IS IT TWILIGHT TIME?

Eddie Murray and Jim Rice are out to prove that they're still $2 million stars
March 14, 1988

As the Baltimore Orioles gathered in Miami for their second full-squad spring workout, Eddie Murray, a day late, went from locker to locker, shaking hands with teammates, old as well as new. Some 200 miles away, Jim Rice of the Boston Red Sox was out performing his morning ritual, a 1½-mile jog, on the grass at Winter Haven's Chain O' Lakes Park.

As relaxed as those two scenes may seem, for Murray, 32, and Rice, 35, who have hit more homers and driven in more runs over the past 10 seasons than any other players in the American League, these are times of trial. Each is being asked by his team's fans—and, to a lesser extent, by his team—to prove again that he's a $2 million player. Each became an exile in his home park last year, scourged, booed and singled out as the reason for his team's position in the second division. "The memories of the fans and media are getting shorter all the time," says Frank Robinson, the Orioles' assistant general manager. "And when a man's making the money Murray or Rice is making, there are no acceptable excuses."

"I don't think I should have to prove anything," says Rice, "but if that's what the fans and the press want, fine. I'll prove I'm not dead and that I do care. All I ask is the same opportunity I got as a rookie." And as if he were a rookie, he reported to spring training along with the pitchers and catchers. Upon arriving, he announced that his knees, which had been surgically repaired during the off-season, felt better and that he wanted to earn his salary—he'll get a total of $4.4 million for this season and next—by doing more for the Red Sox than simply serving as a designated hitter.

His words on the latter subject made the front page of The Boston Globe. Callers to radio talk shows took Rice to mean that he was refusing to be a DH and was demanding that manager John McNamara relegate Mike Greenwell, Todd Benzinger or another of Boston's talented young outfielders to that role. Rice says he was misunderstood. "I wasn't telling McNamara where to play me," he says, "but I still want to try to be an all-around player. I still have pride. I still care. I thought that I was starting the spring off positively."

For his part, Murray has mostly kept quiet this spring. "I don't want to stir up the past," he said last week in explaining his silence. "I'm trying to get a fresh start and see if things can be better."

Last season both men were also subjected to unmerciful second-guessing by radio talk show callers. "When you've done what they've done and start earning $2 million, it's hard to ever fulfill expectations," says Orioles coach Elrod Hendricks, a close friend of Murray's. "Then fans want to forget what an Eddie Murray or a Jim Rice has done and give their jobs away. That's something no veteran player can ever understand—even if it's harmless fan talk."

Rice says he doesn't want to be traded and promises a better year now that he's healthier. Murray's pain, on the other hand, is of the spirit, and it has not entirely gone away. He asked to be traded in August 1986 and still would be happy to leave Baltimore. "We used to say, 'It's great to be young and an Oriole,' " says Murray. "Well, it stopped being that way. It got to where I was playing angry, and that's no way to live or play."

For the first nine years of his career, Murray could do no wrong in the eyes of Baltimore fans. "When it came time for my contracts, I never talked about leaving," he says. "All I wanted was to play for the Orioles." Of course, during those years, 1977 through '85, Baltimore averaged 93 victories a year and won two pennants while Murray averaged 30 homers and 108 RBIs and batted .298. Says Hendricks: "Players and fans got to thinking that winning was the norm, so naturally they believed the Orioles were special. This is especially true of Eddie. He doesn't want cars or land or fame. All he wants is to win. People don't understand that it tears him up when the Orioles don't win."

When Murray injured his left hamstring in July 1986 he realized for the first time that being a team's highest-paid player could be a burden. Neither the fans nor the front office showed much patience with him. He was ordered to exercise the leg on a particular kind of rehabilitation machine. "I kept asking, 'Are you sure this is the right thing?' " he says. "It was killing me."

The injury worsened, and Murray went on the disabled list for the first time in his career, missing 24 games. Before then, he had never missed more than 11 games in any season. While he was hurt, Murray's friends say, he also began to worry that Baltimore's farm system was deteriorating and that the team was picking up players who didn't fit the traditional Oriole mold. He was bothered that Oriole pitchers like Tippy Martinez were, in his view, being burned out, then discarded. Murray heard that general manager Hank Peters thought he wasn't giving his best efforts. Then, owner Edward Bennett Williams publicly questioned Murray's attitude. "That hurt me deeply," says Murray.

Matters grew worse last year. The Orioles were woeful, finishing 67-95 and sixth in the American League East while winning only 11 of 65 games against the five teams that finished ahead of them. Murray took the brunt of the booing. The taunts were not only loud, but also obscene. He would drive home from the park and hear fans calling the radio shows to demand that Baltimore get rid of him. He read newspaper stories suggesting that, with his five year, $13.5-million contract that runs through 1991, he had become self-satisfied. Once he turned on the TV news and saw a man-in-the-street interview in which a stockbroker declared, "The problem with the Orioles is Eddie Murray." And one night a crowd in the Memorial Stadium parking lot turned so menacing that, Murray says, "I considered getting a gun for self-protection. Is that crazy or what? I asked myself, What's happening here?"

