for a lot of bad teams (and a few decent to good ones) but still managed to become a genuine superstar with national recognition, multiple Sports Illustrated covers and the kind of iconic posters that appeared on kids’ bedroom walls and are now worth quite a bit of money (if you kept them in good condition, which I unfortunately did not; what happened to that George “Ice Man” Gervin poster I had….)

Murphy had a national audience that watched the Braves on Ted Turner’s cable SuperStation, back when fans outside big-league markets could watch only the Braves or Cubs on a daily basis – the magic of cable TV — and so the famous milk-drinking, homer-hitting Murphy was a big deal not just in the South, but across the nation and some points beyond.

He had seven seasons with 29 or more homers in an eight-year span, including four consecutive seasons (1982-85) in which he totaled at least 36 homers and 100 RBIs.

Murphy had a reputation for clean living, and it was legit – he was as straight an arrow as you would ever come across in professional sports (or any other profession). There was never so much as a hint of controversy on the field or off with Murphy, before, during or since his playing days.

And if writers — or committee members — are going to give demerits to the likes of Bonds and Roger Clemens and many others for connections to steroids or for being general miscreants, then Murphy is among a select group that might warrant bonus points for being the epitome of professionalism, for being one of the friendliest guys that I or anyone I’ve talked to about him have ever had the pleasure of being around.

There simply is no finer ambassador for the game of baseball than Murphy, who’s as popular with Braves fans today as he was with fans everywhere when he played.

His career began in a baseball era tainted by cocaine scandals and amphetamines in the clubhouse, and ended just before the era tarnished by widespread steroids use. But the sins that stained many others only made Murphy’s exceptionalism stand out more.

His character and reputation were truly beyond reproach, and remain so today.

He makes appearances for the Braves, has his photo snapped countless times with fans at the ballpark or his restaurant nearby, signs autographs until the line is exhausted and suits up as a guest instructor at Braves spring training. This is the man who fathers don’t have to worry about when they point to and tell their sons to grow up and be like him – without fear of that coming back to haunt them.

Murphy doesn’t mess up. He doesn’t do knucklehead things like so many of us other regular folks do.

So, in conclusion: If integrity and character are taken into consideration when voting for Hall of Famers,  then Murphy belongs in the HOF. No question about it. He never made it on so much as 25 percent of the ballots from writers in 15 years on the BBWAA ballot through 2013, but now his peers and others on a committee of 16 have a chance to right the wrong and put Murphy in the Hall of Fame.

And how big would that be for Braves fans to see Murph and Chipper inducted in the same class next summer?

Murphy’s late-career erosion from injuries left him with a .265 average – that and his relative short span as one of the game’s best players are two things that held him back with BBWAA voters – along with a .346 on-base percentage, .469 slugging percentage, .815 OPS, 398 home runs and 1,266 RBIs in 18 seasons.

He was a seven-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glove winner and finished 12th or higher in the league MVP balloting six times, doing that while mostly playing on bad teams and being the primary focus of opposing pitchers.

I’ve often said that if Murphy had spent most of his career with the Yankees or Red Sox, he already would be in the Hall of Fame. Consider this: One of his contemporaries, Red Sox slugger Jim Rice, was elected in his 15th and final year of eligibility, after being named on at least 50 percent of the ballots for 10 consecutive years.

Rice was an eight-time All-Star who didn’t win any Gold Gloves, won one MVP award, finished in the top five in MVP balloting five times, and two other times finished 13th and 19th. He closed his career far ahead of Murphy in batting average (.298), slugging percentage (.502) and OPS (.854), was narrowly ahead of him in OBP (.352) and had fewer homers (382) and more RBIs (1,451) than Murphy.

While Rice was a very good player for longer than Murphy, but didn’t have a 7-8 year stretch that matched Murphy’s career peak. Again, Rice was named on more than 50 percent of the ballots for 10 consecutive years, and Murphy was below 20 percent for his last 13 years on the ballot.

In producing four consecutive seasons with 36 or 37 homers and 100 or more RBIs from 1982-85, Murphy hit above .280 and had an OBP over .370 while playing all 162 games in each of those seasons. In 1983, he led the NL in RBIs (121), slugging (.540) and  OPS (.933). He led the league in homers in 1984 (36) and 1985 (37).

Playing every day came back to haunt Murphy, a big guy who was undermined by injuries at an age when he should have still had some great years left in his career. But he kept playing and saw his average and OBP decline significantly in his final six injury-plagued seasons after his last stellar season in 1987, when he hit .295 with a career-high 44 homers, 105 RBIs and a career-best .997 OPS for the Braves.

After hitting .279 with 310 homers, a .362 OBP and .500 slugging percentage in 12 seasons through 1987, he hit .234 with 88 homers, a .307 OBP and .396 slugging percentage in his  final six seasons.

Yes, Murphy’s performance fell off quickly and his career numbers suffered as he kept playing despite being hobbled from knee injuries. But as we look back on his career, and consider the man he was then and now, it’s hard for anyone to argue against one of the game’s genuinely good people – and arguably the best player in baseball for a few seasons — making the Hall of Fame.

• Murph is a huge Wilco fan — yep, on top of being a prince of a guy he’s into great music so I’ll close with this one from Jeff Tweedy and the boys.

“PASSENGER SIDE” by Wilco

Wilco

Hey, wake up, your eyes weren’t open wide
For the last couple of miles you’ve been swerving from side to side
You’re gonna make me spill my beer,
If you don’t learn how to steerPassenger side, passenger side,
I don’t like riding on the passenger sideRoll another number for the road
You’re the only sober person I know
Won’t you let me make you a deal,
Just get behind the wheelPassenger side, passenger side,
I don’t like riding on the passenger sideShould’ve been the driver, could’ve been the one
I should’ve been your lover, but I hadn’t seen…Can you take me to the store, then the bank?
I’ve got five dollars we can put in the tank
I’ve got a court date coming this June
I’ll be driving soonPassenger side, passenger side,
I don’t like riding on the passenger side
I don’t like riding on the passenger side