Baseball '89 : A Preview : He's Back at Home Where He Belongs

Times Staff Writer

After 30 years and 6 months of operating a forklift for the Oriental Rug Company in East Los Angeles, Charles Murray is retired now.

"I had trouble with my feet," said Murray, 65, who left Mississippi in 1946 and still lives in the same house on 108th Street, between Avalon and San Pedro, in which he raised a family of 12 children.

"I worked every Saturday and most Sundays, too," Charles Murray said. " When I retired, my feet stopped hurting."

It hasn't been easy for a man who lost an eye when he was a boy of 11. He built a garden for a neighbor and when he went to get paid, a man twice his age tried to take some of Charles Murray's money. The man threw a staple at him, the kind they use to nail barbed wire fences with, and it had stuck in Charles Murray's eye.

But Charles Murray and his wife, Carrie Bell Murray, the bride he brought with him from Mississippi, carved a decent life for themselves and their children, seven daughters and five sons.

All of the Murray boys played baseball. One of Charles Murray's sons, Eddie Murray, made it to the big leagues.

"I tried my best," Charles Murray said. "We had lots of kids. I just saw to bringing up my kids without them being hungry. I think I did it, me and my wife. I did the work. She did the raising."

Four years ago, Carrie Bell Murray, died, leaving a void that her husband still feels today.

"She . . . it's still very difficult for me that she is gone," Charles Murray said. "When all of us were together, we were a happy home."

A couple of months after his wife died, his youngest daughter, Tanja, just a few days shy of her 20th birthday, died as well . . . of a broken heart, Charles Murray suspects.

"She loved her mama so much," Charles Murray said. "After Mama died, me and her were staying at home. Gosh, she'd come to the table and look out there and see the water dripping from my eyes onto the plate--gosh, I could hardly eat without that woman--and she'd say, 'Daddy, you're going to die. Mama's gone. Now try and get better.'

"Then she'd go in her room and close the door. She took ill, and then she just lay down and died. I worried for all my children, then."

But just as Charles Murray carried on, so did his other children.

And now, his son, Eddie, is coming back home, home to play first base for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

When the Dodgers play their first game of 1989 in Dodger Stadium, Charles Murray hopes to have a seat behind home plate, watching the team that he had embraced as his own from the time they moved to Los Angeles, 30 years ago, three years after the birth of his son, Eddie.

"When he's in town, he comes and sits with me, all day," Charles Murray said. "I'm proud of him then.

"I'm glad he's with the Dodgers. I hope he's satisfied. He looks like it. I hope he's real satisfied."

The Dodgers were not only satisfied, but ecstatic on a Sunday afternoon last December, when they acquired Murray from the Baltimore Orioles. For the price of a relief pitcher, Brian Holton; another pitcher who had failed to establish himself as a big leaguer, Ken Howell; and a 20-year-old prospective shortstop, Juan Bell, the Dodgers had acquired one of the most productive hitters of his generation.

The 1989 Elias Baseball Analyst, produced by the same numbers-crunchers who compile statistics for major league baseball, calls Murray the most underrated superstar in the game, and makes a forceful case.

Since Murray joined the Orioles in 1977, he has played in 1,820 games, the highest total in the majors in that time and 32 games more than his nearest competitor, Dave Winfield.

Over that same 12-year period, only three players have more runs batted in than Murray, who has 1,190 RBIs: Jim Rice, Winfield and Mike Schmidt. Only Schmidt (411) and Dale Murphy (334) have hit more home runs than Murray (333). And only Rice, of the hitters mentioned above, can match Murray's lifetime average of .295.

Consistency? Murray has never hit below .277, nor above .316, and his home run total--except for the strike season of 1981 and an injury-plagued 1986--has always ranged from 25 to 33.

But it is in the clutch that Murray has excelled. He has a lifetime average of .297 when hitting with runners in scoring position, and in a category created by Elias called Late Inning Pressure Situations with two outs and runners in scoring position, his average jumped to .378.

As one further barometer of his ability to hit under pressure, Elias cites his average when the bases are loaded: He is hitting .409 (61 for 149) with 14 grand slam home runs.

"When a game is on the line, there's no one I'd rather see up there," said Elrod Hendricks, who played with Murray and is now a coach with the Orioles, not to mention a close friend of the Dodger first baseman. "Even when he's not hitting, I want to see him, because he'll rise to the occasion.

"It got to the point where you just expected it. You took it for granted."

And the Dodgers can take it for granted, Hendricks predicts, that at age 33, Murray will continue to produce in similar fashion in the National League.

"When the leaves turn to brown," Hendricks said, "Eddie will be hitting between .295 and .300, 25 to 30 home runs, 90 to 100 RBIs. You can almost write it in now. If he stays healthy, he'll be right there."

This spring, the Orioles announced plans to retire Murray's number, 33, the one he wore for them in two World Series, 1979 and 1983. There was a time when the Orioles would have preferred Murray retire while in that uniform. No more.

The Eddie Murray who left Baltimore did not leave as a hero but as a player reviled in the media as an overpaid and overweight superstar, indifferent to the fortunes of his team, hypersensitive to criticism, and unapproachable in the public domain.

