I took more notes about Eddie Murray Wednesday night than I did the entire time I covered him as a player and coach. Murray and Cal Ripken were featured in a program hosted by the Sports Legends Museum in Baltimore, where they mingled with patrons, told stories and answered questions in a “fireside chat” (without the fireplace) moderated by Baltimore sportscaster Scott Garceau and then posed for photos with each and every fan.
Now, those fans paid hefty price for all this — $500 a ticket. But they felt like they got their money’s worth from the two Hall of Famers and former Orioles teammates, and then some. One man was moved to tears because his family had contributed the money for him to attend. Others were moved to tears of laughter, because they got to see the Eddie Murray that his friends would always talk about and the public never saw. He was like Bob Hope — warm, engaging, quick-witted. You would have thought he was running for mayor of Baltimore.
I got to know Murray a little bit in his return to Baltimore in 1996 after his falling out with the club and his trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988. We found a common ground of a love of boxing — he once managed a heavyweight fighter. But it never really resulted in anything that I could use in a column about what was going on behind the scenes.
You could talk to Murray as long as you didn’t go fishing for something. He left the Orioles again after the 1996 season and signed to play with the Anaheim Angels in the final year of his playing career in 1997. When the Angels came to Baltimore the first time, myself and another reporter went over to the visitor’s clubhouse to talk to Murray. As we stood in front of his locker, a teammate walked up with a surprised look on his face — surprised that Murray was talking to reporters. “It’s okay,” Murray said. “They’re the non-poisonous kind.”
Murray had an All-Star reputation during his playing days as being difficult when it came to the media. He developed a distrust for nearly all reporters and would refuse, for the most part, to speak to them unless he felt he had to. And then, all you got was the bare minimum. He never let outsiders in.
Wednesday night, he let more than 100 of them in with open arms. Ripken told the story about the first time he met Murray. Ripken was a high school player who would drive his Dad, Cal Sr., a coach on the Orioles, to Memorial Stadium before a game, then take the car to go play summer ball. He would come back to Memorial Stadium after he was done playing, usually in his dirty uniform. Someone asked Murray what he thought of Ripken the first time he saw him — wearing his dirty uniform — and Murray said, “I didn’t think he was a very good hitter because he always had to slide.”
Murray, who broke in with the Orioles in 1997 and was the American League Rookie of the Year, talked about his first season playing for Earl Weaver. “The first time he probably said ‘Hi’ to me was in July,” Murray said. “Usually, all I heard was, ‘Shut up, rookie.’
Murray talked about his upbringing with seven siblings and the influence of his other brother Charles, who played seven minor league seasons. “My brother Charles had a rule that if anyone cried, both of you would get a whupping (the one crying and the one who made him or her cry),” Murray said. “One time I had my brother Richie in a headlock and I was squeezing him, and when I let go, you could see the tears in his eyes. I told him, ‘Hold your head back, hold your head back.’”
They were both asked what pitcher gave them the most trouble during their careers, and Ripken said it was Lem Barker. He said he had not gotten a hit in 12 at-bats against Barker early in his career, and once, before facing him, he waited for Murray to come out of the dugout and into the on-deck circle to seek out Murray’s advice. “Well, now would be a good time to try something new,” Murray said, which was hardly the insight that Ripken was looking for. “So I went up there and tried a new stance,” Ripken said. “That is how all my crazy stances started. He hit me in the middle of the back, and I was happy.”
We know what to expect from Ripken. He has, from the days he would stay after Orioles games and sign autographs for more than an hour, set the standard for how professional athletes should deal with fans. He looks them in the eye and does his best to make them feel like they matter, and since retiring and doing more public speaking, has become more relaxed and a good storyteller.
Murray, though, was as engaging as any athlete I have ever seen Wednesday night with the fans. He made every one of them that spoke to him or posed with a photo feel special. It was a show worthy of a repeat performance — Eddie Murray unplugged.
I will be on The Sports Reporters on ESPN 980 AM today (Thursday) and Monday, Feb. 9, from 5 to 7 p.m.
To learn more about Thom Loverro, go to www.thomloverro.com