WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Soft-spoken, affable Dale Murphy had perpetrated two separate acts of wanton violence on the field, a baseball travesty of the greatest magnitude.
In a fit of pique, in his most sullen, most perturbable mood, he had pushed over a plastic water cooler with his foot, and he had flipped a helmet over his shoulder.
He was hardly the Dale Murphy who had won Most Valuable Player awards the previous two years. While suffering through an early season slump in 1984, he was showing signs of emotional imperfection.
"Everybody asked me about it," the Atlanta Braves center fielder recalled, now having returned to his soft-spoken, affable self. "It was kind of a compliment, in a way, that so much attention was paid to it.
"It wasn't that big a thing. Everybody thought the water cooler was one of those big, glass ones. It was just a little one that held Gatorade. I got mad," Murphy said. "I'm just not a very good player when something is bugging me that bad. I get tense."
Then, there was the helmet-throwing incident, and that, again, got Murphy a lot of press.
"I tossed a helmet over my head at first base, and there were stories about it: 'Murphy Throws Helmet.' I guess that was a compliment, in a way, too," Murphy said.
"When I do things like that, I say to myself, 'Hey, you've got things a little out of perspective.' You can't let the other team know when when they've gotten to you," he said.
Murphy wound up the season batting .290 with 100 RBI and 36 homers that tied Mike Schmidt for the National League lead--hardly a season to throw a helmet at. Last season not only was the third straight in which he hit 36 homers, but it was the third straight in which he played all 162 games. Murphy enters the 1985 season having played in 495 consecutive games, the longest current string in the majors.
In retrospect, he realizes the tantrums, mild as they were, did not help him at all.
"All they did was to get people asking me about it," he said. "It doesn't solve the problem. I've got to hit the ball, not the water cooler."
A great deal also was written last year about the pressure on Murphy because of the absence of injured third baseman Bob Horner. That too was exaggerated, Murphy said.
"Everyone assumed I was carrying the load, but I think everybody on the team felt the pressure," Murphy said. "You feel it for a couple of days, then you just go out and play. Everyone comes to me, but, heck, I'm just part of the team. You can't make up for Bob's absence."
Murphy says Horner's injuries last year were a poor excuse for the way the team played, finishing in a second-place tie with Houston in the NL West, 12 games behind San Diego.
"This year, we've got two new guys--Bruce Sutter and Rick Cerone. I felt we were a contending team last year, and we've improved," Murphy says. "San Diego was tough, though, and they've improved.
"We didn't play well at all last year. We played crummy. It was one of those things, no reason. If there was a reason, it'd just be an excuse."
This year, Murphy says he would like to cut down on his strikeouts as a personal step toward improvement. Murphy struck out 134 times last year compared with 110 times in 1983, when he hit .302 and drove in 121 runs.
"I had kind of an up-and-down year, inconsistent," he said. "That's not really a very good way to help the team. My strikeouts were back up, and that's something to work on. I think I can improve that, but then I say that every year."
Murphy says he also would like to think he helps the Braves in ways that numbers don't show.
"I'm not one to go around calling clubhouse meetings," Murphy says. "But I play the game hard, hustle, and I think that rubs off. I hope I set a good example. I try to work hard at it. That's what I'd like to do. I'd like to help more than just on the field.
"I just don't want to sulk," he said, "but I guess we all have a tendency to do that sometimes."
Even soft-spoken, affable Dale Murphy.