One of my favorite baseball stories happened not on the field, but on an airplane.
In 1982 I was seven-and-a-half years old and feel in love with baseball, the Atlanta Braves, and Dale Murphy. Not necessarily in that order. That Braves team started out 13-0, a record at the time, and was on WTBS every night — a station newly arrived to our 12-channels of cable TV.
At the time, I loved watching Dale Murphy because he would hit many and timely homeruns and he would spring across the outfield, his hat flying off, then make spectacular diving catches. Later I’d come to learn he wasn’t just a great ballplayer, he was a very good man. His manager Joe Torre said, “If you’re a coach, you want him as a player, If you’re a father, you want him as a son. If you’re a woman, you want him as a husband. If you’re a kid, you want him as a father. What else can you say about the guy?”
But my favorite story of his wasn’t on a ballfield, it was on an airplane.
The 1982 team squeezed out the National League Western Division on the last day of the season by one game over Los Angeles and two games over San Francisco. Murphy was by far the best player on that team and would win the league’s Most Valuable Player award that year (the next year he’d become the youngest player to win back-to-back MVP awards). But he was never someone to say “Look at me.” Everyone knew Murphy was the reason that good, but not great, Braves team was good enough to win their division. But Murphy was a modest, Christ-following ballplayer.
He knew, even if he was they key to that team, that in baseball everyone has to take a turn at bat, and no fielder – even a 5-time gold glove winner like he was— can catch every ball hit. Whomever the ball is hit to has to be the one to field it.
So after winning the Western Division, the Braves were set to play St. Louis in the playoffs. I think Murphy meant for his actions to be private and stay private, but Braves broadcaster Pete Van Wieran later told the story:
On the flight to St. Louis where they’d start the playoffs, Murphy walked to the front of the plane, he was just 26-years-old and tended not to a verbal leader. He stopped at the player in the first seat, and in front of the whole team and coaches, he recalled a play that player had made to win a game that season, and he said “That’s the one game we won the division by.” He went to the second player and remembered a play that that player had made to win a game and said “That’s the game we won the division by.” And he worked his way from front to back of the airplane, recalling a play that all 24 other players on the team made to win a game and showing how every single player from star to role player to backup, had made a key play or gotten a key hit at some point in the that helped that team win the NL West. That had led them to be on that flight to the playoffs together. He made everyone feel like an equal.
As I matured I learned not just what a great ballplayer Dale Murphy was, but what a good man he was, what a good father & husband he was. I have so many great memories of Murphy on the field — but that story of him on an airplane is my favorite.
John 15:13, my favorite verse, says “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” I’ve always interpreted that not just to mean literally, as Christ died for us, but figuratively, a man or woman who devotes their life to making their friends’ or neighbors’ lives better.
Phillipians 2:4 says “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
One of my favorite quotes comes from Paul Azinger, PGA golfer and cancer survivor in his biography, “It does not take a lot of money, knowledge or influence to be an encourager. It just takes someone who cares and has a sensitivity to the oppurtunities that surround us everyday.”
I love that quote, and that’s what Murphy did that afternoon flying to St. Louis. I think he knew he was providing motivation — conveying that he can’t do it alone, that everyone was needed to do their part if they were going to beat St. Louis and get to the World Series (they didn’t).
We all have chances to point out successes to friends, to family and to strangers. We have chances to give a helpful comment. We never know what small words of encouragement can make a big difference to people. And what small acknowledgements of successes can be just what someone needs to keep providing the effort above and beyond.
So I try to take that lesson that I learned through baseball, but that happened on an airplane, and be an encourager and be an acknowledger. And I thank my baseball hero for that.
What have others learned from heroes off the field?
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