Dale Murphy was talking with his wife Nancy about this supposed rift between generations. You probably have heard something about it. Bryce Harper wants the game to be more fun, livelier, with more feeling expressed, with bat flips and fist pumps and raw emotion. A few other younger players have said similar things either with words or, in the case of Jose Bautista, with an epic bat flip for the ages.
And in the last couple of weeks, a couple of great players from my childhood — Goose Gossage and Mike Schmidt — took issue with Harper’s words and Bautista’s tactics and the young players’ desire to be more demonstrative. Schmidt wrote that such displays “show a lack of respect for your opponent and the history of the game.”
Gossage concurred. “It was a bleepin’ disgrace,” he said.
Dale Murphy played when I was a kid too; he was a hero of mine. I have three Dale Murphy autographs in this house basically because, if you were a Dale Murphy fan, you just ended up with autographs the way that jeans end up with loose change. He was that kind of nice guy. Murphy was a fantastic player in the time of Schmidt and Gossage. He won back-to-back MVP awards just after Schmidt did. He faced Gossage 23 times, hitting just .130 against the Goose (Murphy did manage a homer against Gossage the very last time they faced each other).
In any case, Dale was talking with Nancy about this goofy rift between old school and new, this disagreement between these crazy kids today with their antics and the staid, respectful players of old who kept their heads down, when Nancy interrupted. ‘Wait a minute? Wasn’t there a player in your time who used to come on to the field doing backflips?”
That was Ozzie Smith, of course. And everybody loved it.
“Funny thing about us old guys,” Murphy says. “We don’t always remember our own time so well.”
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Dale Murphy was, in many ways, the quintessential old-school player. There’s no way to even count how many times people said or wrote some version of the “Dale Murphy played the game the right way” quote. Here are only a few:
“Dale Murphy is the perfect player, son, father, husband,” Joe Torre said.
“If I could designate a league full of athletes, I’d make it full of Dale Murphys,” the columnist Furman Bisher wrote.
“There aren’t enough good words to describe him,” his teammate, Phil Niekro, said.
“Dale may be the only guy I know who can call 24 guys in one locker room a good friend,” Don Sutton said.
Yeah, there are a million quotes like that, but that’s the point isn’t it? Dale Murphy was the very essence of 1980s baseball. He was the center fielder on mediocre-to-terrible Atlanta Braves teams that Ted Turner dared call “America’s Team.” He was America’s Center Fielder. Nobody loved the game more. Nobody respected the game more. Nobody played harder. Nobody represented the time better.
And so when you talk to Dale Murphy, you might expect who lot of Gossage, a whole lot of Schmidt, a whole lot of “These kids today with their rock and roll music …” But, um, you actually get the exact opposite.
“I hear what Bryce Harper is saying,” Murphy says. “He’s not talking about bat flips and hair and those specific things. He’s saying the players don’t want all these unwritten rules from the past. They don’t want to play the game that way. They want to inject their personality into the game. They want to show their emotions. They want to express themselves.
“And I hear guys from my time — I get it, I understand — talking about when we played. Well, when we played was when we played. We’re not playing. They’re playing. Let them have their fun. Let them mold the game into what they believe it should be. It’s their game. Heck, maybe they’ll get more young people watching.”
Murphy laughs. “There are enough old people watching baseball. We need some younger fans.”
Let’s just say it: Dale Murphy is pretty much the coolest dad in the world.
“Look, I’m not going to tell you that I agree with everything I see,” Murphy says. “When (Bautista flipped the bat) I’m sure I said, ‘Whoa!’ It definitely caught me by surprise. It got my attention. I probably thought, ‘Man, I wish I could have done that in the day without getting hit.’
“I’m kidding, I probably didn’t think that. That wasn’t my style. But we had plenty of guys in our time who played with flair. What about Reggie (Jackson)? He did like a reverse bat flip, remember? He would throw the bat DOWN on a recoil. That was pretty demonstative. I remember playing with Gary Matthews. I loved playing with Gary. He played the game with flair. He would do this thing, I don’t know if you remember, where on a possible double he’d come out of the box and knock the helmet off his head. It would go bouncing on the ground behind him. He didn’t like running with his helmet. It was cool.”
He is going now: “What about Pete Rose? Pete played the game with all kinds of flair. People loved him for it. People hated it for him. It was good for the game. Come on, it’s supposed to be fun. I love this game. I want the kids to see that it’s fun to play. When I see Bryce Harper saying that it’s a dead game, whoa, that stops me cold. That’s the MVP talking, that’s a guy who loves baseball, who plays hard, who wants the kids to play baseball. And he is a lot closer in age to the kids’ ages. He knows what they are thinking. He says, ‘It’s a dead game,’ we have to listen to him.”
