Murray's Election Is a Reason to Be Noisy

Washington Post

What you'll hear over and over about Eddie Murray, who made the Hall of Fame on the first ballot Tuesday, is that he seldom talked to the media and, though revered by teammates, was usually a mystery to anyone beyond his family and friends.

Unfortunately, this cloak of no-comment silence will be doubly dense now because Murray spent his day of glory Tuesday at the funeral of his younger sister, Tanya.

"Although I dedicated my professional career to the game, I have dedicated my life to my family," said Murray, part of a close-knit family of 12, in a statement. "The elation I feel by being recognized for my achievements on the field is overshadowed by the anguish of losing someone so dear to me."

To those who know Murray, there's some anguish in the fact that he's so little understood, especially on his Hall of Fame day.

"It saddens me that there's this perception of him that's just not accurate," Cal Ripken Jr. said Tuesday. "To this day, Eddie has the biggest heart of any of my friends. He's always been fun to be around. He's got a great sense of humor. When I was a young player, he loosened me up and helped me be accepted by the team. And he's the best teammate I ever had to go side-by-side into battle."

Many in baseball, as well as fans, probably have Murray pegged wrong -- as a grouch or loner. Since he, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron are the only players with 500 homers and 3,000 hits, that's a fairly large oversight. I talked to Murray a lot his first 12 seasons. Granted, he didn't always answer, but he often did. And it was always a pleasure and often an education.

Since you knew you weren't going to get much out of Eddie, you could agitate him the same way he loved to needle others.

"Did you make this ballclub again?" I asked one Opening Day.

"He is this ballclub," said Scott McGregor.

From '77 through '88, even when he overlapped the end of Jim Palmer's career or the beginning of Ripken's, that was true.

To appreciate Murray, you had to understand one source of his silence. He'd learned painful lessons from watching his four older brothers, all of whom signed pro contracts, but none of whom made it in the majors. So Murray saw pitfalls everywhere. Quotes, since he was blunt and proud by nature, could only hurt him.

None of the strictly raised Murrays were troublemakers, but injuries dogged some. One clashed with a manager, another hit 37 homers in a season but quit because he didn't move up fast enough. "Some people just got to get hurt. You can see it. They either run into walls on the field, or they run into 'em off it. The easy way is the only way. Avoid problems," said Murray, who earned his nickname, Easy Eddie, every day.

"You've got to push things away that upset you and keep you from your goal. It almost happened to me. I got mad the year I wasn't sent up to AAA," said Murray. "It was hard to swallow, 'cause it's your pride. But sometimes you've got to swallow. If you get on the club's bad foot, that's the beginning of the end."

Murray might have spent all of his 21 seasons with the Orioles, like Ripken, if he hadn't broken his own rule. Murray got into a petty spat, some of it public, with an owner. Attitudes soured. Once on "the bad foot," he ended up being traded for Brian Holton, Ken Howell and Juan Bell.

So Murray became a bat for hire, hitting .330 for the Dodgers, driving in 100 runs for the Mets and batting .323 for the Indians as they reached the '95 World Series. But leaving the Orioles, his baseball family, curdled something in him. Those first 12 years, he hid his joy -- but it was there. After that, you never knew for sure.

"I'm not into publicity. Some need it. Some don't," he said after signing his first huge contract. "I'm not wild about the money, either ... but if it's playing baseball you're talking about, I don't know how I could be having any more fun."

That's the young, mischievous, unselfish Murray I choose to remember, rather than the more somber, sensible, later version. And that's the Murray who, in those dozen years in an Orioles uniform, did most of the work that put him in the Hall of Fame.

On a team of baseball thinkers, taught by Earl Weaver, no student was more analytical than Murray, who had a passion for both theory and detail. At the plate, for example, he had seven distinct batting stances -- three right-handed and four left-handed.

"I've changed stances three times on three pitches," he'd say. "Every pitcher has a different windup and release point, so why should you have just one stance for all of them? I keep changing until I find something that feels comfortable against that pitcher."

Because Murray was perhaps the most team-oriented hitting star of his period, he constantly focused on methods to become better in late-game clutch situations against the toughest pitchers. In batting practice, Murray often took awful swings. Why? Because he practiced hitting bad pitches. "I know how to hit a fastball down the middle over the right field fence. Why practice that?" he said. Instead, Murray mastered fouling off tough pitches with a swing he called "The Flick" and guiding in ugly hits.

Once, after an opposite-field bloop double had put yet another game-winning RBI in what became known as The Murray Column, a coach said, "You must be the luckiest hitter who ever lived." Murray shot back, "You must not watch batting practice."

For the first nine years of his career, Murray got slightly better every year. Not in one statistic, but in everything put together, including his fielding, which went from nondescript to three Gold Gloves. "Maybe Eddie's learning more about them than they're learning about Eddie," summarized Weaver.

For the Orioles, those were the days. As Murray once said, his guard down for instant, "Why depend on anybody else in the clutch? I'm here." And it seemed like he always was.

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