In the eyes of his detractors, the image that endures of Murray is not of his home run trot but of his pose at first base, arms crossed, scorn etched on his face.

"Do I think there was an attitude problem? Yes," said Jim Palmer, the Hall of Fame pitcher and one-time Murray teammate who is now a broadcaster.

"Baltimore is primarily a blue-collar town, but I don't think people resented Eddie's salary ($12.7 million over 5 years) until he started playing poorly.

"The Eddie Murray I perceived in the last two years was so different from the guy I played with. He may think he was the same player he was earlier in his career, but that isn't the way it was.

"When your team is losing 107 games and you're out there standing like this (Palmer folded his arms), what do you suppose people are thinking? It makes you an easy target. Eddie blames everything on the media, but scouts around the league were wondering if he still wanted to play. It wasn't just the media."

Palmer alluded to last season, when Murray was hitting just over .200 in June before rallying to finish with a .284 average, 28 home runs and 84 RBIs.

"Part of it is Eddie comes to spring training, has two miserable months, then four great months," Palmer said. "Maybe he wasn't prepared to play early. Which goes back to what did you do in the winter? Did you work out? Did you have your eyes checked?"

The Orioles had been suggesting for some time that Murray had a vision problem. But it wasn't until this spring with the Dodgers that he took to wearing contact lenses.

Palmer sympathized with Murray being caught in the Orioles' transition from proud franchise to the majors' biggest loser. "Don't get me wrong," Palmer said. "Eddie is a great guy, and he won a lot of ballgames for me."

But Palmer also faulted Murray for his inability or unwillingness to assume a leadership role on a team desperately in need of a leader.

"There's a point in your career where you become an elder statesman and have to assume some leadership," Palmer said. "Eddie didn't want that. And you have to expect some criticism. That's the real world."

Palmer said he repeated much the same words directly to Murray. "I told him at the wedding of Calvin Ripken Jr.," Palmer said. "I said, 'All anyone can ask you is to be the best player you can be.'

"Why was Kirk Gibson MVP last year? His numbers weren't as good as Darryl Strawberry's. It was his attitude.

"Don't get me wrong. Eddie's a Hall of Fame player. I know, from 1985 on, it wasn't fun for him to go to the ballpark. But the bottom line is, what have you done for me lately?

"At some point in his life I think he'll look back and say, 'I didn't handle that very well.' "

For example, Palmer said, Murray didn't help himself by dismissing the Orioles' gesture to retire his number.

"You don't have to burn bridges," Palmer said. "Why insult people?"

Palmer shrugged. "Maybe he thinks it won't come back to haunt him."

Beyond blaming his problems on the media, Murray refused to address the way his situation deteriorated in Baltimore. In fact, he affably declined the opportunity to discuss at length any aspect of his career, including the coming season with the Dodgers.

Murray, who has stopped talking altogether with the Baltimore-area media, generally has been cordial but guarded with reporters from Los Angeles. He engaged in a relaxed byplay with reporters after an exhibition game in Orlando, but made it clear he doesn't enjoy talking about himself.

"I get in trouble," he said, "trying to stay out of trouble."

His friends--such as Oriole coach Hendricks or Dodger catcher Rick Dempsey, who played 10 seasons with Murray in Baltimore--describe an intolerable set of circumstances for Murray in his last years with the Orioles.

The media made Murray a scapegoat for the Orioles' decline, Hendricks said.

"The new breed of reporters, they were either going to make him talk or run him out of town," Hendricks said. "Well, they ran him out of town. He got tired of it. He got tired of fighting it."

Murray also grew weary, Hendricks said, of a small but vocal section of fans that showered him with racial epithets nightly in Memorial Stadium.

"I knew a season-ticket holder there who said he was changing his seats because he was embarrassed to bring his sons to the game," Hendricks said.

"Eddie said he didn't mind the blue-collar guys, but these people were all in shirts, ties and jackets."

It hardly helped, of course, when the late Edward Bennett Williams, the noted attorney who owned the Orioles, publicly chided Murray for a lack of effort. Two days later, Murray asked to be traded, and it took months for relations to improve between the men.

"Eddie can carry a grudge with the best of them," Hendricks said.

But it was more than Williams' criticism that troubled Murray, according to Hendricks. Before signing his huge free-agent contract--at the time the biggest in baseball history--Williams had sought Murray's counsel on how to improve the ballclub.

Murray, believing Williams was at least making an effort in the right direction, re-signed with the Orioles, only to be disappointed by the absence of substantive moves designed to retool the Orioles.

"I think Eddie felt deceived," Hendricks said. "I realize people probably think, 'How can you sign for $2 million and feel deceived,' but Eddie has said he would have signed for less money to play for a winner. He had a lot of pride in the organization."

Dempsey bore first-hand witness to the Orioles' decline. It was not a pretty sight.

"Back in those days (after winning the World Series in 1983), they did a lot of window shopping," Dempsey said. "They saw something nice and bought it. They never looked for the quality kind of players the Orioles were used to having.

