Publish date:


Under Earl Weaver's magical mystery system a player can be anywhere from No. 1 through 8—or out of the Oriole lineup. But it is new plumage that seems to be aiding the Birds more than manipulations

The thought of Earl Weaver preparing his daily Baltimore lineup card somehow suggests a medieval sorcerer riffling through the parchment pages of The Book of Wonders. Indeed, there seems to be more necromancy to this chore than science. Imagine Weaver sitting on a high stool, a conical cap crowning his florid vaudeville comic's face, his forefinger pressed down upon the magic words, his hoarse voice raised in incantation: "Rettenmundus, Etchebarrenun...."

Weaver would have it otherwise, of course. To those who suggest the Orioles are doing it with mirrors and magic, he protests that his team is somehow surviving in the race for the championship of the American League East through gritty pitching and The Charts. The numberless lineup changes he makes are founded purely in science, says he. The Charts tell him what should be done, and he does it. On one day last week, for example, they told Weaver that while his team's collective batting average was only .217—an unbelievable .217—he could field a lineup that would be hitting .350. The Charts show the Orioles' Weaver-era batting averages against any given pitcher. On this day it was Milwaukee's Ken Brett. So while Merv Rettenmund may have been batting a mere .250 for the season, the Weaver papers showed he was a .400 hitter against Brett. And so on. The lineup that Weaver flung at Brett had a career average of .350 against him. Reassured by this data, Weaver was supremely confident before the game.

"The Charts give us an edge," he said, smiling. "The point is that certain guys hit certain pitchers better than other guys. It's not always on a lefty-righty basis, either, although it generally works out that left-handed batters hit right-handed pitchers better and vice versa. We should score some runs out there tonight."

Weaver confronted the left-handed Brett with nine right-handed batters, but, lo, they hit only .222 that night, not .350, and the Brewers won 6-4.

The next evening in Yankee Stadium, The Charts told Weaver that Boog Powell, suffering a woeful season-long slump, was a .309 hitter against New York lefthander Fritz Peterson. So, though Powell bats left and was hitting .162 at the moment, into the lineup he went. In four at bats Powell popped out to the catcher, flew out to center field, struck out and walked. Even so the Orioles won 4-0 behind Mike Cuellar's five-hit pitching.

One skeptical member of the Orioles' entourage views Weavers method with contempt. "Why," he asked, "does he bother with all those numbers? Why doesn't he just come out and say the right-field line at Yankee Stadium is only 296 feet long and maybe even Powell could pop one up that far."

For a manager who has won three American League pennants in three full seasons on the job at Baltimore, Weaver has been exposed to uncommon criticism this year. His constant shuffling of the lineup is a source of particular irritation to veteran ballplayers who are accustomed to regular working hours. Second Baseman Dave Johnson complained, "Checking the lineup card any more is like looking for the prize in a box of Cracker Jack. Every day is a mystery. You get yourself up, and then you're set down. I don't think we can keep going like this."

Weaver is acutely aware of the semi-mutinous talk. "I know, I know," he said, exasperated. "They say that if they played every day, they'd be playing better. I say that if I played them every day, the way they're going they'd play us right into sixth place."

The shifting about is most bewildering to anyone not attuned to The Charts. In an eight-game stretch last week, for example, young Bobby Grich played first base and batted sixth, played shortstop as a late-inning substitute for Mark Belanger, then played second base and batted second, shortstop and batted second, first base and batted second, second base and batted fifth, second base and batted second, and second base and batted third. Grich already has played all of the infield positions this season. He has been one of no fewer than four Oriole first basemen. The others are Terry Crowley, Don Baylor and the poor, punctured Powell.

Rettenmund has played all of the outfield positions and has been up and down the batting order like a stock-market quotation. In that same eight-game period he batted leadoff, third, seventh, sixth, leadoff, sixth and seventh twice in a row, for a change.

