Fans delight as Murray and bat come full circle

This Just In. . .

August 23, 1996|By DAN RODRICKS

The circle, small and intense -- as intense as ever -- appears in the air above Eddie Murray's right shoulder. It's the circle made by the play of the bat in his hands, and anyone who has ever watched Murray in the batter's box -- with men on base, the most exciting moment in any given game -- knows this detail. It's familiar, that little circle, and one of the things that makes Murray's return to the Orioles so grand.

In fact, it's all familiar. When Murray steps into the box, he takes that wide stance of his, then crouches, then reaches with his bat to tap a spot in the dirt just above the outside corner of the plate. He measures his swing with two strong, finite strokes. Then he rocks at the knees a little, rolls his hips a little, then pulls his hands back. He spreads and closes his fingers, then etches those tight circles with the bat.

In that small space -- maybe 4 or 5 inches in diameter -- are immeasurable kilowatts of energy that fairly sizzle in the bright light of home plate. You can almost see the molecules swirling over Murray's shoulder. Trust me on this. Great Britain has crop circles. Camden Yards has Eddie circles.

Just as Memorial Stadium once did.

No one who was there will forget the muggy night in June 1979 when Murray made the circles with his bat, then unleashed a swing against a John Hiller pitch. Hiller was Detroit's bullpen ace. Murray came up in the bottom of the ninth, two men on. His three-run home run gave the Orioles the first game of a doubleheader. They won the second game with an eighth-inning pinch single by Terry Crowley. (And they had won the night before with a sudden-death home run by Doug DeCinces.) That was the weekend Orioles Magic was born. The feeling in the city was something seismic. Eddie Murray, then 23 years old, was right in the middle of it.

The other night in Camden Yards, now 40 years old and back from exile with three other teams, Murray was batting DH for a born-again contender. He still made the circles with his bat. And I swear I saw the blur of molecules. Trust me. My brother's a chemist and I aced high school physics. I know Eddie Circles when I see 'em.

Murray came up in the first inning against Mariners left-hander Sterling Hitchcock (next to Heathcliff Slocumb, the best name in the American League). Rafael Palmeiro was on second, Bobby Bonilla on first. I told the 6-year-old seated next to me to look up from his Italian sausage for a minute. Eddie Murray was batting. Not Cal. Eddie Murray. Eddie with men on.

Through most of his years in both leagues, Murray has batted .375 with men on. With three men on, he's hit a home run 18 times. He's had more than 3,000 hits, and more than 1,000 of them for extra bases. He's headed for 500 home runs.

And here's another number to consider: Take away the two times in his career Murray was on the disabled list for an extended period (25 days in both 1986 and 1995) and the man has played in 97 percent of all the games to which he was invited. No wonder Cal mentioned him as a role model when he set the Iron Man record last year.

So, back to Wednesday night, and Murray's first at-bat.

He's crouching in the batter's box on the right of home plate, down in the bottom of this caldron of sound made by 47,000 renewed-by-a-pennant-race fans. I'm thinking: How many times over 20 years has this guy been here? Men on base, crowd screaming, bat in his hands, little circles in the air. Eddie. ED-DIE! Eddie with men on. It's what I'd order for my last meal: A bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, a bottle of red wine and a big-screen TV with Eddie up and men on.

Wednesday night, he takes the first pitch from Hitchcock. Strike one.

He pulls back from the second pitch, which almost hits him. Ball one.

He swings at the third, a big curve, and misses.

Between each pitch, Murray follows the same drill: Taps the ground with the bat, swings twice, pulls the bat back, rocks at the knees, makes the little circles.

The next pitch arrives. Murray swings and the ball slices through the infield and into left. Palmeiro scores. The crowd roars. The Orioles take a 2-1 lead.

Murray had delivered again -- not a home run, simply a hit with men on. That the 6-year-old seated next to me gets to see this is a beautiful thing.

"I hope the people who played against me knew that I was someone who wanted to be in the game-winning situation, that I was someone who wanted to be there when the game was on the line," Murray tells Peter Pascarelli in the latest issue of USA Today's Baseball Weekly. "Because if there's one thing about my career I can look back on now, it's that I'm proudest about being able to produce in the most crucial situations.

"All the other stuff, I never can control. But the one thing I have always been able to control is how I play the game."

Everyone in Baltimore knows what Murray means by "all the other stuff." All the other stuff doesn't seem to much matter anymore. The Orioles are contending. It's August. It's hot. It's hazy. It's humid. We're in Baltimore. Eddie Murray is in the lineup, making those small circles with his bat.

Pub Date: 8/23/96

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