"The attitudes of a lot of people, myself included, changed. You suddenly started hearing things about people saying stuff behind your back, making up stories about you. You found yourself coming into the clubhouse to defend yourself every day.

"We were a great, great team, a great organization, and in the course of a year or two, it was destroyed. Totally destroyed. It affected Eddie, it affected me, it affected a lot of others."

But too many fingers were pointed at Murray, Dempsey contends.

"Eddie always has been a very strong personality on the team, he was a quiet leader, he did all the intangible things, but they took the heart right out of the game for him," Dempsey said. "And that gave him a bad attitude.

"Then they put too many expectations on him as a leader. It was like if he became a leader, it would change the organization around and they'd start winning miraculously.

"After a while he didn't care, and he made it clear they didn't want him to be there anymore."

Hendricks said that when people criticized Murray, they failed to mention he played with a sore hand last season, or inflamed bunions on his toes in 1986. They talked about his refusal to wear glasses, but they didn't mention how Murray was struck in the left eye by a bad-hop ground ball struck by George Brett of the Royals a few years ago.

"He tried glasses once," Hendricks said. "I hit him a ground ball and he flinched, he got out of the way. He put those glasses in his pocket.

"I used to say, 'Eddie, think what kind of hitter you'd be with two good eyes.' He'd say to me, 'Probably the same.' "

There is an Eddie Murray the public rarely sees, Hendricks said. The Murray who donates enormous amounts of money to charity--he gave $500,000 to establish an 'Outward Bound' camp in his late mother's name--who spends much of his time with children, who would prefer to be thought of as "Just Regular," the words etched in gold on the chain he wears around his neck.

"He doesn't want to be a superstar," Hendricks said. "He doesn't carry himself like a superstar, like he's better than anyone else. He just would like to do his job and go home."

The week after Murray was traded, Hendricks said, the coach's oldest son, Ryan, took it hard. "He was evil," Hendricks said with a laugh. "He took to wearing a Dodger cap to school."

But if the Orioles are sorry to see him go, their farewells are muted.

"I don't want to talk about Eddie," Frank Robinson, the Orioles manager, said. "No. Eddie is gone.

"No, you don't forget someone who's given you 12 years, but life goes on. I'm more concerned with the 1989 season and the personnel I have here."

Robinson said the trade with the Dodgers probably was mutually beneficial for Murray and the Orioles.

"Sometimes you owe it to a veteran player to move him on, give him a chance to go to a ballclub with a chance to win," Robinson said.

"When a player is used to winning, a winning situation, it's very difficult to perform on a ballclub such as this, where there is no relief in sight, when it may be three, four, five years before the team is good again. It's better to move such players on. They'll play with more enthusiasm and drive.

"Sometimes a player may think he's playing as hard as he can, but maybe they're not giving that extra 10%. A young player will do that for you."

Will Eddie Murray meet his father's fondest hope and find satisfaction in Los Angeles? Both his admirers and detractors seem to be agreed: Yes, he can--and will.

Jim Palmer: "The bottom line is he can still play. I call the trade The Giveaway. He's exactly what the Dodgers needed.

"I think he'll find it a little harder to hit in the National League, because of the size of the ballparks and the way they pitch around guys. Unless Eddie has a miserable year, they're going to make Mike Marshall beat them.

"I'm happy Eddie's not in Baltimore anymore. He won't have to take the abuse. And the people from L.A. will love him."

Elrod Hendricks: "Eddie always told me he came into the game as a winner and wants to leave the game as a winner. He never wanted to be known as a player who went out a loser.

"You could never get enough (in a trade) for Eddie Murray, I don't give a damn, unless you got a Mattingly in return or a Will Clark or a Jose Canseco. You could never get enough for Eddie. I think in the long run, I think the young players we got will help us, but trying to replace Eddie Murray is like trying to replace a Frank Robinson."

Frank Robinson: "I have no idea how he's going to respond, but he's a hell of a player, both offensively and defensively. I don't see why people think he may be over the hill. He's at his peak."

Rick Dempsey: "I think he's going to have a great year. Tommy (Lasorda) will let Eddie be Eddie. Eddie can do what he wants to do as long as he comes every day and produces.

"He's already proven he's good in the clubhouse with the rest of the players, that he's a good team man. That's all Tommy cares about, that he's a good team player who works as hard as he can.

"I think Eddie is in prime time, and will be for another five or six years."

Charles Murray remembers another prime time, when Eddie Murray was a kid playing baseball in a park in Watts and his brother, Venice, who lives with Eddie now, was on the same team. When Venice pitched, Eddie caught. When Eddie pitched, Venice caught.

Charles Murray chuckles at the memory. "The boys' coach, Calvin Preelow, would tell me, 'Can't anybody beat us, Mr. Murray, between your two boys.' They'd strike out 16 batters a game. Eddie threw like Sandy Koufax. He threw that ball high and it would break down low."

Now Eddie's coming home, and Charles Murray can't wait to welcome him back. There's an empty chair beside him.

"I be proud of him," Charles Murray said. "I'm proud of all my children."

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