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A Weaver Of Dreams Returns To Baltimore

Earl Weaver heard "the right words" and came back, after 2½ years, to the sagging Orioles

Brrrrring! Interim manager Cal Ripken Sr. looked at the phone in his clubhouse office. Brrrrrring! "Better answer it," said one of the reporters gathered around Ripken's desk last Thursday night in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. "It's either Earl or the President."

Ripken picked it up. "Hello...." Ripken paused, then smiled. "Thanks, babe," he said. "You know, you're getting a lot of microphones here...." Another pause. "So I guess I'll see you tomorrow. Great." With that, Ripken hung up.

He didn't say who'd called; he didn't have to. Both Ronald Reagan and Earl Sidney Weaver were to make appearances in town on Friday—but Weaver would be the one popping out of the Oriole dugout, the one with the butterflies in his stomach, the pack of Raleighs in his pocket and the raspy crackle in his voice. He would draw 39,142 to Memorial Stadium and receive a thunderous ovation. (The President, in a speech at Fort McHenry, would excitedly note that "the Earl of Baltimore" had come home.)

Weaver hung up the phone at the Baltimore house of his stepdaughter Kim and her husband, Carl Ely. He'd had a busy Thursday. At 12:30 p.m. in the Washington, D.C. law office of Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams, he had agreed to come out of 2½ years' retirement and manage, at least for the rest of the 1985 season. He would take over an Oriole team he had guided to six division titles, four American League pennants and one world championship. For Weaver it was a sudden decision, a handshake deal worth a reported $500,000 a year. Williams had said "the right words," had appealed to Weaver's team loyalty and love for the city of Baltimore. "This makes me sound as conceited as hell, but the man wanted me to come back," says Weaver. "If you like somebody and they want you to do something, 90 percent of the time you're going to try to oblige."

Strapped for time to prepare for his unexpected return, Weaver had instructed Oriole team officials to tell reporters at an afternoon press conference announcing both his return and the firing of manager Joe Altobelli that he, Weaver, had a "prior commitment" for Thursday night and that Ripken would take over for one game. Weaver's "commitment" was to scrutinize the media guide and latest team statistics while listening to the Oriole-Brewer game—an 8-3 Baltimore win—on the radio. "I have a lot of catching up to do," he would say.

But Weaver didn't need much time to catch up. Taking over a team that as of Wednesday had lost five straight and fallen into fourth place, eight games behind first-place Toronto, in the AL East, Weaver directed the Birds to three victories over the Brewers on Friday, Saturday and Sunday—9-3, 7-5 and 9-1—that left Baltimore still in fourth, but just four in back of the Blue Jays. "Sometimes players just need a swift kick in the pants," said third baseman Wayne Gross. "Earl's pretty good at that."

The old-Weaver strategy was there—the lefty-righty platooning, the checking of player tendencies, the love of the home run—augmented by aggressive base running and even Weaver's anathema, the sacrifice bunt. In the sixth inning of Saturday's game, Weaver had Gary Roenicke sacrifice Cal Ripken Jr. to second; Ripken then scored the go-ahead run on a single by pinch-hitter Larry Sheets. "Wea-ver! Wea-ver!" chanted the crowd.

Weaver's patience was tested on Friday night when Baltimore starter Storm Davis walked four batters and gave up three runs in the first inning. Weaver ducked into the dugout tunnel for some smokes. "It was a three-cigarette inning, I'll tell you that," he said later. But he stuck with Davis, who went on to throw a two-hit shutout over the last eight innings. "Even in that first innning, you could tell they just weren't hitting him that hard," said Weaver.

Weaver's return brought a rejoicing headline in The Baltimore Sun—EARL OF BALTIMORE RETAKES THRONE—and nearly unanimous approval on TV and radio call-in shows. "Hi, this is DeeDee Lynn, Fred's wife, calling from California," came the voice on one. "I just wanted to tell you it's very exciting what is happening." Weaver talk filled the air, whether about his thick-soled, multi-turf shoes ("Tippy Martinez elevators," he joked) or the disappearance of that $40 permanent he wore in his two years as an ABC commentator. "You can't spend $240 a year on your hair, not when you're retired," he said.

Some were skeptical about his true desire to return to the kind of long hours and tiring travel that had helped impel him to quit in 1982. Even Weaver couldn't fully explain his swift decision to come back. He'd turned down offers from 11 major league teams since retiring (at least one for more than $1 million a year) and had repeatedly said he had no interest in managing anywhere. He had arrived in Baltimore early in the week with his wife, Marianna, after a two-day drive from St. Louis in their '83 Chevy van; since leaving their home near Miami in late May the Weavers had visited six children and grandchildren in Atlanta and St. Louis, and they planned a quiet 13 days in Baltimore with the Elys. "I wasn't even sure if I was going to see a game while I was in town," said Weaver.

