'96 was balm in healing process

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WILL they chant his name in Cooperstown, the way they used to at Memorial Stadium, when the quiet kid out of Los Angeles took over first base for the Orioles, then never stopped producing hits and homers and runs, all the way back to Camden Yards?

Will they chant "Ed-die, Ed-die" like they used to, before anyone suspected Eddie Murray would pose a frustrating puzzle and perplex Baltimore fans who revered baseball's greatest switch-hitter this side of Mickey Mantle but could not always, unconditionally, extend their love?

Luckily, this Hall of Fame induction is a moment Murray, the Orioles and loyal fans can savor in clear conscience. Redemption and reconciliation took place. The celebratory mood for this crowning achievement was paved a few years back.

Now, the Orioles' Cooperstown lineup gets bigger, and it gets better. Anytime a player like Eddie Clarence Murray is added to the immortal constellation, the light shines brighter.

Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson, Earl Weaver and now Steady Eddie Murray: an Oriole at the start, an Oriole forever.

How fitting, really, that after all the glory and then the rancor, Murray was needed back in Baltimore. The Orioles needed him near the end of his career just as they did in the beginning.

In July 1996, when the Orioles were attempting to recapture the glory of their World Series seasons, they turned to Steady Eddie, 7 1/2 years after the tumultuous divorce.

"We brought him back because we thought he could help us," former Orioles general manager Pat Gillick recalled recently.

Gillick was in charge of the veteran-laced Orioles, whose owner, Peter Angelos, was determined to bring Baltimore its first World Series since 1983. So Gillick - not a big-time wheeler-dealer at baseball's non-waiver trade deadline - picked wisely when he went after Murray.

After all, Murray had gone on from Baltimore and helped the Dodgers, helped Cleveland. As he had done in 1983, when he powered the Orioles to their last World Series title, Murray could be counted on again.

"He was someone who had been there before, and he was a great hitter who we thought could help put us over the top. It wasn't for sentimental reasons. It wasn't for any sense of closure. We thought he was someone we could use to DH or come off the bench, since we had Rafael Palmeiro at first, and Eddie did help us. We needed his bat," Gillick said.

The Orioles, with Murray back in the fold, went on a second-half tear. They earned the wild-card spot before falling to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series.

But something else important was accomplished that season. The crowds at Camden Yards cheered Murray when he blasted his 492nd homer on July 22. It was his first game for the Orioles since 1988, when Murray's bitter demand for a trade was met and off he went to the Dodgers, to Cleveland, anywhere but Baltimore.

Then, later, with the Orioles still hunting down their playoff berth, Murray added the inevitable coda to his Hall of Fame career. On Sept. 6, after a two-hour rain delay that had emptied Camden Yards of so many eager fans, Murray cranked homer No. 500.

The homer erased a 3-2 Detroit lead, though the Orioles went on to lose in extra innings. It was late at night, therefore failing to whip up the tremendous fanfare that Cal Ripken - the Orioles' next Hall of Fame inductee - incited exactly one year earlier by breaking the iron man record.

But Murray's 500th homer was fate's way of reconciling all those good times Murray had in Baltimore in the beginning with that disastrous period of rancor and ill will - a period of disappointment and dissolution that had seemed destined to forever taint Murray's legacy.

Listen closely or nose around, you can find it. There's a weak theory out there that suggests Murray's Hall of Fame credentials are as much a result of his health and longevity as anything. It's the sort of theory outside observers can easily slap into a discussion about Murray's career.

Sure, Murray burst into the major leagues in 1977 as the American League Rookie of the Year. Sure, he was baseball's best clutch-hitting switch-hitter. Sure, there were those early seasons when he was a perennial Most Valuable Player candidate.

But in the end, the small chorus of qualifiers sings, isn't Murray's Hall of Fame stature the result of his 21 seasons, his major league record of 20 straight seasons with 75 or more RBIs? Didn't the tenor of his reputation change when, after 12 years in Baltimore, he moved on? He amassed more numbers in L.A., then with the Mets, then Cleveland, where he was playing when he tagged hit No. 3,000 to set the table for Murray's joining Hank Aaron and Willie Mays as the only players to amass 3,000 hits and 500 homers.

Maybe it was because he became a bat for hire, separated from his career birth team, that gave rise to this perception. But during his return to Baltimore in '96, something important took place.

"It was almost like you took it for granted, playing with Eddie all those years, until it was over," Ripken said. "But when he came back, he was happy and content. It was like it was whole again with Eddie around. It was like things were back to the way they used to be.

"That whole thing with Eddie, the rebuilding, the trade to L.A., that was one of the saddest things I can remember. But when he came back, it was great. In my mind, Eddie is always an Oriole. That was his roots. That was where he started. He was an integral part of the team. He showed guys how to win."

The stats, the awards and the milestones have earned Eddie Murray the honor of baseball immortality. The coming back, the coming home, however brief, earned Murray and the Orioles a kind of peace. No wonder everyone's finally ready to really celebrate.