The Baltimore Orioles that Eddie Murray joined a decade ago were almost too good to believe. They were far from the best team of recent times. They may, however, have been the most pleasant, cheerful club in the most hidden and forgiving town that a thin-skinned young star could have joined.
Everywhere Murray looked he saw the wisdom of Lee May, the dignity of Ken Singleton, the brains of Jim Palmer, the guts of Rick Dempsey, the humor of Mike Flanagan and the profane brilliance of Earl Weaver. And he thought this was the big leagues.
In the long run, it may have been a trap for Murray. All the hard lessons in adult realism that most other players learn early in their careers were unnecessary for Murray. The local press ignored his haughtiness. Baltimore fans demanded nothing except his performance. Weaver went entire seasons without criticizing him, protecting him like a diamond necklace. His teammates called him "Earl's Son."
Say a word against Murray and Weaver'd claw your throat until you recanted. So, in a sense, Murray built up no natural immunity to criticism.
Up until the day he signed the biggest contract in baseball history, he had as idyllic a career as a player could imagine. He slid under the spotlight, bore no public responsibility and led only by example. He was left alone -- an overgrown teen-ager at play.
In most ways, he was exemplary. He played hurt and he played smart. No Oriole was more unselfish, on the field or off. Perhaps no star identified with his team more profoundly, almost dangerously -- for him. He was an Oriole nearly to the degree that he was a Murray. Despite his public glower, he was a bundle of high-pitched laughs in the clubhouse.
He was extremely wonderful, yet also extremely spoiled. No one in the Baltimore organization was prepared emotionally for the franchise's collapse. But maybe Murray was best positioned to be hurt deeply -- and to take everything personally.
Bad times require a devil, even if one does not exist. Murray is not alone among old Orioles in choosing owner Edward Bennett Williams as his private demon. But perhaps he takes his own opinion more seriously. Where Weaver coddled Murray, Williams confronted him. Where Weaver smoothed Murray's ego, Williams has not even apologized for his insensitive handling of Murray's injury contretemps of 1986.
All this brings us to Sunday. A crowd of 28,000 came to the final home game of the most depressing season in Orioles history. They cheered a come-from-behind victory by a team that ended '86 14-42, then entered Sunday on a 1-17 streak. Not sarcastic cheers, but see-you-next-year stuff.
Before the game, on Home Team Sports, Murray said. "I don't think there are too many guys who want to play here. It's tough . . . You wouldn't believe how nervous half of our guys get . . . because they can't take the booing . . . It could be time for me to move on . . . There are some good things about the city, but no player should have to play under these conditions."
Baltimore has been shaking its head in disbelief ever since. As Mike Littwin of the Baltimore Sun wrote: "Earth to Eddie Murray. Where are you, on the moon or something?"
In what other town in baseball would the Orioles in general, and Murray in particular, have been treated with such velvet gloves? What would New York have said about Murray's errors? What jokes would Philadelphia have made about the weight he refuses to lose? How'd Chicago have taken to his "trade me" talk? What would the Fenway bleachers say to a $2.5 million-a-year player whose play defines "laid-back."
But that's not really the point, is it? It's sadder than that.
Because Murray did not learn a little cynicism early in his career -- because he opened his heart so much to his game, his team and, to some degree to his town, he has been doubly wounded late in his career. His personal tragedies (the death of his mother and sister in '86) have only funneled into his depressive mood. He can't turn the page and move on.
Adults tend not to live in an all-or-nothing world. They learn it doesn't work. But Murray has never been forced into baseball maturity because his baseball childhood was, in a sense, too perfect.
He wants a trade. For all concerned, it is probably best. Did the phrase "fresh start" ever apply better?
True, the Orioles might not get equal value. On the other hand, who can measure the damage that Murray's sarcasm and sadness have done in the last two seasons? Don't the Orioles play like a team whose heart has died?
Ironically, all the Orioles' farm system has produced in quantity is decent hitters with no true position -- i.e., first basemen. So, put a bat at first base and get a catcher or a pitcher for Murray. That's still a net plus.
Some say no team wants Murray at his salary. Can 25 teams be that sure? What if a trade revived his spirits and got him on a weight program? What if he played with a vengeance in a pennant race, not a yawn in the cellar? Would 40 home runs and 130 RBI sound about right?
To complete the forlorn circle, the Orioles could give Murray a Day when he comes back through Baltimore. Call it a farewell to a favorite child who had to leave home to finish growing up.