Casino executive fouls one off boasting of baseball prowess

As a lifelong baseball fan, I was intrigued to learn MGM Mirage Chairman and CEO Jim Murren had played minor league baseball in the Philadelphia Phillies organization before moving to Wall Street and eventually into the casino business.

As a mediocre college ballplayer, I learned about life’s frustrations on rain-soaked diamonds at two colleges in the Northwest. There’s nothing like a string of 0-for-4 days to remind you to keep up your studies and stop fantasizing about a career playing baseball for money.

The closest I ever came was the summer of 1979 with the Everett, Wash., Twins of the Western International League. Some 20 years later, I played Sunday baseball with a bunch of beer-drinking pals on the Holy Cow team.

As a sports columnist in an exhibition game, I once got a hit off barnstorming Hall of Famer Bob Feller. He was only 68 at the time. Rapid Robert playfully threw at my head my next time up.

If anyone can empathize with the frustration of trying to play baseball at a competitive level, it’s me. I wondered what lessons Murren had learned as a minor leaguer. He alluded to his playing days during a recent tour of his dream come true, the $8.5 billion CityCenter complex. Murren’s wife, Heather, was along for the tour and proudly mentioned her husband had played in the Phillies farm system.

A Sept. 16, 2007, article by the Review-Journal’s Howard Stutz mentions Murren’s playing days, as does a recent Business section column by the veteran gaming reporter. It also made newsprint a couple years earlier.

Thinking it might make a good ice-breaker for an interview or an angle for a column, I checked the accepted online sources of information on baseball’s minor leagues. Baseball is a statistically intensive game, and the growth of the Internet has been a boon to historians, numbers freaks, and earnest fans.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered no Jim Murren had ever played in the minor leagues. Not for the Phillies or any other franchise.

It gives me no pleasure to discover what can politely be described as an embarrassing biographical glitch. By all accounts the Murrens are bright and talented people. Their devotion to the Nevada Cancer Institute is nothing short of inspiring.

CityCenter not only is a testament to Murren’s creative vision, but also to his tenacity to see such a colossal project completed despite serious construction and financial challenges and the fracturing of the world’s economy.

Next to that, kicking around in the low minors seems inconsequential. So why perpetuate the myth, or allow it to be perpetuated?

There begins the real story of Murren’s minor league fabrication. As I suspected, it began with a woman named Heather.

They met several years after Jim had hung up his spikes and moved onto the far more treacherous playing field of Wall Street. In talking about himself on a date, he naturally included his baseball playing days in the early 1980s at Trinity College, where he was a left-handed pitcher who also played first base.

In an effort to get past first base, as it were, he also mentioned the times he traveled with his college team to Clearwater, Fla., to the Phillies’ spring training camp. Only he neglected to fully disclose the fact he was with his college ballclub and not part of the Phillies’ organization.

“I met Heather in 1989, about five years later, and I was trying to impress her, very frankly, and I embellished the story,” Murren said. “I embellished my achievements playing baseball.”

After meeting Heather, I can’t blame Murren for overstating his athletic prowess. To impress a woman that beautiful and talented, I would have sworn I was an astronaut just back from the moon in time to compete in the Summer Olympics. Bragging to women is something men do because we lack the wildly colorful tail feathers of the courting peacock.

Murren used the tried-and-true former pro ballplayer shtick. And it worked.

The Murrens have been happily married since 1990. They manage to balance a big business career with devotion to the Nevada Cancer Institute, the raising of a family and, yes, even coaching Little League baseball.

And then I went and spoiled everything.

But if I was disappointed, imagine how Heather Murren felt. She has believed that story for years.

Initially, Murren denied he had ever tried to portray himself as a former pro player, but he was compelled to admit he had never attempted to correct the press accounts. On Friday, he acknowledged the facts.

“This story has followed us out here because we have told it,” Murren said. “I’m very sorry. Though there have been chances, or opportunities, to correct it, and I could have, I didn’t. And I’m also sorry for that.”

As a sports writer, I often encountered folks who were quick to tell me they had boxed professionally, played infield in the bush leagues, or mixed it up on an NFL taxi squad. I even met one University of Nevada, Las Vegas physical education instructor who swore she had won a gold medal in the Winter Olympics. (It wasn’t true.)

Personal myth-making and résumé enhancement isn’t confined to the sports world, of course. Businessmen, politicians, and entertainers occasionally get embarrassed for pumping up their awards, education, and military records.

Neither malicious deception nor barroom braggadocio described Murren’s minor league misstep. This is no scandal.

Trouble is, it comes in the wake of the troubling tale of former MGM Mirage Chairman Terry Lanni and his faked master’s degree. Of all the success Lanni enjoyed in his long career, people will remember he left the company shortly after it was discovered he had over-inflated his education and was falsely credited with an MBA from USC.

Murren has replaced Lanni as the highest-profile player on the MGM Mirage roster.

Jim Murren didn’t play in the minor leagues, but he is in the big leagues of business now. As the most high-profile businessman in Nevada, every move Murren makes is scrutinized by friend and foe alike.

If CityCenter hits a home run, he’ll be a cinch for the Hall of Fame.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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