Eddie Murray has hands. That may not seem like a particularly brilliant observation, but on the Baltimore Orioles "to have hands" is the ultimate compliment for a batter. "Singles hitters have baby hands," says Murray, "and a hitter in a slump, his hands are on vacation." Eddie Murray has hands.
To be precise, he has soft hands. In baseball, a fielder with soft hands is a very good one—and Murray is among the very best first basemen. But his hands are also soft in a literal sense. Baltimore Coach Elrod Hendricks calls them "dishpan hands." They blister easily, and Murray tries to avoid swinging a bat in the off-season and early in spring training.
But those hands have made Murray, at 26, the most dreaded hitter in the American League. Teammate Terry Crowley says, "This is Eddie's league. We're just members of it." He is, without much argument, the best switch hitter with power since Mickey Mantle. In his first five seasons (even counting stricken 1981), he averaged 26.6 home runs, 95.2 RBIs and batted .291. Red Sox Manager Ralph Houk recently told a writer assigned to a story on Murray, "If you find out a way to pitch to him, let me know."
For a good while the line on Murray was, ad nauseam, "Nobody knows how good he can be." Well, people found out how good he could be from May 9 of last year until May 2 of '82. In that 114-game period, Murray batted .348 with 27 homers, 92 RBIs and a .644 slugging percentage. As for his fielding, he made one error in '81 for a percentage of .999, and since his major league debut in 1977 he has had errorless streaks of 61, 80 and 113 games. He has hands, all right.
What finally stopped Murray in May was a nagging case of tendinitis in his left hand. For more than a week he insisted upon playing with the pain, until Manager Earl Weaver finally ordered him out of the lineup. "Frank was like that," says Weaver. "He'd literally limp up to the plate. Couldn't make him sit, either." When Weaver talks about Murray, a favorite topic, he often invokes Robinson.
Murray grew up in East Los Angeles, one of 12 children in a baseball-crazy family. Leon, one of Eddie's older brothers, likes to tell about the time Eddie and brother Venice, eight and nine, respectively, were playing ball behind the Murray home. They were always playing ball. On this occasion they lost the tennis ball they were utilizing as a baseball in a nearby canal, and Eddie decided to retrieve it, as well as all the other balls they had lost. "There was maybe a 30-foot drop down into this concrete ditch filled with dirty water," says Leon. "They tied a rope around Eddie's waist, and Venice lowered him into the canal. Venice began to pull Eddie up, but just as he got to the top, Venice couldn't hold him any longer, and Eddie fell to the bottom. Hit his head. After a lot of noise, Dad came out of the house and had to pull Eddie up with the garden hose. Everybody was scared. When Eddie got back up, all he wanted to do was play ball."
Murray is as careful with his heart as he is with his hands. He feels he was burned badly once by someone he trusted. It happened after the second game of the 1979 World Series against Pittsburgh. New York columnist Dick Young interviewed Ray Poitevint, the Oriole scout who signed Murray in 1973. Referring to Poitevint, Young wrote, "He offers $20,000. He gets cursed at. He leaves. He goes back. He is called a thief, kicked out. This was by Ed Murray's older brothers. They and Ed Murray's mother do all the talking. Ed Murray, 17, just sits there, listening, not saying a word. In the space of five weeks, Ray Poitevint pays 16 visits to the Murray household, and goes away empty." Young quotes Poitevint as saying that one of the brothers tried to run him over in the yard with his car and that the scout's "black" associate, Willie Moore, was called an Uncle Tom. (In fact, Moore is white.) On the 17th visit, Murray signed for the $20,000.
Eddie Murray read that and got very upset, as did his whole family. Charles, the eldest son, admits the brothers gave Poitevint a hard time about the money the Orioles were offering. "But I don't come from a family of barbarians," he says. "None of us harassed him." Poitevint, a very decent man, deeply regrets the rift that developed between him and Eddie. "I would much rather have his respect back than have anybody know I signed Eddie Murray," says Poitevint, who is now the director of player procurement for the Milwaukee Brewers. But he refuses to knock Young, saying the story is basically true. "It was just exaggerated and very badly timed," he says. Certainly for the Orioles, who watched Murray go 0-21 the rest of the Series, as they lost in seven games to the Pirates.
With just 90 minutes to go before their game with the Angels, the Orioles are milling about the clubhouse, waiting for the clubhouse door to open. Murray is supposed to be bringing ribs. Whenever the Orioles go to Anaheim, Eddie's father stays up all night to make a batch of barbecued ribs. "They're said to have magical powers," says Pitching Coach Ray Miller. "We always seem to go on a winning streak after we eat them. Psychologists call that non-contingent reinforcement. They're also delicious."
Some of the players are worried that if Eddie doesn't get there soon, they'll be eating ribs during the national anthem. "It doesn't look good on TV, barbecue sauce all over your uniform," says Pitcher Mike Flanagan. Eddie finally arrives, and after taking special care of the Orioles' rotund trainer, Ralph Salvon, he hands out the ribs. The Orioles lose 7-2, probably because they were too busy flossing between innings.