Easy Eddie. Elusive Eddie. Mischievous Murray.
Eddie Murray is running wind sprints in the outfield, but, as happens most days, Cal Ripken Jr., is hanging all over him like a huge, affectionate dog.
"Eight more years," says Ripken, punching Murray hard in the arm several times as they jog and wrestle. "I'm going to be agitating you for eight more years 'cause you can't quit until you've played 15 seasons."
"Can't play that long," says Murray. "I'm feeling old already."
Back in the clubhouse, Murray and Ripken continue their long debate about who will borrow the other's pants.
"If you don't think they'll cut off your circulation, try these," says Murray.
Ripken refuses. He's learned that Murray has planted a pair of pants in his locker, complete with name tag and number, which are not his real size.
Later, Ripken and Murray stand together in the on-deck circle in the eighth inning. The Orioles are rallying from seven runs behind, the largest comeback in the history of Memorial Stadium. The bases are loaded. The Milwaukee coach is meeting with his pitcher. Ripken and Murray hold their own conference. Suddenly, they break up in laughter.
Ripken singles. Murray hits a grand slam homer. Baltimore wins, 10-9.
What were Murray and Ripken discussing?
"I'm sure it wasn't baseball. Just one of our silly jokes," says Ripken. "You have to play this game relaxed. That's why they call him 'Easy Eddie.' It rubs off. Eddie Murray's never been in a 'tight spot.' "
Ripken is asked why he and Murray have become such fast friends, inseparable on the road, constant pranksters in the clubhouse. Ripken says maybe it's because they're both young and single on a team of sedate, married men. Maybe they just need someone to tease and prod.
But Ripken knows this won't do. He knows that, together, they carry the great weight of a whole franchise on their young backs. They are the core of what may be the best team in baseball. Their baseball destinies, their blossoming greatness, their futures are inextricably bound together.
"Maybe," says Ripken, "we see the same thing in each other."
In the locker room after the victory, Murray has disappeared. The press must interview the third-string catcher, John Stefero, who got the game-winning hit.
As Stefero talks, a flying ball of tape zaps him on the shoulder. Eyes cut to see who's done the damage. Murray is gone again. But he has left his sly mark, made his point.
Finally, Murray materializes, gives a reluctant interview, deflecting credit to teammates, quietly discouraging questions by a characteristic scowl Lee May taught him years ago. Of the grand slam, he says, "I just forget 'em, 'cause all that's gone, anyway."
What did he do on Stefero's game-winning hit? "I stayed in the dugout. When everybody's jumping around at home plate, you could get your foot stepped on."
As the locker room clears, becomes more private, Murray changes completely.
A small blond boy shakes his hand and Murray's eyes get big. Murray's mouth opens in a silent scream of pain. His knees start to buckle. "Oh, don't do that. You're killing me," he says to the little boy. The child explains exactly how you can squeeze somebody's hand and roll their knuckles to make it hurt. Murray listens as though he's never learned that trick before. "Well, don't do that to me," he says. "I've got to play tomorrow."
The Orioles have been beaten, 14-1, the night before as Detroit welcomed them to town with 11 runs in the first inning. If the Tigers can win this doubleheader, the Orioles' lead will be only 2 1/2 games. Detroit has its ace, Jack Morris, on the mound.
On his first at bat, Murray, down to his last strike, follows his intuition and anticipates that Morris will try to embarrass him and thus, the whole team, by making him look bad on a slow fork ball. Murray guesses right.
The ball leaves Murray's bat and, still rising, crashes into the facing of the Tiger Stadium roof 85 feet in the air above the 340-foot sign. Uninterrupted, the ball might have traveled 500 feet. "It was like Eddie was saying, 'I can top all of that,' " says Ken Singleton. "We felt like Eddie lifted a 20-pound weight off our backs," says Mike Flanagan.
In the second game, Murray hits a 440-foot homer into the upper deck in right. The next night, in his first at bat, he lines a drive that skims over the 440-foot sign in center. "The most awesome line drive I've seen since Mickey Mantle," says Singleton.
In his final swing of the series, Murray duplicates his titanic blow of the previous night except this one lands just arm's length from the roof.
"I think he's what every major leaguer should be," says Detroit Manager Sparky Anderson. "He's one of my favorites that I've ever been around. He's a star, a bona fide star. He knows how to carry it. You can't do no more. I'd be the most shocked man in the world if anybody told me Eddie Murray had changed. To me, he's what a star is all about."
Early this season, Murray went 32 games without a home run. On May 26, seven weeks into the season, he had two. On Aug. 5, just as he was reaching the apogee of a torrid hitting streak, he twisted a knee, missed five games, came back too soon because the team's management practically begged him to play, and was useless, hitting .113 for 11 more games.
Now, the most aggravating season of his seven in the majors, Murray is back where he always seems to be, in the top five in the American League in every significant offensive category: home runs (32), RBI (108), runs (114), slugging percentage (.534), on-base percentage (.397), walks (86) and game-winning hits (16). He is batting .305.
"He keeps getting better every year," Singleton says with a shrug, "and that's hard when you've already been the best player in baseball for a couple of years."
"He's the best in this league by far," says Flanagan. "Every year two or three different guys have a career year and get up to his level. But he's the only one who's at that level every year."
The Orioles, almost as though by collective decision, support Ripken for this season's MVP award, yet they always make the distinction that Ripken is simply having the sort of season that Murray has every year. No one doubts Murray is the hub of the team.
"He's the backbone of this team," says Rick Dempsey. "He's accepted his glory in grand fashion. A lotta great players are just too cocky. They can't bring a team together. Eddie can. If you come to this club and can't be accepted by Eddie Murray, you aren't worth a damn."
It's fact that the game's two most ballyhooed "young" players--Andre Dawson, 29, and Dale Murphy, 27--cannot approach the career statistics of Murray, 27. Murray can spot Dawson those two years and still has him by 35 homers and 200 RBI, while, across the board, Murphy is even farther in arrears.
It's almost impossible to get Murray to say that he is pleased with any aspect of his performance. He is the only player in baseball who has made clear improvement in each of the last seven years. This year, his runs, walks and on-base percentage have jumped while everything else has stayed the same.
"After struggling the way I think I have, I feel I've had a very good season," he says. "I've lost my stance three times on each side of the plate. One time from each side in a season is pretty bad for me. But three?"
Much as he dislikes it, Murray has learned to accept walks this year out of self-defense. His reputation as a clutch hitter is so great that "guys on other teams start telling me in batting practice, 'We're not going to let you beat us.' You know they're trying to walk you. But I'm not out there to walk. Sometimes I have to try to make something out of nothing. It makes the season real hard . . .
"I also came back too soon (after the knee injury). My presence was missed, just like it would be if Cal was out. It isn't that you do something every game, it's just that name in the lineup that helps the team."
This is Murray's time of year. His career statistics after Sept. 1 are: .335 average, 48 home runs, 174 RBI in 210 games.
The only cross he must bear from an almost unblemished career is that, after batting .417 in the 1979 playoffs, he finished the World Series zero for 21. More than any other Oriole, he's the man who has been waiting four years to redeem himself to himself.
"I can't change those stats," he says of that Series. "I don't care how many hits I get this time, I can't change those numbers."
A stranger asks Murray what he thinks of the Chicago White Sox's "big three" pitchers--LaMarr Hoyt, Floyd Bannister and Rich Dotson.
"They're just three pitchers," Murray says. "They've lost games."
What about that October pressure?
"I don't know anything about pressure," says Murray, his eyes veiled, his expression implacable. "You make your own."