Murray's return to glory feels O so right

August 20, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

This is the way it was supposed to be. Eddie Murray finishing his career in an Orioles uniform. Hitting his 500th homer in Baltimore. Leading the Orioles back to glory.

Each of those things is possible now, and it just feels so right. This is the sweetest of closures, the logical climax to a storied career, a fitting restoration of one of the Orioles' all-time greats.

"It's certainly the romantic side of baseball," said Murray's longtime friend, Charles Steinberg, a former Orioles official who is now a vice president with the San Diego Padres.

"For Eddie to come back to Baltimore and hopefully hit that 500th home run there, it's not only the way we all thought it should be, but I believe deep in his heart, the way he always thought it should be."

So, maybe everything happened for a reason. Maybe the eight-year separation was best for all parties. Maybe Murray had to leave to better appreciate what he had, and for us to better appreciate him.

Amazing how the sports world turns, isn't it? In a season when Orioles management has questioned Cal Ripken's leadership ability and willingness to sacrifice for the team, the good-guy savior of the Orioles is . . . Ed-die!

Could it be that everyone had them mixed up all along? Well, nothing is ever that simple. Cal couldn't have been as good as his image. Eddie couldn't have been as bad as his.

Still, it's fascinating that Murray has been on the team only four weeks, and he's already perceived as the Orioles' unifying force, if not their outright leader.

He has made a difference.

A huge difference.

A difference that begs forgiveness for the past, and stirs excitement for the immediate future.

Tonight the Orioles begin a nine-game homestand with Murray two homers short of 500 and the gap to the first-place New York Yankees only six games.

What we're talking about -- potentially -- is one of the greatest comebacks in major-league history. The Orioles were 12 games out on July 30. Only seven teams have rallied from that large a deficit to win a division or pennant.

That group includes the 1995 Mariners, the 1978 Yankees and the 1914 Miracle Braves. The Orioles' bullpen probably isn't good enough for this team to reach that level. But if Murray can make this positive an impact, who can predict what will happen next?

"We noticed it right away in the booth -- the pitchers, everyone -- they're gravitating to him more," said HTS announcer Mike Flanagan, a former teammate of Murray's with the Orioles.

"Maybe it's because of the respect from other players, which he probably has more of than he had earlier in his career. They feel they only have limited time with Eddie."

Murray, 40, is a free agent after this season. Owner Peter Angelos almost certainly will want to re-sign him, but it is in Murray's best interest to make himself as valuable as possible, both on and off the field.

Then again, this is the approach he took in his first decade with the Orioles -- before his relationship with late owner Edward Bennett Williams, former general manager Hank Peters, the fans and media soured.

"Most times, he was just talking out loud in the dugout, not speaking to somebody or lecturing somebody," Flanagan said. "But he'd let you know what he was thinking."

And now?

"I don't think it's a conscious effort [on Murray's part]," Flanagan said. "I asked Eddie. He said, 'I sit down, they sit down next to me.' "

Murray even talks to Manny Alexander, a relative outcast in the Orioles clubhouse. Obviously, Murray is not a cancer, as was once written here. He never has been when playing for a winning team.

His problems in Baltimore began when Williams criticized him in 1986, expressing disappointment over the first baseman's play and refusal to participate in an off-season conditioning program.

Two days later, Murray requested a trade, and though Williams later apologized for his "careless remarks," nothing ever was the same.

Murray appeared to play by his own rules, reporting to spring training late, refusing to weigh in with his teammates, exhibiting a certain lethargy on the field. By the end of 1988, he needed a change, and so did the team.

Almost a decade later, who remembers all the details?

Who cares?

No one asks if Murray needs glasses anymore. No one recalls that he once criticized fans for turning Memorial Stadium into "an ugly place." And no one gives a hoot about his stormy relationship with the local media, either.

It was a big deal mainly because Eddie made it a big deal, questioning reporters' motives, refusing to talk his first day with the Dodgers with a Baltimore writer present, even threatening lawsuits.

Was it worth all the trouble?

Murray's preoccupation with the media diminished him, overshadowed the good that he did on and off the field, damaged his relationship with the fans. These days, he talks when it suits him. That's all anyone ever asked.

The feud with EBW, the questions about his attitude, the war with the media -- it's so much ancient history. Few expected Murray would play until he was 40, much less continue as a productive hitter. In '88, some even believed he was nearing the end of his career.

Yet here he is, two homers away from 500. When Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record last season, the Orioles were out of contention. When Murray reaches his milestone, it could help them win a pivotal game.

"He felt his days were numbered in Cleveland -- he'd try to hit his 500th homer, then walk off into the sunset," Flanagan said. "He admitted maybe the fire was going out -- the fire in the belly everyone talks about. It certainly has been rekindled. He wants to play."

He's in the city where it all started, the city he never should have left, the city where he always belonged.

It just feels right.

Pub Date: 8/20/96

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.