The only thing I know for sure about sluggers Bob Horner and Dale Murphy of the Atlanta Braves is that, if you're a pitcher, you try to keep the baseball out of their kitchen. Otherwise you're in for an early shower.
Kitchen is a baseball colloquialism that identifies the stomach or strike area where most home-run hitters generate the bulk of their power. Last year Horner and Murphy combined for a total of 68 home runs, making them one of the top one-two punches in the major leagues.
What makes Horner (35 homers) and Murphy (33) especially valuable is that they are both under 26 years of age, were born able to hit the breaking ball, and have all of their best years ahead of them. Dale can play any of the outfield positions, plus first base. And while Bob may never be a Gold Glover at third, he is no butcher in the field.
Horner, despite a frame that is listed as 6ft. 1in., is built like a bank vault. His shoulders suggest the roof spars in an old railroad pullman, all wide receivers should have hands his size, and when it comes to crowding the plate against pitchers who come inside with the ball, there are few with more courage.
It's senseless to talk hitting with Bob because guys with perfect swings like his only come along once every 20 years. They can't tell you how they do it because with them it's all feel, and eyes, and instinct. Horner has his own strike zone, which might be a trifle larger than those of most major leaguers, except when you've got his kind of wrist action you can get away with it.
In what might be described as parts of three big league seasons (his tops in games played so far is 124 in 1980), Bob has hit 91 home runs, while also hitting for average.
Murphy is one of those kids who looks as though he had been stamped out by a machine designed to manufacture .300 hitters for the big leagues. There isn't an ounce of excess weight on him. He's 6-5, 215-pounds, and much quicker and faster than a man his size is expected to be.
Pitchers who get the ball up against Dale, provided they turn around quickly enough, can follow their mistakes all the way into the outfield bleachers. And Dale is an equal opportunity destroyer, although the Chicago Cubs (against whom he had five homers and 18 RBIs in 12 games last year) might think he was just picking on them.
When the Braves promoted Murphy out of their minor league farm system in 1978 , they had him listed as a catcher. They thought he'd make a great target behind home plate until they saw him run, hit with power, and take a few balls in the outfield during pregame practice.
So to take a load off his legs and make him last longer, the Braves shifted Dale to first base and then the outfield. So far he's been named to the National League All-Star squad just once, but don't be surprised if that once someday becomes double figures.
Horner and Murphy, plus several other young players with exceptional potential, have the rest of the National League paying extra attention to Atlanta this season.
Opposing managers aren't quite sure if the Braves, as a team, have blossomed, are about to blossom, or are still a year or two away from being bona fide contenders. But Atlanta's 81-80 won-lost record last season was the best by a Braves team since 1974.
Manager Bobby Cox has an outstanding infield with Chris Chambliss at first base, Glenn Hubbard at second, Horner at third, and Rafael Ramirez at shortstop. Ramirez and Hubbard are probably as quick as any two middle infielders in the league at making the double play.
Murphy could play centerfield and hit third, fourth, or fifth for any team. Free agent Claudell Washington plays right field, with rookie Terry Harper in left. And few big league teams have a better young catcher than 25-year-old Bruce Benedict, who improved his batting average by 28 points last season.
Where the Braves look suspect is on the mound, where Gaylord Perry is 42, Phil Niekro 41, and John Montefusco is trying to show he can pitch in a regular rotation again after two depression years with the San Francisco Giants. However, Tommy Rogers has proved that he can win as a starter, Bob Walk was acquired from Philadelphia, and the Braves do have an impressive bullpen in Rick Camp, Gene Garber, and Al Hrabosky.
"I know we've improved our team balance since last season," Cox said, "and balance is what wins pennants --balance and playing at least .500 ball on the road."