Maybe it’s just the constant thumping of old-time players in every sport moaning about how much things have changed, but I cannot begin to describe how delightful it is to talk baseball with Dale Murphy. Hey, he is quick to admit: He’s not immune from the intoxicating blend of nostalgia and back pain that infects all of us as we get older.
“When I first got on Twitter,” he says, “I said something about all the messaging players do back to the dugout when they get to second base. You know all that stuff with the hand signals, making some signs, celebrating out in the open like that. Well, I wrote something like, ‘Hey, why don’t you wait until you get back in the dugout before celebrating.’
“But I was just being an old guy. I’ve re-thought it. It really looks like they’re having fun. We didn’t do stuff like that in our time, so it surprises us. But it’s different now. They don’t see it as disrespecting opponents or disrespecting the game. I think that’s what Bryce Harper means. He wants players to be allowed to have fun, to write their own unwritten rules for baseball. I think that’s good for the game. They’ll protect the game. They’ll police it. They will know when lines have been crossed.”
I ask Murphy if he would love to play in today’s game, and, of course, he says that he would. What older player wouldn’t want to play today? The money’s so much better now. The conditions are so much better now. There are so many more fans in the stands watching now. But then he says something the surprises the heck out of me.
“I don’t think I could have played today,” he says. “Hey, I’d love to play now. But, you know what? These kids are better than us. They’re better players. We might not want to admit it, but we go back and look at old highlights of ourselves and compare it to these kids now: No comparison. Everybody throws 95 mph-plus. Their swings are so much more fine tuned. They’re in so much better condition. And they make plays — I watch them and I say, ‘Wow.’ Athletically, I don’t think I could compete today.”
Yeah, that’s a pretty jaw-dropping thing to hear an older player say. I will always remember “George Brett’s dirt rule” which is: “The farther you get away from the dirt, the better player you think you are.” Dale Murphy might be the first person I’ve ever spoken with who breaks that rule. But I will also say: Let me be quick to stand up for one of my all-time childhood heroes: Dale Murphy would be a fantastic player today. He was a great athlete, a 6-foot-4 catcher turned center fielder with a bazooka for an arm. He stole 30 bases one season and he hit tons of opposite-field home runs when very few people were doing that. Oh, he’d big a star again today.
But his point about playing in today’s game is typically insightful: He sees the new challenges players face now. Yes, he would have all the advantages of today — better weight training, better video training, more intensive coaching, better conditions and all that. But he would also have the disadvantages of today.
“I would have struggled with a lot of the social media and notoriety that players have to deal with today,” Murphy says. “I had an understated personality. I played in Atlanta when it was considered a smaller market, and that was good for me. I belonged in my time. I would not have handled the extra pressure well. I made so many mistakes early in my career. Now that stuff would have been all over the world. I would have been so embarrassed by the public criticism. I don’t know if I could have come back from it.
“But that’s my point, the point about how my generation — it’s not our game anymore. We’re done. We don’t know what these kids are dealing with now. We kind of want to control things, we don’t like letting go. We’re all like that, right? We get older, and whether it’s music or fashion or sports or entertainment, we want it to be like our own time. Aren’t there people saying that Steph Curry couldn’t play in their time I mean, seriously?”
But, of course, Murphy understands and is sensitive to the sentiments of players of his own time. Schmidt and Gossage are Hall of Famers. They were great players. And it’s not a lot of fun getting older. It’s not a lot of fun when you can no longer play the game you once dominated. It’s not a lot of fun when you see that the stuff that mattered so much to you as a player and a person doesn’t matter much to the next generation. It’s the tale as old as time and the song as old as rhyme. Hey, there were guys from the 1950s who said that players in the Gossage, Schmidt and Murphy generation didn’t respect the game.
And there were guys from the 1930s who said those 1950s players didn’t respect the game.
And all the way back.
“I think baseball now is just great,” Murphy says. “I love it. I think what Bryce Harper is saying is: Let us be who we are. They don’t all have to play like Harper, and they won’t. Mike Trout plays the game a lot more like I did, I think, a lot more like the way Mike Schmidt plays. You know, quieter. And Bryce Harper plays with flair. Kids want to express themselves. I get it. We didn’t do some of this stuff, but you know what? Our time was our time. It’s their time now.”