Finally, in August, Murray decided it was time to move on. Despite a career-low .277 average (.263 at home), Murray hardly had a bad year in 1987. He hit 30 homers and knocked in 91 runs despite the lack of speed in front of him. He also played in 160 games. The Orioles tried at times last season to honor Murray's request for a trade but found that they couldn't get fair market value because of his contract. After the season ended, Williams fired Peters as general manager and later replaced him with the energetic Roland Hemond, with whom Murray immediately felt at ease. Williams also met with Murray, and the two smoothed over their differences.

"He's still young, and as far as I'm concerned he's one of the great players in the game," says Hemond. "Everyone connected with the Orioles says he's a leader. He's going to be a big part of turning this franchise around." The Orioles brass thinks that Murray will begin to enjoy himself again as they break in three or four young position players and try to make over the pitching staff.

Does Murray buy that? "Just check his frame of mind," says Hendricks. "He's really trying, because most of all he wants this team to win again. What makes him happiest is having the young players around. There's a new atmosphere here, and Eddie wants to make sure that it remains positive."

Of course, Murray is still unpredictable. He was supposed to wed a woman named Brenda Wilson on Feb. 12, and several members of the Oriole family went to Los Angeles for the event. But Murray, who wears a necklace bearing the legend JUST REGULAR, canceled the wedding at the last moment and has declined to comment on the matter.

The 13-year marriage between Rice and the Boston fans soured as the Red Sox fell from first in 1986 to fifth while Rice struggled with his ailing knees. Early last season his right knee started swelling up on him regularly. "It was the knee equivalent of tennis elbow," Rice says. "I couldn't turn on the ball at the plate. All I could do was try to hit without driving my body into the ball." Rice had to virtually stop striding into pitches, and the result was a punchy, opposite-field stroke that turned him into a high-priced, slow-footed singles hitter. He had career lows in homers (13), RBIs (62, after four straight seasons of more than 100), extra-base hits (27) and average (.277). By September the left knee was also painfully inflamed. Red Sox team physician Arthur Pappas told him to quit for the year and prepare for surgery on both knees.

While Rice struggled and finally sat, other older members of the 1986 pennant winners, Bill Buckner, Don Baylor, Tony Armas and David Henderson, were shipped out, and the Red Sox broke in a cast of glitzy youngsters. Rookie Mike Green well batted .328 with 89 RBIs in only 412 at bats and looked very much as if he would be Boston's leftfielder for the next decade or so. That would relegate Rice to the DH spot, and he would even have to fight young Sam Horn for that role. But Rice worked harder over the winter than he ever had before, running his 1½ miles daily through the Massachusetts snow, riding a stationary bike and exercising to regain strength in his knees. When he showed up in Winter Haven, he weighed 15 pounds less than he had in September and vowed to lose another 15, to get to 200 pounds.

"I won't be 100 percent until the end of spring training," says Rice. "But already I can feel a big difference in the right knee. I can open up again, and that's what I plan to do. With all the hitters we have, it's my job to get into the middle of the lineup, hit the ball out of the ballpark and drive in runs."

As for his feelings about being a designated hitter, Rice says, "I think there's something wrong with anyone who doesn't want to be an all-around ballplayer. I had my shot as a DH when I came up and Carl Yastrzemski was in leftfield. He should have been there. He earned the right to be there. I think that after 13 full years I have earned the right to be given the same shot to win the leftfield position as Greenwell, Benzinger or anyone else. I never said I wouldn't DH. I understand that at 35 I can't go out in the field every day. If McNamara tells me to DH, I'll DH. One thing I've never had is a problem with a manager."

Not that the press hasn't looked for one. When McNamara noticed 13 golf bags with the team's luggage on a September road trip, he banned the toting of clubs around the league. No doubt the Red Sox' 28-54 road record had something to do with McNamara's decision. Though Rice was finished for the season, he was singled out in the press as the instigator, because of his passion for golf. Rice bristles when he discusses this matter. "In the first place, no one said anything about my getting out of the hotel at 7 a.m. to shoot a few holes when I was knocking in 100 runs a year," he says. "Second, if there were 13 bags, why did writers point the finger at me? If the manager doesn't want golf, I won't play golf. No problem. Silly, but no problem. I don't want to be the focus of attention. I don't like being booed. But I guess it comes with the territory, and with the money."

Two years before Rice joined the Red Sox, Yastrzemski was booed so loudly at Fenway Park that he wore cotton in his ears in the field. Ted Williams was booed until the last few years of his career; once he spit back at the crowd. But Yaz and Williams finished their careers in Boston as local heroes. "I'd love to play the rest of my career in Boston and go out the way they did," says Rice. "But these are different times. Contracts are different. I have two years left. After that, who knows what the Red Sox will want to do with me?"

"For today's stars, money buys a lot more than houses and cars," says Frank Robinson. It has bought Rice and Murray headaches and heartaches.

PHOTOJERRY WATCHTERMurray is not as sad to be an Oriole as he looks, but he would like to leave Baltimore. PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONRice evinces no interest in a trade and has promised to give Red Sox fans a better year. PHOTOJERRY WATCHERIn '87, Murray was booed lustily at home and hit 26 points worse than he did on the road. PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONRice wants to play leftfield, but he insists he's not telling McNamara how to manage.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)