Only one Oriole has played in every game at the same position—the inimitable third baseman, Brooks Robinson, and if Weaver were suddenly to transform Robinson into, say, a leftfielder or a bench warmer, one assumes that the heavens would part and a stentorian Voice would tell the manager exactly what he could do with those damned Charts of his.

In the meantime, Weaver manipulates. The Charts make him do it. And so does the team, for the truth is that the Orioles of this year are not the Orioles of the past three. The flawless defense has developed flaws and the once timely hitting is now too often too little, too late or not forthcoming.

At the week's end four former mainstays—Belanger, Powell, Andy Etchebarren and Elrod Hendricks—were batting below .200. Hendricks, for that matter, was crowding .100. Don Buford was nearly 85 percentage points below his .290 average of a year ago and Johnson, a .282 hitter in 1971, was down 60 points. Even Rettenmund, who has been slowly gaining ground on his old self, was still about 50 points below his career average of .306.

"The statistics," Weaver complains, "show that the other clubs aren't making as many errors against us as they did in the past. Maybe we don't hit the ball hard enough for anybody to miss it."

The most discouraging Bird of all in the hard-hitting department has been Boog Powell. This once mighty slugger is not only a hundred points under his career average, he is also not hitting the long ball. After more than 60 games and 164 times at bat he has only four home runs.

Powell apparently has recovered from the wrist injury that hampered him last season, has dieted to a respectable, for him, 255 or so pounds and is now wearing glasses. But still he does not hit.

"There is nothing wrong with him physically," says Weaver. "But when a man is in a slump like this, there is something wrong. I don't know what it is and he doesn't either."

Only their customary superb pitching—all four starters, Jim Palmer, Cuellar, Dave McNally and Pat Dobson, have earned run averages under three—their new youngsters off the Rochester farm club and the relative feebleness of the other teams in their division have kept the Orioles aloft. With the exception of the Red Sox, the AL East clubs have the lowest team batting averages in the major leagues. Even the frail Texas Rangers outhit them. The Detroit Tigers, who are threatening to end Weaver's reign atop the heap, have not been hitting authoritatively enough to open a big lead over the Orioles. Their team batting average is .230.

In light of Oakland's continued success in the league's Western Division, the boasts of rival managers Weaver and Billy Martin of Detroit sound increasingly hollow. Martin has promised to see to it that Weaver has good tickets for the World Series, while Weaver has said that he will be procuring those accommodations himself, not Martin.

"For three years we were always on top, so there was no need for me to talk," Weaver says. "Martin came over to this division last year and I guess he felt he was the underdog, so he started talking. Now we're behind, so it's my turn to say a few words."

He has few kind words, however, for his own players, whom he has publicly chastised on occasion for their lackluster performances. Only his remarkable juniors have escaped his scorn. And with good reason, for Grich, Baylor, First Baseman-Outfielder Terry Crowley and Catcher Johnny Oates have come to the rescue of a team the superstars have left foundering.

"The young guys have carried us," says Rettenmund, graciously acknowledging the obvious.

"Those four are people I know will improve," says Weaver. "I'll go so far as to say that with them, we have the potential to be a better ball club than the one we had last year."

The youngsters have been the beneficiaries of Weaver's incessant tampering with the lineup, and they are properly grateful. "It's a great feeling to know that on any day you have a shot to play," says Crowley, a good-looking Irishman whose average is in the .270s. "We're as close to using 25 men as any first-place team can be—and I still consider us a first-place team. All of us know we have a future, so we don't sulk if we don't play. I'm only 25. I can wait my turn."

"I was shooting for 50 at bats this season," says the 26-year-old Oates, who has more at bats than that already and leads the team with a .281 average. "I am surprised."

So is Baylor, 23, who admits, "if anyone told me in spring training I'd be playing as a regular two weeks in a row, I'd have said they were crazy."

Baylor, tall and well-muscled, leads the team in home runs with seven and in stolen bases with nine. He and Grich, also 23, are of legitimate superstar potential, and with any other organization it is probable they would have been given a chance to shine at least a year sooner than in Baltimore.

