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 run and became only the third player in baseball history to reach both 500 homers and 3,000 hits.
Murray turned Camden Yards into a carnival when he hit a first-pitch split-fingered fastball into the right-field bleachers off Detroit Tigers pitcher Felipe Lira in the seventh inning to end the suspense that had been building 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 he began his illustrious career to reach another milestone on one of the great statistical odysseys of all time.
Only Willie Mays and Hank Aaron -- each of whom could make an argument for being the best baseball player of all time -- have reached both of the sport's most revered offensive plateaus.
"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 that same company. Those are guys that everybody knows."
Murray's big moment came on a rain-soaked night with barely half the seats still occupied after the start of the game was delayed for 2 hours, 20 minutes, but the 25,000 or so die-hards who stayed until Saturday morning had enough 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 the way I'm capable of hitting."
He circled the bases under a shower of sparkling confetti and was mobbed by 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, and Murray took a couple of curtain calls as the Orioles unfurled a large banner in center field that read "Congratulations Eddie 500."
That was slightly reminiscent of the numbers unfurling on the side of the B&O Warehouse when Ripken was chasing Gehrig, but not enough to steal any of Murray's thunder.
The sometimes-taciturn superstar clearly reveled in the moment, his face aglow in the Orioles' dugout. He even came out and shook hands with several fans and friends before the game continued. If only his game-tying home run had 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 of games. It would have been nice to get a win."
The date was particularly significant because Ripken paved the way for Murray's return to Baltimore with the speech he made to the sellout Oriole Park 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 later made no secret of his desire to play alongside Murray again.
That became a reality when general manager Pat Gillick traded left-hander Kent Mercker to the Cleveland Indians to bring Murray back to Baltimore after a 7 1/2 -year absence. He left under bitter circumstances but returned just in time to re-establish his baseball roots in the city where he developed into one of the game's most productive hitters.
His presence has bolstered the bottom third of the lineup and helped the Orioles stage a dramatic second-half turnaround. The Orioles are a game behind the Chicago White Sox in the wild-card race and still in range of the first-place New York Yankees in the American League East. That, according to manager Davey Johnson, is no coincidence. He said early on that Murray would bridge 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 the Hall 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 in 1993.
Murray will be there soon enough. He ranks among the baseball's all-time leaders in virtually every relevant offensive category. The only question is whether he chooses to return for the 1997 season. He may not be the same hitter who terrorized pitchers in his first incarnation as an Oriole, but he had enough left this year to hit at least 20 homers for the 16th time in 20 years.
Lira, who lost a chance at his first victory in two months when the ball left 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 did nothing. I made a big mistake, and he did not miss it. If I throw that pitch 100 times, 99 of them are going out. He got me."