Eddie Murray will go to any length to conceal his greatness.
Instead of a name and number, the back of his uniform should read, "Sshhh, art-for-art's-sake genius at work."
"I'm trying to do something, not talk about it," says the Baltimore Orioles' steady fulcrum. "Fact, I don't even like to hear about it."
Even making allowances for his aversion to explaining himself and his knack for maximum production with minimum fanfare (for instance, he may finish second in the American League MVP voting for the third straight season), Murray's current act of camouflage is a masterpiece.
At the moment, Murray has an 18-game hitting streak and is in the midst of the biggest batting binge in a career that may produce 500 homers and lord knows how many RBI.
For those who didn't notice, the Orioles' first baseman just completed a 12-game road trip in which he did more damage to the West Coast than a 4.0 earthquake.
Typically for Murray, he errupted when it would produce the minimum amount of attention: when his East Coast team won games that didn't end until the early morning back home.
In those dozen games, Murray batted .500 (21 for 42) and reached base 34 times. His on-base percentage was at the very edge of baseball reality: .618. In his worst game, he reached base twice; four times, he reached base four times.
His slugging percentage (.858), his nine extra-base hits and his 15 RBI, 14 in a seven-game span in Oakland, Anaheim and Seattle, were merely the sort of excellence to which Murray's fans have grown blissfully accustomed.
Murray, baseball's antithesis of a hot dog, must have at least a tiny smear of mustard in his soul. In six games in Los Angeles and Oakland, where his California family could see him play, he had 13 RBI and got on base 16 times.
"I'm seeing the ball real well," Murray said Wednesday from Detroit before the Orioles flew home for a six-game homestand, their feathers smoothed a bit by a 13-5 streak that coincides exactly with Murray's streak. "My whole goal is just to do better than I did the year before. This is the time of year to do it if you're going to do it."
Of course, he doesn't improve in every stat every year, but, whichever of the overall computations of offensive performance you prefer, Murray is the only veteran player whose performance has been up every year of his career.
Murray, 28, is proving in his eighth season that he can be a much more selective batter, hitting for a higher average and leading the league in walks, while actually increasing his RBI total and keeping his slugging percentage just as high.
"Before, I used to just see the ball and hit it. I didn't ever like to take that aggressive part of me out of my game. Just see it and hit it. I didn't guess very well, so I went away from (doing) it," says Murray.
This year, Murray has changed that approach. "Why look for something you're not going to get?" he said, meaning why wait all night for a fast ball when the book is to throw him junk. "If they're going to throw all curveballs, then I'll just say, 'It's BP (batting practice) on curveballs tonight.'
"I'm better at anticipating pitches now, and I just refuse to chase (bad pitches) . . . When you start swinging at bad pitches with nobody on base, looking for a home run so you can help the team, it just throws you out of your (hitting) groove. Then, when you come up with a couple of people on base and they have to pitch to you, you're all messed up and get yourself out."
The proof of the validity of this theory is that Murray is batting .372 with men in scoring position this year.
Actually, it doesn't matter which of Steady Eddie's numbers you peruse. They're all stunning. He's hitting .326, which is 10 points higher than his best ever. His 104 RBI put him at a 120-plus pace, which would top his previous high of 116. Thanks to his league-leading 91 walks, his on-base percentage is .424, easily the best in baseball and by far his personal best.
As usual, Murray leads all of baseball in game-winning runs batted in: 18. That's a stat, created in 1979, that may someday be called The Murray Trophy. Since game-winning RBI came into existance, Murray has 95 and nobody's close. What makes Murray's clutch hitting ever more preternatural is that he has been intentionally walked 22 times (a major league high), which has erased chances to hit with nearly 40 runners in scoring position. Also, he's been "pitched around" countless times because the hitters behind him have been pathetic this season.
On Tuesday, Murray got his 800th career RBI. At the same age, Babe Ruth had 760 and Ted Williams 638. Hank Aaron, the all-time RBI leader and the man who got off to the fastest RBI start, had 991 at a comparable stage.
On Wednesday, Murray got the hit that finally brought his career average up to .300.
The irony of Murray is that statistics, the thing that distinguishes him in baseball history, are what he cares about least.
In his own mind, Murray is a big-game player, a situation player, a team man. Unlike Pete Rose or Reggie Jackson or Williams, he's no stat man. When he tells his rare anecdote, it's always about one vital game-deciding moment or a big day in a big game.
Murray's two home runs in the final game of the '83 World Series are, easily, his favorite moment because they capped a world title year and because he was in a two-for-37 slump with no RBI stretching over two Series.
"The guys (on the team) said, 'Uh, oh,' after the fourth (Series) game, because they saw the way I was looking at the ball. I knew it, too . . . Before the fifth game, I told 'em in the clubhouse, 'This is the last game.'
"After the second home run (batting left-handed), they were saying, 'Is that it? Is that all?' I told 'em, 'There could be another one.' And I almost got that third (homer). It just curved foul in the upper deck (batting right-handed.)"
That's as close as Murray will come to bragging.
"Basically, I've never been a media-eye interview. 'Me-me-me-I,' that's just not me and never has been," Murray says. "Not talking to the press at all? Yeah, I came close to doing that."
"It would attract too much attention."