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EDDIE MURRAY'S MOOD SWING : First Baseman Was Once the Pride of the Orioles; Now, He's a Bitter Bird

October 04, 1987|RICHARD JUSTICE | The Washington Post

A few days before the beginning of spring training in 1986, Eddie Murray invited a reporter into his Los Angeles home, and for three hours, between trips to adjust a VCR and open cans of tea, he talked about the loves of his life -- his family, his friends and the Baltimore Orioles.

It was a revealing and rare look at a private man in a public occupation and, that day, Murray said among other things he was proud to be named the Orioles' first captain and intended to make it more than a title.

Always a great player, he said the new title would allow him to do more than play, specifically enforce the club's dress code, be more forceful in tutoring young players and act as a conduit between then-manager Earl Weaver and the players.

If any of this was a surprise, it shouldn't have been. Murray grew up with the Orioles in an era when the clubhouse had a family-type atmosphere, one where players not only played together but dined together and raised their families together. One of his earliest memories was of seeing Weaver chewing out a player, then watching as star first baseman Lee May walked behind Weaver and asked the player, "Are you okay?"

He was equally impressed when he was brought to the major leagues in 1977 as May's eventual replacement. In what could have been an awkward situation, Murray not only was accepted by May, but taken under his wing.

After May left the Orioles, Murray assumed some of that role, taking younger players to lunch on the road, letting them live with him while they searched for apartments and being available to talk about pitchers, base running, clothes, transportation or life.

Murray seemed to relish the responsibility and joys of being an Oriole, and in the spring of '86, with a new five-year, $12.7 million contract in his pocket, he had never seemed happier.

He had given $500,000 of his new contract to start an Outward Bound camp for kids because, he said, "Someone once did the same for me," and also because "Baltimore has been good to me." He had even begun to think about staying with the organization as a minor league hitting instructor "because I've seen I can help certain guys."

That would have been an appropriate extension for a relationship that had, not only respect and admiration, but seemingly a lot of love.

Asked recently about that time only 19 months ago, Murray said, "A lot has changed. Things said then may not be true now."

Murray declined to be interviewed on the record for this article, but people who know him paint a far different picture of Murray in 1987. From a happy, content employee, his friends say Murray has gone to a bitter, angry man, obsessed with leaving Baltimore and the Orioles. On Sunday, some of that bitterness surfaced when he complained in a rare television interview about fans booing at Memorial Stadium.

Murray's friends say he once favored the California Angels as a possible new team, but now if the Orioles approached him with a trade to Texas, Atlanta or Cairo, he'd probably accept.

Since that day in 1986, he has been booed at home, criticized by team owner Edward Bennett Williams and even heckled in the Memorial Stadium parking lot after games. Publicly, the Orioles have had nothing except praise for him, but privately, one of their scouts recently called him "unmotivated."

General Manager Hank Peters attributed Murray's comments Sunday about the fans to frustration about losing. But, Peters said, "we've had a great run during Eddie's career here. We have won an awful lot of games. When the going gets tough, you can't always bail out." Peters also told the Associated Press he wants to meet soon with Murray and his agent, Ron Shapiro, "to sit down and discuss this thing."

Murray's troubles began last summer when he was having his first subpar season, and the Orioles were headed for their first losing season in 20 years. Playing with a bad hand and forced onto the disabled list because of a pulled hamstring, Murray missed 25 games and ended with career lows in home runs (17), RBI (84) and hits (151).

But after having strung together nine seasons that probably assured him a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame, he seemed stunned by the reaction to one down year, especially since he had played hurt.

And as some fans were turning on him, so too were his employers. The day of no return probably came a couple of months ago when, sources say, Murray was told -- directly or indirectly -- to stay away from outfielder Mike Young "because you're a bad influence." Similarly, he heard that an Orioles official had advised catcher Floyd Rayford "to find a new role model." In place of Murray, was the implication.

In a team meeting in Minneapolis, sources say, Peters told his players some of their skills were declining and some weren't trying. When it ended, Murray, according to sources, turned to a teammate and said, "Was 75 percent of that about me?"

"Try 90," said the teammate.

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