The statistics themselves never held much fascination for Eddie Murray, a fiercely private man who sees little reason to celebrate his 3,000th hit any more than his 3,001st.
“You don’t want to stop at a certain number,” Murray said this week as he moved within a dozen hits of the milestone, achieved by just 19 others in baseball history. “That’s why I don’t put numbers in my head. You just want to keep going.”
Yet there is a number that intrigues even Murray, one that would put him into an even more select club that includes only Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. If he can someday hit his 500th home run - not an unrealistic expectation, given that he has 467 now and is showing no signs of slowing down - he would become the third player with both 3,000 hits and 500 home runs.
“It’s kind of made you go, like, wow. You didn’t know you were that close,” Murray said. “When you think about all the people that have played this game, it’s amazing… . And to be this close, I guess that’s something to get excited about.”
Murray, excited? That alone would be news to many who have watched him, cheered him, played alongside him since he broke in with Bluefield of the Appalachian League in 1973. Although it is said he is plenty outspoken among his teammates when no one else is around, he rarely lets outsiders know what he’s thinking or feeling.
It is a trait that has brought him criticism over the years, suggestions that he’s a bad influence in the clubhouse. Nothing could be further from the truth, says Indians general manager John Hart, who was a minor-league manager and major-league coach with Baltimore during a portion of Murray’s 12 years with the Orioles.
“Fans or the front office or whatever wanted Eddie to be something he wasn’t,” Hart said. “When Eddie first came up (in 1977), he was surrounded by throwback players, guys from the ‘60s, guys like Lee May, a lot of stars. Eddie was able to come up and just play.
“Then later, when you’re down to just Eddie and Cal Ripken, there were a lot of expectations of Eddie. He was great around the players. But Eddie gives the media only what he wants to give the media.”
Teammates past and present swear that’s the truth. Ripken, in fact, still credits Murray for helping instill the ethic that has led Ripken to the verge of surpassing Lou Gehrig’s streak of consecutive games played: the value of showing up for work every day and giving it your best.
“He’s a guy who taught me how playing every day was so important, how it gave stability to the lineup, dependability on defense,” Ripken said. “I think both of us are very proud of the job we do. But you really don’t want to get a lot of praise for doing it, I suppose. Watching Eddie play every single game rubbed off on me.”
Murray has played in more than 150 games in every non-strike year of his 18-year career, with one exception, 1986, when a pulled hamstring forced him to miss 25 games. Now a combination designated hitter-first baseman, he has played in more games defensively at first than anyone else.
“If you’re getting paid, I would like to be out there on the ballfield trying to do something,” Murray said. “I like playing. That’s why I’m here. Always enjoyed the game.
“I don’t need someone to motivate me. Everybody should be able to motivate themselves. I don’t know, I’ve just never been a rah-rah type of person. There are times when you get up and yell and try to cheer your teammates on. But that’s all you can do when you’re not up at the plate.”
Now 39 years old, Murray is still one of the most valuable hitters in Cleveland’s stacked lineup. Having spent 12 years with Baltimore, three with the Los Angeles Dodgers and two with the New York Mets, Murray joined the Indians as a free agent last year to give them a solid No. 5 hitter - protection for cleanup hitter Albert Belle.
Although a severely strained thumb depressed Murray’s numbers a bit last season (.254, 17 home runs, 76 RBIs in 108 games), he has come back healthy this year. He took a .333 average, nine home runs and 34 RBIs into this weekend’s series against the New York Yankees.
“We acquired Eddie to be a big bat behind Albert, which he’s obviously turned out to be, and for his leadership,” Hart said. “He’s provided both.”
Baseball has been in Murray’s blood since he was a youngster in a Los Angeles neighborhood that he says produced a dozen big leaguers, including shortstop Ozzie Smith. Back then, Murray, who was naturally a right-handed hitter, got his first taste of switch-hitting.But it wasn’t until a year before he was promoted to the majors that Murray became a full-time switch-hitter.
“I knew I could do it. It was just a question of them (his manager and coaches) asking me what I thought about it,” Murray said. “I told them I could hit left-handed. I walked up to home plate, hit a double, and have been doing it ever since.”
A career .288 hitter, Murray has hit .294 against right-handed pitchers and .276 against lefthanders. When he gets hit No. 3,000, he’ll be the second switch-hitter to do it, joining Pete Rose.
He also has driven in more than 75 runs in each of his 18 seasons so far. Only Aaron, with 19 straight years of 75-plus RBIs, had a longer streak.
Murray isn’t sure where he’ll be next year - his Cleveland contract expires after this season - although he’s sure he wants to be playing somewhere.
“Every day is something different,” he said. “If you’ve got an open mind, you really can learn something every day. You can learn something from a 5-year-old if you sit there and listen long enough.”
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