But the timing was right, the organization familiar and Williams persuasive. There was a small economic motive, too: Weaver's ABC contract expired last fall and he had been trying to persuade Williams to hire him as a consultant all year. "But I could have gotten a lot more money elsewhere," he said. Weaver had more likely succumbed to cherished memories. Even his final game, a bitter 10-2 loss to the Brewers that gave Milwaukee the '82 AL East title by one game over the Birds, had ended with 51,642 Memorial Stadium fans on their feet cheering without surcease for their departing manager, who wept openly.

Most of the Orioles, while sad for Altobelli, were pleased to hear of the managing switch. "Why let a broken wheel keep turning?" asked pitcher Sammy Stewart. "Why not stop and fix it?" Most of the players not only know Weaver—17 of 25 played for him in 1982—they also know he's a proven winner; that his victory percentage (.596) is the third-highest in baseball history and that he's never had a losing record in 14½ major league seasons. "Sure, he will yell at you, but I accept that as part of his job," said pitcher Dennis Martinez, smiling. "Besides, I can yell back."

In contrast, the genial Altobelli had borne an avalanche of criticism in recent weeks for both lack of leadership and bad field managing. He'd led Baltimore to the world championship in his first year, 1983 ("I think the team handled itself that year; he just came in and didn't bother it," says Stewart), but in '84 the Orioles slumped to fifth place, finishing 19 games behind the Tigers. Williams is said to have wanted Altobelli fired several times before last week, only to be talked out of it by Baltimore general manager Hank Peters. But the firing rumors grew and grew after the Orioles fell from first place on May 20. "I really started feeling the draft about a week ago," said coach Elrod Hendricks. "And it was not easy from a coaching standpoint to watch a manager die slowly."

Williams and Peters felt some heat for their handling of Altobelli's dismissal, which The Baltimore Sun columnist Bob Maisel called "execution with a dull saw." Nearly 24 hours passed between the time Williams and Peters decided to fire Altobelli and the time Williams told him, 3 p.m. Thursday. Altobelli had by then already cleaned out his desk. "I thought this was a class organization," he said, "but I guess I was sadly mistaken."

"We wanted to tell Joe face-to-face and we did so at the earliest opportunity," said Williams, adding, "I was not willing to let this season go down the chute."

Oddly, the umpires, who have long cited Weaver as the loudest, longest howler in baseball, were taking his return well. "I don't think you're going to see the same type of Earl Weaver as an umpire baiter," said Joe Brinkman, crew chief for the Milwaukee-Baltimore series. "People mature with time, and I think after 2½ years away from it, that Earl probably has, too. I think he'll look at things a little differently—or at least I hope so."

As luck would have it, the home plate umpire for Weaver's first game back on Friday was Terry Cooney, whom Weaver punched in the face in a 1982 incident that Weaver calls "one of my biggest regrets in my 35 years in baseball...[and] a deciding factor in my decision it might be time to get away from the game of baseball for a while."

"Earl called me the worst umpire in the league, which he's probably told every umpire," Cooney recalls. "But he apologized to me after the incident and complimented my umpiring in the paper the next day. There are no bad feelings."

When Weaver brought out his first lineup card on Friday night, Cooney reminded him that "the rules are still the same—and if you want to smoke you have to go into the tunnel." Brinkman jokingly asked Weaver for an interest-free loan, which Weaver tartly rejected.

Stadium groundskeeper Pat Santarone, Weaver's business partner (Earl 'n Pat's Plant Food) and long-time tomato-growing rival in the little garden box in the leftfield corner, gave Weaver four of this year's eight vines—the four smallest. "Since we're using the same plant food and the same patch of soil, how the hell is he going to catch up?" asked Santarone. "He says he might sing to them at night. Earl's got a lousy voice for singing, though. A great voice for umpires, but a lousy voice for singing."

All weekend friends were greeting Weaver, trading barbs and anecdotes. Weaver even consented to an interview with his former pitcher and dearest antagonist, Jim Palmer, now a sportscaster for ABC and for Baltimore's Home Team Sports cable station. "What are you going to do the first time somebody pops up with a runner on third?" asked Palmer.

"What did I used to do?" asked Weaver.

"Put your head down between your legs."

"That's what happened before, that's what'll happen again."

Weaver had his serious moments, too. "I'm putting a reputation on the line here," he said late Friday night. "There's the chance that things could go sour and that everything I accomplished here might take on a different color. That would be hard to live with."

The new—and old—Orioles manager marveled at the rush of events. "You know," he said, "I haven't had a chance to see the people I came up here to see." He paused. "But I guess I've got the rest of the summer."



The umpires think Weaver will be cooler now than he was in his bad old days (right), but Earl did have some words with Cooney Sunday.



[See caption above.]



The Palmer-Weaver show returns to a local TV station after two years in mothballs.