A man walked into my office Wednesday night and asked, "Is it too late to give you a small check for Children's Hospital?"

"It's never too late to help needy children," I said.

The man sat down across the desk from me to write a check. "Just make it to Children's Hospital?" he asked.

"Right."

He filled in the date. Then "Children's Hospital." Then he began filling in the middle line.

Having worked with printers for years, I read as well upside down as I do right side up. "Hey," I said, "you wrote 'five hundred' instead of 'five.'"

"Yeah, I know," he said.

He hesitated for a few moments. Then he said, "Say, you don't suppose you could write me out a receipt for this, could you?"

"Yeah, I guess so. But what do you need a receipt for? Your canceled check will be your receipt."

"I have to show it to a guy at 10 o'clock tomorrow morning."

"What guy?"

"A judge."

"A judge? Look, buddy, suppose you just back up to the beginning and tell me what's going on here."

He looked down at his shoes. Then he said, "Remember last fall when they raided that restaruant and picked up some guys making football bets?"

"Yes," I said, "vaguely."

"I was one of them," he said. "I pleaded guilty and the judge said $500 fine -- or, if you want to, you can give the money to charity. I figured there's no use paying it into the city's treasury and letting the bureaucrats skim off something for themselves before they dole out the rest of it. I might as well make sure all of it goes for a good purpose. So how about giving me a receipt I can show the judge tomorrow."

I picked up a pen and a pad of paper. "Who's the judge?" I asked.

"Murphy."

"Tim Murphy?"

"Yeah."

I had to smile. "I might have known," I said. Except for being a Marine hero, a brilliant lawyer, an effective prosecutor, a dedicated public servant, a human being with a conscience, and an all-around nice person, Tim Murphy is just your average run-of-the-mill judge. I love him.

After my visitor left, I phoned Judge Murphy's home. "I apologize for bothering you at home, sir," I said, "but I must check out some facts."

As I told him about my visitor, I could sense there was a big, Irish grin on Murphy's face.

When I finished, he said, "Your facts are correct. I'm glad he elected to give the money to the children. He looked like the kind of man who would do the right thing."

"Do you use this sort of sentence very often, sir?"

"Only when it appears to be appropriate," Murphy said. "It works well in cases in which the defendant doesn't really perceive himself to be a criminal. He's an ordinary citizen, holds an honest job, has no criminal record -- he just happened to do something that's illegal, and he doesn't try to lie his way out of it. He says, 'You're right, I did it, I'm sorry.' And that's it. I find that in many of these cases it makes the defendant feel better about himself and about the way our system of justice works if he can come out of the experience with a positive feeling rather than a negative feeling."

"You really think it works out well?"

"Definitely. We also do well in more serious offenses, where money fines aren't enough. Instead of sending the man to jail, we sometimes give him the alternative of an appropriate amount of community service -- volunteer work. But there we must be more careful. We must be sure we use that program only for people who fit it well -- people who have clean records but make one foolish mistake, people who are stable enough to do good volunteer work, and will benefit themselves as well as the community."

"Back in the days when you were a d.a., how would you have felt if you had won a conviction and the judge let the guy off with 'community service'?"

"The same as I feel now. I don't want to get revenge against a person who made one foolish mistake. I want to help him and help the community -- if it's the kind of case in which that kind of procedure can work."

"What's your batting average with the community service sentences?"

"I'd say it's very good. Out of about 375 cases last year, we had 11 failures. What does that figure out to?"

"That's about 34 hits out of each 35 times at bat, your honor," I said. "Before I put it in the paper, I'll figure it out accurately."

I would therefore like the record to show that Murphy's Law has a batting average of .971 -- and if you know anybody who hits for a better average than that, please tell me about him. I'll get Bowie Kuhn to come watch him the next time he plays, even if it's in Atlanta.