October rebound revealed Murray's greatness

October 12, 2003|By Raymond Daniel Burke

ANOTHER BASEBALL season ends without the Orioles even catching an aroma of postseason possibility. So while this year's October drama plays out on late-night television, we are left with only memories of the exhilaration derived from having a personal investment in playoff anxiety, pain and glory.

My bout with nostalgia this year is prompted by the recent induction of Eddie Murray into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and that he's being seriously considered to replace Mike Hargrove as the O's next manager. It is the story of two Baltimore Octobers that marked a journey from loss to redemption.

In 1979, Eddie Murray was in his third season with the Baltimore Orioles and a rising star in the American League. When the team reached its fifth World Series that year of "Oriole Magic," the young first baseman found himself on the national stage.

The series with the Pittsburgh Pirates, marked throughout by rain, snow and December-like temperatures, opened with an Oriole victory after a one-night postponement in wet and cold Memorial Stadium. In Game 2, the Orioles trailed 2-0 when Murray led off the second inning by sending a 1-1 pitch down the right-field line, where it found the seats above the green concrete wall for a home run. In the sixth inning, it was Murray's double into left-center that tied the game.

The score remained tied as the steady rain became a downpour. In the top of the ninth, with Pirate runners on first and second and two out, pinch-hitter Manny Sanguillen, lined a single to right in front of a charging Ken Singleton, who extracted the ball from the mud on one hop and rifled a throw home. As Pirate catcher Ed Ott chugged around third, the crowd let out a palpable collective gasp when Murray cut off the throw, wheeled and threw home himself. His relay was an instant late, as Ott scored what proved to be the winning run, tying the series at a game each.

Murray's 3-for-3 night and two RBIs would be lost amid repeated questions from the media about his reasons for the cutoff. Simultaneously, members of Murray's family became the target of unwarranted accusations in the national press.

The impact of the harsh glare of the spotlight showed. While the Orioles would win the next two games in Pittsburgh to take a 3-1 series lead, Murray would go hitless in nine at-bats. In the Pirates' Game 5 victory that sent the series back to Baltimore, he extended that hitless streak to 13.

With the Orioles needing a hero to clinch the series at home, Murray went 0-for-4 in a Game 6 loss, and was 0-for-3 in Game 7 when he came to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded in the eighth and the Orioles trailing 2-1. Memorial Stadium seemed to vacillate between exhorting cheers and collective prayer. The crowd rose in anticipation as Murray connected, then quietly fell back in their seats as his fly-out to deep right sealed the bitter loss of a championship that had slipped away.

Four seasons later, in 1983, Murray was an established star and the Orioles were back in the World Series, this time against the star-studded Philadelphia Phillies. Like 1979, the Orioles would split the first two games at Memorial Stadium and then win the next two on the road for a 3-1 series lead.

Murray had not been a factor in the first four games and faced repeated questions about his primetime slump, finding himself referred to in some quarters as "Miss October." The fans in Philadelphia greeted his plate appearances with a derisive version of Baltimore's "Ed-die, Ed-die" chant.

References to the 1979 collapse were everywhere as the teams took the field for Game 5. It was here that Murray graduated into greatness. Leading off the second inning of a scoreless game, Murray blasted a fastball deep into the right-field seats. In the fourth, he smashed a monstrous two-run homer that struck the scoreboard just above the listing of his name.

Eddie Murray had taken it upon himself to see to it that the Phillies were finished and that bitter taste of 1979 had been buried.

The celebration in Baltimore, postponed four years, would last through the night and the following day. And Eddie Murray had become much more than a collection of star-quality statistics. In bringing the city its painfully delayed trophy, he had himself become a true champion.

Raymond Daniel Burke is a partner in a Baltimore law firm.

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