It’s off to Cleveland for the Orioles after a series split this week with the Twins. Whatever excitement this four-game series may bring, it will be tough to match what happened between the teams on July 21, 1996.
Sixteen years ago, the O’s reacquired legendary first baseman Eddie Murray in a deal that sent pitcher Kent Mercker to Cleveland. For a nostalgic fan like myself, who grew up delighting in the chants of “Ed-die” at Memorial Stadium, it didn’t get much better than welcoming back a legend with the team in playoff contention to boot.
Murray’s final stint in Baltimore was short but sweet, lasting until the end of the season. He thrilled hometown fans with a two-run homer against the Twins in his first game back in orange and black on July 22. Two days later, he homered again in the bottom of the fifth inning, this time a solo shot. Murray totaled six home runs in his first 25 games as the team’s designated hitter.
The energy Murray brought to town didn’t translate into wins, however, as the O’s lost five consecutive games following his acquisition to fall to what at the time was a season-worst 11 games behind the division-leading Yankees. Win streaks of four and five games in the first half of August put the Birds right back in the hunt, a mere 5 1/2 games behind New York by the middle of the month.
I had the good fortune of watching from the standing room area of Camden Yards as Murray swatted two home runs during an Aug. 14 game against the Brewers, who were still playing in the American League at the time.
This was clearly in the days before the “August swoon” that has become the stuff of legend in Baltimore in recent years. The 1996 O’s posted their best monthly record of the season in August, going 19-11. Murray was a big part of the equation as he likewise enjoyed his best month of the 1996 campaign, batting .311 with six home runs, 18 RBIs and a .901 OPS over the course of 29 games and 121 plate appearances.
Murray’s return to Baltimore took on meaning beyond the pennant race, of course, as he chased his milestone 500th home run. On Sept. 6, 1996, one year to the date of Cal Ripken’s 2,131st consecutive game, Murray hit the historic homer, a 413-foot shot off Detroit’s Felipe Lira that tied the game at three in the bottom of the seventh inning. Watch it here.
The O’s went on to win the rain-delayed game - a 2-hour, 20-minute rain delay, to be specific - in 12 innings, an outcome that was the focus of Murray’s postgame comments.
“Right then, it was a big hit, and I knew I had done two things: It tied the game, and we need some wins,” Murray said.
Murray joined Hank Aaron and Willie Mays at as the only players to that point with 3,000 hits and 500 homers. He became the first switch hitter to accomplish both milestones, doing so by living up to his nickname of “Steady Eddie.” His season-best total for home runs was 33. He hit 30 homers in a year only five times during his 21-year career. However, he had 20 or more home runs in 17 of those seasons. Said Murray as he chased No. 500, “I never considered myself a home run hitter.”
The short-but-sweet story of Murray’s twilight stay in Baltimore ended in bittersweet fashion. The O’s earned the American League wild card only to fall to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series in five games. Murray took Andy Pettitte deep in the bottom of the eighth inning in Game 5, ending his career in Baltimore with a home run in his final at-bat.
Matthew Taylor blogs about the Orioles at Roar from 34. His ruminations about the Birds appear as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.