NEW YORK -- Some baseball players need to pass a milestone to be recognized, to be fully appreciated. Until then, they seem to blend into the scenery, if not the shadows.
It was like that for Billy Williams, who finished with 426 homers while Ernie Banks, his Cubs teammate, hit 512. It was even like that for Eddie Mathews, the Braves third baseman who hit 512 homers while Henry Aaron was hitting 755.
Until now, it's been like that for Eddie Murray.
When the now-36-year-old switch-slugger was with the Orioles for 12 seasons, the headlines trumpeted Jim Palmer and Cal Ripken Jr., even though Murray finished in the top five in the Most Valuable Player award voting five consecutive years. When he was with the Dodgers the last three years, what Kirk Gibson, Orel Hershiser and Darryl Strawberry didn't do or couldn't do somehow seemed to be more important than what he did.
But ever since the New York Mets' new first baseman hit his 400th homer a week ago, it's as if he has been playing in the glow of that milestone.
For many baseball fans, that 400th homer buzzed like an alarm clock. Wake up, world, Eddie Murray is up to 400 homers and counting. His 400th homer seemed to create more of an impact than all of the 399 homers that preceded it. But baseball milestones do that. They measure how far a player has come and where he's going.
In major-league history, only one switch-hitter has hit more homers (Mickey Mantle, 536). In all, only 23 hitters have hit more.
"I don't know that I've ever met Mickey Mantle," Murray said. "I remember seeing him at an old-timers day somewhere, but if we shook hands, he must've come over to see a bunch of us. I wouldn't have gone over to him. I wouldn't have been that forward."
Eddie Murray's style is being forceful, not forward.
His style is playing baseball, hard. No show. No act. No talk. No alibi.
"I got my own ways of getting ready," he said.
His style is making the plays at first base every day. Swinging from both sides of the plate. Rising to the occasion with runners on base, especially with three runners on base.
During his career, Murray has a remarkable bases-loaded average of .417, with 229 runs batted in and 15 grand slams (only seven players have more).
Of his Mets-leading 22 RBIs this season, 10 were produced with four hits in five times at bat with the bases loaded, often with two out.
"It seems like there were two out when Eddie drove in most of his runs this season," said Mets manager Jeff Torborg. "That's big."
That's why general manager Al Harazin believed Murray would be worth a two-year, $7.5 million contract as a free agent after the Dodgers had offered him one year for $3 million.
"We wanted to keep Eddie one more year," said Dodgers general manager Fred Claire, "because we knew we had somebody coming along."
Eric Karros, who hit 22 homers for Albuquerque of the Pacific Coast League last year, had to come along quicker than expected. He's now the Dodgers first baseman while Eddie Murray stops at Shea Stadium on his way to Cooperstown.
"The Hall of Fame," he was saying now. "If it happens, it happens."
It'll happen. Barring a severe injury, Murray should endure for several seasons. He's hoping to play at least 150 games this season for the sixth consecutive year and for the 14th time in his career (only Pete Rose has done it more often, 17 times; Aaron and Brooks Robinson did it 14 times). In an era when baseball players are on the disabled list almost as often as they're on deck, Murray has been on the DL once. That's once in his career, in 1986 with a pulled hamstring.
"I think that goes back to when I was a kid in Will Rogers Park in Los Angeles," he said. "Our coach, Clifford Prelow, the park director, had us stretching before we played when I was 10 years old. Fundamentally, he taught me everything. If you didn't bunt the ball between the lines, you ran a lap. He taught me discipline too."
With his body, Murray should be able to play for another five seasons, if not more. If not for the Mets after his contract expires at the end of next season, then surely somewhere in the American League as a designated hitter. Over five more healthy seasons, Murray might be approaching 500 homers and will probably have accumulated more than 3,000 hits and 1,800 RBIs. But whatever he accomplishes, don't expect him to set an alarm clock for the fans. When he was asked if he was thinking about 3,000 hits, he shrugged.
"It's there," he said.
With that, maybe Eddie Murray best described himself too. He's there every day in the batter's box and at first base. His just being there every day has always been more than enough.