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BASEBALL : BILL PLASCHKE

Murray Blasts Into History With His 500th Home Run : Quiet, Usually: A Jerk, Hardly

September 07, 1996|Bill Plaschke

It was in a city back East, Philadelphia maybe, some place where attitude is often mistaken for integrity.

Eddie Murray was standing in the Dodger clubhouse--the great, unapproachable Eddie Murray--while getting dressed for a game.

Up walked a black reporter, sadly a rare sight amid baseball circles. The reporter had a tape recorder, smile and an exaggerated patter.

"Where's Eddie, I need to talk to Eddie," he announced. "Why does everybody thinks its so hard to talk to Eddie?"

Murray slowly turned with that glare he gives cocky pitchers, umpires who blew it, teammates who don't care, and every last stranger.

Eddie Murray, baseball's first player with 500 home runs and 5,000 glares.

"Eddie!" the reporter said. "Can we rap?"

Murray continued glaring until the reporter stepped directly in front of him.

Then he spoke, softly as always, in words that nonetheless echoed across the room and into the memory.

"No, no, no," he said. "This is not what you do. This is not how you do it. No, thank you."

Murray walked away, leaving the reporter stuck in rewind.

"Boy, that guy really is a jerk," he said.

A jerk I had the honor of covering for three years with the Dodgers.

A jerk I will have the joy of voting into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

In an era of hypocrisy and self-promotion, the only thing Eddie Murray ever forced upon his public was a request to be left alone. He asked it consistently. He asked it politely.

And today, after his 500th homer Friday night, we have no business holding it against him.

In this moment of triumph, it's a shame he will not be remembered for his makeup, but his mystery.

For 20 years, his world has been only line drives and family. What we know we can discern only from his expressive eyes.

He is from South Central Los Angeles, but you would never guess it.

He lives in the area during the off-season but, except for a few sightings at NBA games, you would have no idea.

When he made a rare appearance at a national news conference last year with his wife, one questioned buzzed through the baseball world. And it had nothing to do with his just-attained 3,000 hit.

"Eddie Murray has a wife?"

In today's world of the celebrity as an open book, Murray has allowed himself to be examined only in sentence fragments.

But say this for him. You could always trust what you read.

Eddie Murray is the only Los Angeles-area athlete I have met who once bragged about his season tickets . . . to the Clippers.

During his three years with the Dodgers, his friends were batboys, front-office interns, disabled journalists. His enemies were phonies. His rules were the same for everyone.

He would ask newcomers--whether it be teammates or reporters or publicity men--to give him two weeks. During those two weeks, he would watch them work, figure their angles.

If they respected the game and themselves like he did, he became their friend. If they did not, he never did.

Change those rules because of the color of somebody's skin? Eddie Murray would sooner smile.

Some might call him selfish. But in a time when many athletes sell themselves to the highest bidder, a better word might be solid.

Murray is one of the few athletes who treats everyone the same, from the lowliest rookie to the superstar. It is no wonder that Murray was the only player officially thanked by Cal Ripken Jr. during last year's consecutive-games celebration, as Murray had stood behind Ripken on every rung of that ladder.

And who do you think Ripken learned longevity from? The statistic that makes Murray proudest is that no other first baseman has played in more games.

To those fans have spent the better part of Murray's 20 seasons thinking him a sullen miscreant, a couple of questions:

When has he ever threatened somebody like Albert Belle, or shoved somebody like Barry Bonds?

When has he been in trouble off the field like Steve Howe or Jose Canseco?

When has he been a part of any controversy other than the one he has caused by his reticence? By refusing to play any other game than the one in front of him?

"Eddie Murray is an extremely stable individual with exceptional emotional control. Regardless of how stressful the situation becomes, he will think clearly and concentrate on his objectives."

That was a quote from a Baltimore Orioles psychological profile on Murray.

Conducted shortly before his 17th birthday in 1973.

From the time he left Locke High 24 years ago, Murray has simply tried to stay out of the way.

"I get in trouble," he once said, "from trying to stay out of trouble."

Fans and opposing coaches would often deride his appearance during pregame warmups, as he spent most of that time standing at first base with his legs crossed and arms folded.

Yet those same people never saw Murray spending as much as an hour on the clubhouse floor stretching . . . and another half-hour looking at scouting reports on the opposing pitcher . . . and 15 minutes sitting around hoping some young player would come up and ask him about it.

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