At Rochester in 1970 Baylor hit 22 home runs, scored 127 runs and batted .327. He was named Minor League Player of the Year by The Sporting News. But there was no room for him in an Oriole outfield already overflowing with Frank Robinson, Buford, Rettenmund and Paul Blair, so he was farmed out again to Rochester.

"I was disappointed," he says. "I didn't think there was much more for me to prove."

Nevertheless he swallowed his shrunken pride and hit 20 home runs, scored 104 runs and batted .313 for Rochester last year. There was no sending him down again.

Grich endured a similar indignity. He was hitting .383 after 63 games with Rochester in 1970 when the Orioles called him up as infield insurance. He fully expected to remain on the roster for the 1971 season, but the Oriole infield of Robinson, Belanger, Johnson and Powell was impenetrable and he, too, was returned to the minors for additional, if unnecessary, seasoning.

"It was frustrating at the time," he can say now. "But in a way, maybe it was a good thing. I knew I had to have a super year at Rochester, so I pushed myself that much harder."

Grich had his super year, all right. He led the International League in batting (.336), home runs (32) and total bases (299). Like Baylor before him, he was named Minor League Player of the Year.

Baylor, black, and Grich, white, are roommates on the road and close friends. They have been together regularly since they signed with the Orioles in 1967, but despite the similarity in their records there is little personal rivalry between them. "We don't compete," says Baylor. "We help each other."

Since they can both hit and can play nearly every position on the field as well, they are obviously invaluable to this year's Orioles. Along with Crowley and Oates, they offer Weaver the maneuverability he seems to require.

"Our attack," says Andy Etchebarren, "has been a couple of walks and a hit batter. Take those four kids out and we'd be hitting under .200."

One player the Orioles have done without is Frank Robinson, and Weaver is forever being asked to speculate on how different the season would be if, The Charts or no, he could write that lost luminary's name in the lineup.

"I don't know if we'd be farther ahead or not," he says. "The way things are going, I'd probably have to use him at first base but, look, Crowley and Baylor, who have been playing there, have 11 home runs between them. Sure, Frank is a good ball player, but if Boog and Johnson were doing what they're supposed to do and Rettenmund was hitting his .320 we'd be out in front anyway. In years gone by I wouldn't trade Frank because I didn't know if we could win without him. I thought we could this year. It all balances out. If we win, we made a good trade. If we don't we didn't."

Doyle Alexander, the 21-year-old pitcher the Orioles received from the Dodgers in the Robinson deal, has been effective in relief and he is the only other pitcher on the staff who has started a game besides the Big Four. His ERA, too, is under three.

If the hitting famine continues, the Orioles will need all the pitching they can muster. On days when the pitching is not taut and tough, they can expect to lose. After Cuellar's five-hitter against the Yankees last week, Jim Palmer, who had won eight straight, lasted only an inning and a third and New York won 4-3. "Isn't it amazing," said Manager Ralph Houk. "One guy throws all that junk up there that you figure anyone could hit—and kills us. Next thing you know here comes this guy with lightning, and we get him for five solid hits in less than two innings." Crowley scored twice and Grich hit a solo home run for the Oriole scores and Baylor had a pinch-hit single, so at least youth was served. There was speculation as to why Weaver started the slump-ridden Hendricks as catcher instead of Oates, who is also a left-handed hitter and who has a batting average 175 points higher. Was there something in The Charts? Or was Wizard Weaver prophesying a Hendricks surge of power?

Weaver, half naked in his dressing room, looked up from his postgame can of beer and shook his head like a damp spaniel.

"Nobody's been able to explain The Charts yet," he said. "I can't even explain them to you. Just say this is something that has helped us win three championships in a row. O.K.?"




Having consulted his Charts and delivered yet another lineup, Weaver strides onward.



Newcomers Bobby Grich (above) and Don Baylor have masked a power failure with hits.



Boog, plucked Oriole with a feathered bat.