Eavesdropping is a clubhouse sin. But I wanted to see how cruel Weaver might be. To that point, I’d never met anyone in baseball with much grasp that a female journalist had every right to be there.
“So,” said Weaver, businesslike, “do you want it all or just the highlights?” And he started repeating his best answers as she wrote.
Earl Weaver died late Friday night at 82. Whatever you think he was, you’re right. But he was probably also, to some degree, the opposite as well. Whenever you assumed he was a man of his time, defined and limited by immersion in his sport, he often showed he was ahead of the times and also, frequently, ahead of his sport.
In death, we will see images of his tirades at umpires, be reminded of his funny wisecracks and of his sense of strategy that predated several “Moneyball” theories by a generation. We’ll see a hard, smart man with a Chesapeake crab’s shell, little social polish and a need to overcompensate for his lack of size and ability as a minor league ballplayer. We all saw that.
But in nine years of covering the Orioles beat, I saw another Weaver, one that doesn’t contradict the first, but rather broadens him. He didn’t open up often, but when he did, you were floored. He knew himself — why he was who he was and why he managed the way he did — as well as anyone I ever covered. We knew he had examined baseball and hadn’t missed much. But he’d also examined himself and analyzed in detail everyone around him, too.
The distance Weaver kept from his players, with no desire whatsoever to be their friend, but rather to be their leader, was his defining trait to me. That distance gave him authority and made every day at the park feel just a little bit dangerous. What would Earl do? What might he not do, if he felt like it? No contemporary team, in my experience, was on its toes in the sense that Weaver’s Orioles always were.
Reggie Jackson only played one season for Weaver but said: “I loved the little Weave. If you made a mental mistake, you saw him waiting for you on the top step of the dugout when you came back in. He’d just say one word, ‘Why?’ And you better have an answer. On his team, if you didn’t ‘think the game,’ you had a problem. He was right in your face.”
“We are all on speaking terms. We have a little rapport. Not too much,” Weaver told me, regarding his relationships with his players. “You learn the lesson the first day in Class D [what the lowest rung of the minor leagues was once called]. You’re always going to be a rotten bastard, or in my case, a little bastard, as long as you manage. That’s the rule. To keep your job, you fire others or bench them or trade them. You have to do the thinking for 25 guys and you can’t be too close to any of them.”