Three months after the fact, Eddie Murray remembers hearing his left ankle "pop."

At that moment in mid-January, many thoughts shot through his mind: that he might not be able to take pre-spring training batting practice, that the tennis tournament he wanted to have at his Los Angeles home might not come off and that his basketball season was over early.

What he did not imagine was that his worst fears would all be realized, and then some.

Weeks after the Baltimore Orioles first baseman figured the basketball injury would be healed, he's still taking daily treatments and still paying for it with more than pain.

One price was one of the worst stretches of his marvelous career, a time when he would start the 1986 season three for 32, go eight games without a home run or RBI and consider wearing eye glasses for the first time in his career.

And although the physical pain may remain, the mental discomfort at least has been reduced: he has broken the slump with a seven-for-12 stretch, including the 13th grand slam of his career in tonight's 10-4 victory over the Texas Rangers.

And that has eased the pressure on an entire team. If Murray were just another player starting slowly, it would be one thing, but he is not. He is the Orioles' undisputed leader, both on the field and in the clubhouse, and for another, he signed a five-year, $12.7-million contract extension last summer.

If he has projected an image of the stone-faced Brando on the field, he has always been closer to Henny Youngman in the clubhouse and has become a role model for younger players such as Storm Davis and Mike Young.

"Eddie doesn't handle slumps like other people," Young said. "He worries about them, but I don't think he worries for himself. He worries because he wants to do well for the team. So many people depend on him in here in one way or another.

"If he's concerned, he doesn't like to let other people know it. Also, if the team is winning he'll feel totally different about it. He would never get down to the point where he wouldn't like coming to the park. That would be selfish, and that's not Eddie."

Indeed, a reporter had to approach Murray four times before he'd even say anything about a slump, and around his teammates, such admissions come a word at a time and never more than casually.

When he went through a bad stretch in 1985, he told a reporter, "Well, we had a getaway flight to catch, and I didn't want to be the one holding things up."

If this slump was special, it was because he is special. In the 1980s, he leads all of baseball in RBI and runs produced. What's more, he has a .324 career average in late-inning pressure situations, .424 in such situations when there are runners in scoring position and two outs.

In his eight full seasons, he has averaged 29.5 homers and 107 RBI, figures that only a handful of players have ever matched. Translation: These are not normal figures and this is not a normal player.

In mid-January, Murray was told he had a severely sprained ankle, and that it should be completely ready for the Feb. 21 start of spring training.

He wasn't ready, although he did try to play for three weeks with a pronounced limp. Then, on a rainy night in Fort Lauderdale, he slipped and aggravated the injury, which forced him to the sidelines for almost two weeks.

When he did return, in time to play the last few spring games, he was behind, admitting he was taking extra pitches to "get my eye back" and wearing batting gloves to protect his tender hands. (He normally doesn't wear gloves because he "likes the feel of the bat," and will take the gloves off soon.)

A routine eye exam also turned up a slight deficiency in his right eye, and after being fitted for a pair of glasses Friday, may wear them at least occasionally sometime in the next week on an experimental basis.

But as he has handled every slump for nine years, he would not blame it on eyes or sprained ankles or bad luck.

"It was not my eyes," he said, speaking carefully in the past tense, his way of reminding the listener about the home run and three RBI Thursday in Toronto and three hits Friday in Baltimore. "It was all up here points to his head . That's all it has been. I'm wearing gloves because nothing feels right. Everything feels funny. What people forget is that this game can be a struggle."

He is asked about keeping the image of The Captain, the guy who puts on a game face for the clubhouse as well as the field. He grew up near Hollywood and is a movie buff, so he knows something about what is expected of leading men.

"Everyone in here is going to go through the same thing sometime," he said. "It's not that big of a deal. What am I supposed to do? Get worried after seven games? I've had slow starts before. Starts just like this. I'm not gonna go crazy after seven games."

(His career average in April is .282, and is .300 for the other six months of the season.)

One thing he will not do: take days off. He has missed only 34 games in nine seasons, and most of those because of one of the several deaths in his family. (The Orioles are 15-19 without him, and 2-9 without him since the start of '83.)

He played more than a month last season with a very sore wrist, and even his teammates wouldn't have known about it had they not seen him in the training room taking treatment.

"You like to think that you add something just by being in there," he said. "If you're out, maybe someone else feels the pressure to do too much. Maybe that takes him out of his game."

If he is not overly worried, the Orioles don't seem to be, either, after having seen nine terrific seasons in a row.

"I've often said that, when he's in a slump, he's going to make someone pay for it," Orioles General Manager Hank Peters said. "He has been so consistent for his career that his numbers are like money in the bank."