ATLANTA - A suited-up Dale Murphy walks across the grass to greet a fan. "I'm so proud of you!" exclaims Russell Funk of Columbus. "You're my son's hero! Congratulations!"
It is a reaction Murphy has seen many times walking off a baseball field. On this day, he is crossing the lawn of the Atlanta Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His suit comes with wingtips, not cleats. His walk is a little stiff-kneed. But the blue eyes still flash and the face still looks as clean-cut and boyish as a Mama's dream.
He is making one of his frequent visits to Atlanta as a leader in his church and a legend in the stadium. Funk, at the temple for a family wedding, is commending Murphy not on a hit or even a successful baseball career, but on his most recent vocation. As of July, he is in charge of missionaries in the Boston area for the Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormons.
Murphy, 41, who played for the Braves from 1976 until 1990 before being traded to Philadelphia, then the Colorado Rockies, came to his new calling via his old one. He was young and green and playing for a now- defunct Braves farm team in Greenwood, S.C., when he began talking about God and the meaning of life with fellow player Barry Bonnell. During long rides on the team bus, Bonnell described his beliefs.
Murphy was 19, a continent away from his Portland, Ore., home and his Presbyterian parents.
"I really enjoyed my conversations with Barry - his feelings, his explanation of Christianity," says Murphy. "He was really exemplary in his life. His example to me and the things he was telling me just felt right."
Eventually Bonnell visited Murphy with a couple of missionaries from the church, and he made a commitment to be baptized.
"As I read the Book of Mormon, I felt it was the Word of God, exactly like the Bible," Murphy said. "We believe - we know - that this is the church of Jesus Christ organized here on Earth as it was at the time of Christ through Joseph Smith."
Attending Brigham Young University in Utah during baseball's off-season, Murphy met his wife, Nancy. They were married 18 years ago in the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, having their marriage "sealed" by the church to last through eternity, according to Mormon custom. Also according to the Mormon custom of large families, they have eight children - seven boys and a girl.
Their family life is structured around church teachings. The children attend both religious school and secular school. The Murphys keep the church tradition of "family home night," customarily on Monday, when Mormon parents and children are supposed to spend time together in reflection or recreation.
"Sometimes we go somewhere together. Sometimes we have a lesson that is organized. Sometimes it's a family meeting to make some decision," Murphy said. "We always make sure we have the most important thing - Rice Krispie treats."
With a house full of children with full schedules, "it's a challenge" to set aside time for family, Murphy said. But in the Mormon- heavy atmosphere of the family home outside Salt Lake City, where they lived until moving to Boston, few extracurricular activities were scheduled on Mondays.
Although some Christian groups regard the Latter-day Saints as a cult, Murphy said he has "always felt respected" for his religious beliefs both by fellow players and fans.
"I think the main thing about that was that the guys knew it was a serious part of my life," he said. "I did my best to live it."
Murphy has held several jobs or "callings" in the church. He taught religious school in Roswell. He served as a bishop, or leader of a congregation, in Utah. In Boston, he will oversee the training and work of the young missionaries in Massachusetts fulfilling the church's expectation that young men spend two years and young women spend 18 months in church service after their 19th or 21st birthdays, respectively.
Murphy's assignment to Boston came from Latter-day Saints President Gordon Hinckley. In the church Hinckley, as First President, is regarded as a prophet who receives revelation from God to lead the church.
"In essence," Murphy says, the assignment "came from the Lord. Ultimately we feel it's a call from God to preach the Gospel."