"When Eddie Murray finally levels off at about 150 RBI a year, maybe he'll get noticed. Already, he's as good as they make ball players nowadays. He'll hit 500 home runs and be remembered as one of the all-time greats ." -- Ken Singleton, Baltimore Orioles

"I'm not into publicity. Some need it. Some don't . . . I'm not wild about the money, either . . . but, if it's playing baseball you're talking about, I don't know how I could be having any more fun ." -- Eddie Murray, Baltimore first baseman

It's Eddie Murray's way to keep his guard up and his chin tucked in. "The worst thing you can do," he says, "is get people gunning for you." That's why he's baseball's best-kept, million-dollar-a-year secret.

Even Murray's Oriole teammates often are shocked at how little they know about him. A buzz went through the Bird clubhouse here Monday when the team ot its annual vision checkup. And Murray filed. His right eye, the one that had the orbital bone fractured by a bad-hop grounder last summer, tested at a distinctly subpar 20-30, and had a floating speck in the field of vision. The doctor told Murray, "Yound man,, you need glasses."

Murray informed Coach Elrod Hendricks, who told Manager Earl Weaver that Murray would have to miss an exhibition came to see a specialist. Ken Singleton, the man in the eye line behind Murray, began by teasing the doctor, asking, "What are you giving Murray that the rest of us haven't got?" However, pretty soon he, and other O's, were becoming a bit concerned.

Finally, the scuttlebutt came full circle to Murray. Was he going blind?

"No," he said, mischievously. "Every spring, they tell me I can't see, so I guess they're right. But I can see a baseball well enough to hit it. Last year, I tested 20-30 in each eye, but 20-20 when I used both eyes together. Now, my left eye is up to 20-20, but my right one's still 20-30.

"Oh, I can imagine the pitchers if they hear this," said Murray, doing a comic impression of a curve-baller hooking his arm to throw an optical illusion. "But they'll be wrong. I don't need glasses. I'm gettin' better."

If Murray's vision ever get to normal, they can shut down the American League for the summer. What would he do if he could see?

With Murray, the first question always remains the same: when does he stop improving? Murray has been a pro for eight seasons, four in the majors. This is his RBI progression: 32, 65, 68, 86, 95, 99, 116. Each spring, Murray is asked his goal. Each year, he answers, "Get better." And, incredibly, he does.

In baseball's century, the Murray case is, in one respect, unique. No one else has ever started out well (rookie of the year), then gotten better in every phase of the game in evey season. Average: .238, .285, .300. Runs: 81, 85, 90, 100. Hits: 173, 174, 179, 186. Strikeouts: 104, 96, 78, 71. Runs produced: 140, 153, 164, 184. Murray is not the best young player ever, or even close to it. Joe DiMaggio, at the same stage, from age 21 to 24, averaged 140 RBI a year and Ted Williams averaged .358. But Murray is the only player to show such across-the-board improvement in each of his first four full seasons.

Can Murray get even better? After all, during his four infant seasons, he already has established himself as the No. 5 RBI man in baseball, trailing only Jim Rice, Steve Garvey, Mike Schmidt and Reggie Jackson.

What is the singular Murray quality that allows him to improve not in one area, but in all of them simultaneously? Is it a trait that can last?

"I really have no logical explanation," says Weaver. "Maybe it's because he broke in young without a full year of AAA, so he hadn't fully developed. And maybe it's that he didn't start switch-hitting until he was 20. He's a natural righty, but he gets twice as many at bats left-handed and it wasn't until last year that all his stats were better batting left-handed.

"But," added a grinning Weaver "what it probably means is that Eddie's learning more about the pitchers every year than they're learning about him."

That's certainly the way Murray would want it. "I think Eddie would prefer it if he got no attention at all," says Hendricks.

In countless ways, Murray effaces himself. He is quiet around friends and stone silent around strangers. Under the tutelage of an expert, old Lee May, Murray quickly and deliberately mastered the art of the cordial, but utterly useless, "yes-no" interview that discourages reporters and puts out the word, "Don't waste your time on Murray."

His temperament is naturally playful and prankish -- he was always the mischievous youngster in a family of 12 -- but it took his teammates three years to realize he could take a joke, or pull one. His dress is unpretentious; his tennis shoes probably cost more than the rest of his outfit combined. Even when it is his turn to hit, he dawdles in the dugout and usually gets into the on-deck circle one pitch late -- materializing there when no one is watching.

Murray's natural posture is a slight slouch. "He's a lot bigger and stronger than you think," says Hendricks.

"And he's a lot smarter than he lets on, too," adds Hendricks. It's almost a shock to look directly into Murray's large brown eyes and suddenly realize that there's a snapping-sharp mind working behind the laid-back facade.

Murray is a natural student of minutiae; that's the perfect ballplayer's temperament. For instance, how do his two stances -- left- and right- handed -- differ? "I don't have two stances," he says. "I have about six. I move my feet, shift my weight.The first rule about baseball is "adjust, then readjust.'"

Murray pretends his theory of hitting is trivial. "I just see the ball and hit it," is his standard answer. What he really thinks is: "Each year, I've cut down swinging at bad pitches outside the strike zone. Now, I'm working on not swinging at bad pitches that are strikes. yyou have to take the pitcher's strike and swing at yours. So far, I've done it without losing my aggressiveness."

For Murray, no camouflage is too much. Of his base-running, he says, "I'm sneaky." Sneaky enough to steal home to win a game in the 12th inning. No player gets his uniform less dirty than Murray. If he dove for a ground ball, or slid into a base, it might draw attention to him. When he makes a run-saving scoop of a low throw at first base, he does it quickly and disdainfully, then lopes off the field as though bored to death.

A common perception of Murray is that he's too nonchalant -- and under-achiever living off his talent. Why doesn't he ever make a "hustling" play? Why doesn't he ever get hurt, playing in 638 of 643 games? Why does he stand at the plate laughing after the pitcher fools him? Why does he never show anger of disappointment, even when he was going 0 for 21 in the '79 World Series?

The answer is that Murray seldom is what he seems. "He always hears it when people say he's not hustling. It when people say he's not hustling. It bothers him because, outside of Earl and Frank Robinson, nobody on this team hates dumb plays more, or makes less of them, than Eddie," says Hendricks. "He has enormous pride and he hates being embarrassed." "Earl had a hard time understanding some things I did," says Murray. "He'd see me laughing at home plate and think I wasn't serious enough. That's just my way of saying, 'You got one by me. Maybe you won't next time.'"

Now, ask Weaver who the supposedly lackadaisical Murray most reminds him of, and he says, "Frank Robinson," supposedly the most intense player of his time. "Eddie has the ability, like Frank and Reggie Jackson, to call up a special kind of concentration when it really matters," says Weaver.