Ornithologists know Orioles are fond of camouflage. But Earl Weaver is ridiculous. The Baltimore Orioles skipper will go to almost any length to hide himself. To be known thoroughly, to be figured out -- he fears -- is the first step toward being expendable. A manager needs mystique.

For Weaver, it is not important that others understand him, only that he understand himself. So long as others respect what he does, and gape at his career winning percentage, it suits him just as well if they occasionally are left shaking their heads. Keep'em guessing. That applies to everyone he deals with: his players, umpires, press, even his bosses in the front office.

It is, perhaps, Weaver's dominant managerial characteristic that his players seldom think of him in terms of love or hate. Weaver is so candid, yet somehow stays so naturally aloof, that his players regard him not with affection or loathing, but with a strong professional respect and a tepid, unemotional loyalty.

"We're all on speaking terms," says Weaver. Other managers would shudder at such tenuous relationships. Managing is lonely, and the need to be loved, to feel that someone in the clubhouse is protecting your back, is almost overwhelming. Perhaps Billy Martin is the classic example of that frenzied insecurity. By contrast, Weaver says of players like Jim Palmer, Paul Blair, Mark Belanger and Brooks Robinson, "We have had a little rapport. Not too much." That's it. No cheerleading. No gratitude from Weaver for the fame they have brought him. No bouquets thrown to Weaver for the wealth to which he has helped guide them.

With Weaver, the deep lines, the lines of character that run to the core, are all rooted in his 20-year purgatory in the bush leagues. "You learn the lesson the first day in Class D... You're always going to be a rotten bastard, or in my case, a little bastard, as long as you manage," he says. "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."

The ultimate example of this prickly, adversary relationship is his dozen years of Sturm und Drang with Jim Palmer. The elegant, gentlemanly pitcher and the testy, acid-tongued manager are baseball's odd couple. They carry with them countless squabbles and reconciliations, misunderstandings and mended fences. "Palmer airs his opinions on a lot of things," grins ex-Oriole Belanger, privy to many a mound SALT talk."And Earl'll tell you any damn thing he wants to. He doesn't care who you are, and that certainly included Jimmy. But he expects you to forget, just like he forgets,"

"Earl has probably had more fights [arguments] with his players than any manager in baseball," says Tony Muser, another ex-O. "But the next day the air is clear."

In fact, Weaver practically encourages dugout primalscream therapy. He and Rick Dempsey have gone so far as to throw gloves, shinguards and chest protectors at each other.

Why does Weaver tolerate such insubordination -- almost prod it into the open? "I thought we still had free speech in this country," he snaps. Then he adds, "A ball club isn't a family, but it's together more than a family for seven months. You can't hold your feelings in that long."

If Weaver has one persistent problem, it's that some umpires can't let bygones be bygones as easily as he. "I've talked to Earl about the way he antagonizes umpires. I don't understand his brand of psychology," says Orioles scout Jim Russo. "What really bothers the umps is the things Earl says to them. He has this wonderful grasp of the King's English."

Weaver has, over the years, said an amazing number of memorable things about a large number of gentlemen in blue. Jim Evans: "He's definitely incompetent." Russ Goetz and George Maloney: "They're almost as incompetent as Evans." Hank Morganweck: "The blind one." Ron Luciano: "The worst... just a showboat." Armando Rodriguez: "I have to take Elrod Hendricks with me to the plate to talk to him." Marty Springstead: "Not smart enough to remember the rule book."

And, finally, Steve Palermo: "If he ever touches me again without that blue uniform on, I'll consider it assult, and his family will have to fly in to see him at Johns Hopkins Hospital."

Believe it or not, umpires have memories.

"Weaver is baseball's Son of Sam," said Evans.

"I hope his teams never win another game," said Luciano, who once ejected Weaver during the exchange of lineup cards.

"Weaver's a pest, an insult to baseball, a clown who goes under the guise of a manager," says Palermo.

Despite this legacy of hostility, Weaver himself considers his temper just another button on his master panel of options. Being in control, even at mock white-heat, is a trump. "The thing that has surprised me most in baseball is the amount of integrity that most umpires have," says Weaver. "It actually took me a while to believe what a good game they'd give you the next night after a blowup!"

Nothing is more in character and calculated than the moments when Weaver pulls his own trigger. His rages always start as strategy.

When the Orioles are streaking, Weaver effaces himself. "I could stay back at the hotel," he purrs. "They don't need me." However, in a crisis, Weaver inevitably manages his beak off. He takes the wheel and starts gambling, suddenly attracting the attention of defeat to himself. When the Birds win, Weaver never joins in the postgame back-slapping celebrations on the field, considering it a form of front-running. But when the O's lose, Weaver draws the electricity of defeat to himself like a lightning rod so his players can perform in calm.

"That's my job. What the hell else does a manager have to do?" says Weaver.

In the final analysis, all Weaver's acts and antics are subsumed under what he considers his fundamental managerial strength: "My baseball judgment."

"I've been exercising that baseball judgment since I was 6 years old, and every kid in St. Louis argued over whether Pete Reiser or Terry Moore was the best center fielder. Evaluating talent, having a feel for the game, is the heart of the job. From age 8 to 15, I watched a hundred games a season -- Browns and Cardinals. Ran from school with my Knothole-Gang card and saw the last six innings. Here I am, 12 years old, second-guessing Billy Southworth, who's one of the three managers in history to win a hundred games in three straight seasons," says Weaver, pausing slyly. "Of course, I'm one of the three, too.

