When a 24-year-old man agrees to a million-dollar-a-year baseball contract, it sounds like highway robbery. But Eddie Murray's new six-year deal for more than $6 million is a baseball event with a message suited to the holiday season.
Yesterday, just hours after the final wrinkles were worked out on a contract that will make the first baseman a rich man, Murray wasn't talking about fancy cars or finery.
Instead, he was chuckling about how happy the "Christmas present" had made his parents and his 11 brothers and sisters who had gathered at their Los Angeles home for the holidays.
Murray was even more pleased for reasons rarely heard in baseball these days. He was genuinely delighted for his team.
"I'm just glad that now we can probably keep our ball club together," said Murray, who had 32 homers and 116 RBI in 1980. "So many of us came up through the minors together, and we've been friends so long, that it would really bother me if we broke up as a team because two or three guys couldn't reach an agreement on money.
"Now, Scottie (McGregor) and Richie (Dauer) and I have all signed this offseason. We've got to get Mike (Flanagan) and a couple of others in the fold and we'll be all set.
"We're really giving everybody heck right now," said Murray, whose Orioles have won 203 games in two seasons, "so why not keep it up?"
Just a year ago, after they reached the seventh game of the World Series, the Orioles looked like a team with a short life expectancy; two more seasons of excellence at the most, then the depths. Even the Birds, in spring training of '80, talked among themselves about how they should enjoy the '80 and '81 seasons before they were sundered by the economic realities of the new free agent marketplace.
"As recently as a few months ago, I didn't know if the Orioles could or would be willing to pay enough to keep the nucleus of their club together," said lawyer Ron Shapiro, who represents Dauer, McGregor, Murray and Ken Singleton, who may be close to signing as well.
"Now, it's apparent that they are willing and able to pay the going market price to keep their homegrown players, even if they still have an aversion to the free agent auctions," said Shapiro. "Eddie will never have to hang his head around other top players as though he signed at a discount."
Told of this assessment, Oriole General Manager Hank Peters laughed ruefully. "Yes, we are willing to pay that price. Whether we'll be able to pay it is something only time will tell."
Two developments have come out of the Murray signing. "It's significant," observed Shapiro, "that the Murray deal is the first contract of this magnitude in baseball that has been reached without one negative public word exchanged between the player and club. There was no name-calling, no public posturing and no phony demands."
"That's true," acknowledges Peters. "It's reassuring that the closeness of this team has really been a factor in every signing. Frankly, player-management relations have gotten so hard-nosed that I imagine other teams will find that hard to believe.
"When we signed Rich Dauer, he came by the office just to say, 'Thanks.' As he was leaving, I told him, 'Now go out and get those other guys (to sign).'"
"There are only so many dollars in the world," Peters said. "Doesn't there come a time when you have more than you're going to spend? Don't you have to be concerned about whether you enjoy the people you're associated with constantly? I think we have some players who have really asked themselves, 'What do I want to do with my life?'"
Perhaps the most striking example was McGregor, who signed for five years for about $2.25 million earlier this month. The 20-game winner actually came to Shapiro and said, "Cut off the negotiations. That's enough." When Shapiro assured MacGregor that the last turn of the screw had not been reached, that it was conceivable the Orioles might shell out as much as another $500,000, McGregor told him, "My wife and I have talked about this, and even prayed. Enough is enough."
"You don't reach into your client's head," said Shapiro, "and put dollars in it when they already have values there."
In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that Murray negotiated vigorously, but not viciously. Just a week ago, Time Magazine used Murray as the "standard by which the value of all players will be measured" when his free agentry came due in 1982. "What Murray will get," said Time, "is incalculable."
As it proved, many things meant more to Murray than trying to see if he could set a salary record at auction. Of Dave Winfield's 10-year, $25 million contract signed two weeks ago, Murray says, "It surprised me . . . It was something exceptional . . . But I'm not in the same shoes he was. Things can change before I would have become a free agent."
Things like baseball's partial compensation rule. Or even injury. Besides, when Murray's current contract runs out, he will only be 30 -- just a year older than Winfield is now. Then, his worth may truly be incalculable.
Murray, usually the quietest of stars, finally spoke out yesterday after making a long-term decision that has preyed on his mind for more than a year. "It bothers me when I halfway don't know whether I'm going to stay or go. I really wanted to stay in Baltimore because we've got a great bunch of guys.
"I've been around long enough (four seasons) to see what life is like on other clubs," says Murray. "Man, they just aren't having as good a time as we are. The public doesn't know all that goes on in baseball.
"When we have an off day, we just naturally get together," says Murray. "Things like that make us special.
"One person who helps make it that way is (Manager) Earl (Weaver)," Murray said. "He says, 'Don't be saying things to somebody else. Come say them to me.' And he means it."
For now, Murray is a marvelous emblem for the Orioles, baseball's sanest team. The matters on the young man's mind still have a certain sweetness, not the customary cynicism bred by the game's bidding wars. "The way my Mom' jumping around here, I think she thinks this is her Christmas present," laughed Murray, one of five brothers to play pro baseball at some level.
What will Murray buy first with the money? "The first deal," says Murray, "will probably be something to do for kids in Baltimore . . . You know, maybe buy tickets for a little section for them in the stands."
No, no, Eddie, you misunderstand. What will you buy?
"Don't know," he says. "I don't plan to try to spend it all."
How will the new contract change him in '81?
Murray doesn't quite understand. "Well," he says, "I'm going to keep using that heavier bat that Elrod Hendriks talked me into the second half of last year. That helped a lot." And how did he celebrate yesterday?
"Oh, some of my brothers and buddies and I went over to the gym to play basketball," said Murray.
"Now, Mom's cooking dinner."