Is best (and third MVP award) yet to come for Dale Murphy?

Even most members of baseball's Hall of Fame, including such names as Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Jackie Robinson, and Brooks Robinson, never collected more than one Most Valuable Player award in their entire careers.

What triggered this observation is that outfielder Dale Murphy of the Atlanta Braves will be going for an unprecedented third consecutive National League MVP award this season.

In winning the honor the past two years, Murphy has amassed hitting totals that include 72 homers and 230 runs batted in. On 183 separate occasions opposing pitchers, either by trying to work too carefully against him or on orders from their managers, have surrendered first base to Dale by walking him.

What people want to know is if Murphy can accomplish the three-in-a-row feat that has eluded every player in either league who ever had a shot at it - a list including Jimmie Foxx (1932-33), Hal Newhouser (1944-45), Yogi Berra (1954-55), Mickey Mantle (1956-57), and Roger Maris (1960-61) in the American League as well as National Leaguers Ernie Banks (1958-59), Joe Morgan (1975-76), and Mike Schmidt (1980-81).

''You look at Dale's stats for the past two years and you figure maybe there isn't that much room left in which he can expand his talent,'' explained Hall of Fame member Luke Appling, who is a special batting instructor for the Braves during spring training. ''But to me he's still an open-end kid as far as potential goes because he's never been a very disciplined hitter.

''It's tough for free swingers like Murphy because it usually takes them longer to learn bat control than someone with a short swing, like Bob Horner,'' Appling continued. ''Murphy is like a lot of kids today. He got rushed into the majors when he was 20, before he really had a chance to learn his trade, but stayed because he could hit well enough to play every day. But you'll notice that the Braves tried him at two different positions, catcher and first base, before they realized what they had was the makings of an all-star center fielder.

''I'm not knocking the kid, understand, but he still swings at too many bad pitches. I've tutored him on and off since he came up and he's a hard worker. If he can't pull the ball, he'll go with the pitch, which is smart, and he also has the power to hit home runs to the opposite field. But he can be a lot better hitter than he is right now, and I think he knows this.''

There is nothing fake or phony about the 28-year-old Murphy, whose positive attitude, strong family ties, and Golden Rule lifestyle make a strong impression on all observers. His teammates like to kid him about one thing, though - and that is his tremendous appetite. Dale never saw a donut he didn't like!

During his early years in the minor leagues, Murphy counseled with elders of the Mormon Church about quitting baseball for the equivalent of two seasons while he did missionary work, probably in a foreign country.

''Church officials and I talked this situation over and decided that for me to take two seasons away from the kind of athletic career that is never very long anyway would be a mistake,'' Murphy said. ''But we also agreed that instead of me giving up my obligation to the church entirely, I'd simply postpone it until later. My wife and I have since discussed this and have decided that once our family has grown up we'll probably do our missionary work together.''

While Murphy would obviously be pleased to join Foxx, Berra, Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, and Roy Campanella in the select group of players who have won three MVP awards in a career (no one has ever won four), what he will actually be striving for is another solid year based on consistency, not flash.

''I think if you're going to get anywhere in this world, you have to set goals for yourself,'' Dale explained. ''That way you're always reaching out for something positive. Even with the success I've had as a hitter, I don't really feel I understand all I need to know about adjusting between pitches.''

Although Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium is considered a hitter's ballpark, the right-handed batting Murphy actually produced more home runs on the road (19) last season than he hit at home (17).

''I think the explanation is that pitchers have become so aware of how much damage Murphy can do to them in Atlanta Stadium that they have learned to be extra careful against him there,'' Appling said. ''On the road - well, you have to figure that almost any pitcher feels more confident in his own ballpark.''

Lest anyone get the idea that Murphy is strictly a one-dimensional ballplayer , Dale has also saved a number of games over the past two years with his defense. There aren't many balls he can't track down, and runners have learned to respect his rifle throwing arm.

Still the thing that has won Murphy his headlines is his robust hitting, plus a consistency that only the great ones are able to maintain.

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