Eddie Murray's timing was impeccable. On the one-year anniversary of Cal Ripken's historic 2,131st consecutive game, Murray launched his 500th home runand became only the third player in baseball history to reach both 500 homersand 3,000 hits.
Murray turned Camden Yards into a carnival when he hit a first-pitchsplit-fingered fastball into the right-field bleachers off Detroit Tigerspitcher Felipe Lira in the seventh inning to end the suspense that had beenbuilding since he hit his 499th homer at the Kingdome in Seattle last Friday.
He had hit his last two on the road, but came came back to the city where hebegan his illustrious career to reach another milestone on one of the greatstatistical odysseys of all time.
"It's a neighborhood you don't know if you belong in yet," Murray said."The third guy to do that? It's still hard to see yourself mentioned in thatsame company. Those are guys that everybody knows."
Murray's big moment came on a rain-soaked night with barely half the seatsstill occupied after the start of the game was delayed for 2 hours, 20minutes, but the 25,000 or so die-hards who stayed until Saturday morning hadenough lung capacity to give him a long and rousing ovation.
"It was nice to see everybody get fired up about it," Murray said,"Hopefully now, a lot of things will die down so I can get back to hitting theway I'm capable of hitting."
He circled the bases under a shower of sparkling confetti and was mobbedby his teammates at home plate as the public address blared the end theme from"Star Trek, The Next Generation." The ovation lasted 8 1/2 minutes, andMurray took a couple of curtain calls as the Orioles unfurled a large bannerin center field that read "Congratulations Eddie 500."
That was slightly reminiscent of the numbers unfurling on the side of theB&O Warehouse when Ripken was chasing Gehrig, but not enough to steal any ofMurray's thunder.
The sometimes-taciturn superstar clearly reveled in the moment, his faceaglow in the Orioles' dugout. He even came out and shook hands with severalfans and friends before the game continued. If only his game-tying home runhad propelled the Orioles to a victory, it would have been a perfect evening,but the Tigers prevailed, 5-4, in 12 innings.
"I'd have preferred to get a win," Murray said. "We're running out ofgames. It would have been nice to get a win."
The date was particularly significant because Ripken paved the way forMurray's return to Baltimore with the speech he made to the sellout OriolePark crowd after he broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record last Sept. 6.He named Murray as one of the greatest influences on his career, and latermade no secret of his desire to play alongside Murray again.
That became a reality when general manager Pat Gillick traded left-handerKent Mercker to the Cleveland Indians to bring Murray back to Baltimore aftera 7 1/2 -year absence. He left under bitter circumstances but returned just intime to re-establish his baseball roots in the city where he developed intoone of the game's most productive hitters.
His presence has bolstered the bottom third of the lineup and helped theOrioles stage a dramatic second-half turnaround. The Orioles are a game behindthe Chicago White Sox in the wild-card race and still in range of thefirst-place New York Yankees in the American League East. That, according tomanager Davey Johnson, is no coincidence. He said early on that Murray wouldbridge the club's leadership gap.
The last player to reach 500 homers was Philadelphia Phillies slugger Mike Schmidt, who took his historic swing April 18, 1987, and was inducted into theHall of Fame last year. The last American League player to do it was Reggie Jackson, who hit his 500th on Sept. 17, 1984, and arrived in Cooperstown in1993.
Murray will be there soon enough. He ranks among the baseball's all-timeleaders in virtually every relevant offensive category. The only question iswhether he chooses to return for the 1997 season. He may not be the samehitter who terrorized pitchers in his first incarnation as an Oriole, but hehad enough left this year to hit at least 20 homers for the 16th time in 20years.
Lira, who lost a chance at his first victory in two months when the ballleft the park, wasn't thrilled to become the 500th notch on Murray's belt.
"It was a horrible pitch," Lira said. "It was a split-finger that didnothing. I made a big mistake, and he did not miss it. If I throw that pitch100 times, 99 of them are going out. He got me."