Thursday, June 14, 2007

Axed. Again

Here’s an item that will have Indians fans wearing a knowing smirk: Eddie Murray was just fired as the Los Angeles Dodgers hitting coach. What’s amazing about the story is how eerily similar it was to Cleveland’s experience with Murray.

As most will recall, the Indians in 2004 were a mediocre 80-82, but it wasn’t for lack of offense. Sound familiar? That year, the Indians had a team average of .276, which was fourth in the American League and scored 858 runs, which was fifth. But they were 10th in the league in ERA and teams batted .271 against them. Really dragging the team down, however, was the return of the bullpen from hell.

Although 2004 was Murray’s third season as hitting coach and he seemed to be having success, there had been numerous rumblings throughout his tenure about his my-way-or-the-highway approach. He was surly as a ballplayer and didn’t seem to change all that much as a hitting coach. There were plenty of rumors about his inability to connect with the players. Still, entering the 2005 season, offense didn’t appear to be the problem.

But on June 4, 2005, with the Indians struggling mightily to score runs, they essentially conceded what was apparent to everyone else: Eddie Murray had to go. At the time of his departure, the team was batting a miserable .243. They replaced Murray with Derek Shelton and almost immediately went on a tear offensively that continued for the remainder of the season. The Indians ended up hitting .271, which was fourth in the league and scored 790 runs, which likewise was fourth.

When he was let go, Manager Eric Wedge told the media “We don't make hasty decisions. It was a process, and ultimately we decided to do it after the game today. There wasn't one particular thing.”

There isn’t anything particularly remarkable about that quote except that it’s nearly identical to what the Dodgers said today when they released Murray. Upon dumping Murray, General Manager Ned Colletti said “We don't do anything here quick or without a lot of thought and a lot of compassion. We feel like there's a lot of the season left and the offense can be a lot better than it is. We decided to do it now.”

Not only are the reasons similar, but so too are the circumstances. Last year, the Dodgers led the league in hitting with a .276 batting average. They were fourth in the league in runs scored with 820. This year, their batting average has dropped 15 points to .261, which is 7th in the league and they are 9th in runs scored. Murray has been replaced on an interim basis by Bill Mueller, just as Derek Shelton was hired on an interim basis with the Indians. Not surprisingly Mueller, like Shelton, said his first order of business will be to build a rapport with the players.

In the end, that was always the problem with Murray. He didn’t communicate with the media and, despite front office statements that Murray was more animated in the club house, he apparently wasn’t very communicative with the players either. It was said in both Cleveland and Los Angeles that one of the biggest problems was that Murray waited for players to approach him rather than the other way around. Maybe he felt that was the respect he deserved given his accomplishments as a player or maybe it was because as a great hitter himself, he felt that advice resonated best when it was sought not forced.

But whatever it was, at least this much is clear: Murray basically didn’t learn any lessons from his firing in Cleveland.

For all his shortcomings as a coach, the temptation to otherwise trash Murray should be greatly resisted. As a player, he was amazing. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame and it was well deserved. He hit 504 home runs and had a lifetime batting average of .287. By the time he came to Cleveland in 1994, he was somewhat a shadow of the player he once was. But he was brought in as the consummate veteran leader for a young and upcoming ball club and delivered mightily in that role. In the breakout year of 1995, Murray hit .323 and had 21 home runs in only 436 at bats. He also had 21 doubles and 82 RBI. It was Murray on the offensive side, with Orel Hershiser and Dennis Martinez on the pitching side, that combined for the final pieces of the puzzle to make 1995 such a magical year. For that Cleveland fans will always owe a debt of gratitude to Murray.

It’s hard to say where Murray may end up after his latest flameout. Given his experiences in both Cleveland and Los Angeles, it may very well be that he won’t find any coaching work anytime soon, which is probably just as well for everyone involved. Thus, in short order, this Hall of Famer will probably be out of baseball entirely, an ignominious end for one who brought so much to the sport.

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