"I can sum up managing in one sentence. Everybody knows all the strategies. Nothing's changed in a hundred years. A manager's job," Weaver defined, "is to select the best players for what he wants done."

Weaver beams, knowing the complexity hidden in that thought.

"A manager wins games in December. He tries not to lose them in July. You win pennants in the off-season when you build your team with trades or free agents.

"Smart managing is dumb," says Weaver. "The three-run homers you trade for in the winter will always beat brains.

"The guy who says, 'I love the challenge of managing,' is one step from being out of a job.I don't welcome any challenge. I'd rather have nine guys named Robinson."

If Weaver had a conventional theory on anything, he wouldn't admit it, or would twist it to his own hat size. He would rather set his beloved blow-dried silver hair on fire than be taken for granted.

"People say I've never had to manage a bad team," says Weaver who has finished first or second in 18 of his last 21 seasons. "Well that's the point. If you dig hard enough year-round, you should always be able to find players who can do what you want done. They're not all great players; but they can all do something.

Weaver's confidence in his own decisions is his trademark. He once watched Mike Cuellar get knocked out early in 13 consecutive starts, before finally removing him from the rotation. Sadly, Weaver said, "I gave Mike Cuellar more chances than my first wife."

"His confidence in you rubs off," says Steve Stone. "Early in the year when everybody was yelling for me to be taken out of the rotation, Weaver kept giving me the ball, long after any other manager would have. Now, I think I'm proving him right," said Stone in 1979, when he won 11 games. The next season, he won 25.

No manager is so concerned with that concept of self-confidence, especially as it applies to his substitutes. The O's, who have won 100 games five times in Weaver's first dozen full seasons, have "deep depth" because Weaver adamantly has found spot playing time for his Lowensteins, Kellys, Ayalas and Crowleys.

"The man's a genius at finding situations where an average player -- like me -- can look like a star because a lot of subtle factors are working in your favor," says John Lowenstein. "He has a passion for finding the perfect player for the perfect spot."

This fascination with matchups carries over into the long-range pitching schedule, another Weaver compulsion. He has calendars covered with possible rotations, weeks and months ahead. His players swear that an early-season rainout can make Weaver happy because he knows it will reshuffle his rotation in a series in Tiger Stadium in July.

Surprisingly, Weaver advocates almost no technical theories on how the game is played. "The only thing Weaver knows about a curve ball," says Palmer, "is that he couldn't hit one."

"Earl gets coaches who are teachers, then he doesn't get in their way," says pitching coach Ray Miller. "He doesn't tell me, 'Why don't you teach Sammy Stewart the window-shade-release slip-pitch?' He says, 'Jesus Christ, I'm sick of lookin's at that horse---- changeup. Get him a new one.'" With his absolute faith in his own baseball eye, and his coaches' ability to polish skills, Weaver managers as though victory were an inevitability.

"Patience.... patience," he often says. "You must remember that anyone under 30 -- especially a ballplayer -- is an adolescent. I never got close to being an adult until I was 32. Even though I was married and had a son at 20, I was a kid at 32, living at home with my parents. Sure, I was a manager then. That doesn't mean you're grown up.

"Until you're the person that other people fall back on, until you're the one that's leaned on, not the person doing the leaning, you're not an adult. You reach an age when suddenly you realize you have to be that person. Divorce did it to me. It could be elderly parents, children... anything. But one day you realize, 'It's me, I've got to be the rock.'"

Ever since, Weaver has been that little leather-skinned rock. The absolute symbol of that independence -- of being untouchable, inviolable, your own man -- is money in the bank. The law of the manager's existence is the indignity of knowing that you can be fired arbitrarily. Weaver's pride ranks at that, and cash is the solution to the problem.

"I've never been fired from any job," says the meticulously organized Weaver, and he's talking about selling encyclopedias and cars, and being a hod carrier, too. "But I think I've signed my last contract. AT&T and the municipal bonds don't fall flat, I'll be retired by '83.

"Then, when 'This Week in Baseball' comes on TV, I'll be on the golf course and couldn't care less. And a year after that nobody will remember Earl Weaver.

"I know exactly what I need to live on, have ever since I made $3,500 a year in '57, Weaver says. "I'm always going to do the same things. I grow all my own vegetables. I stuff my own sausages -- pork shoulders should be coming on say next month. I look for chuck roast on sale to use in stew or grind up for hamburger. Doing that takes time, and I enjoy it," says Weaver, who seems to understand that a man is defined by how he spends his time, not how he spends his money.

"I'll have plenty to play golf every day, run out to Hialeah or the dogs, take Marianna out to dinner in Fort Lauderdale, and take a walk on the beach.

"No more guys barreling into my office like Ross Grimsley did one time," says Weaver. "He was screaming, 'You're shafting me. You're shafting me.'

"I asked him how I was doing that," said Weaver, "And he says, 'You're yanking me earlier than any of the other pitchers.' So I told him, 'Do you know why that is, Ross? It's 'cause I think they can get the next man out, and I don't think you can.'"

It never gets easier for Weaver. "You step on toes almost every day," he says. "You just step as softly as you can."

The older he gets, the closer he comes to the end of his run, the more money gets stashed away in deferred payments so that he can spend his life in vegetable gardens, on golf courses and at dog tracks, the harder it is not to find the crotchety earl of Baltimore appealing. If baseball can germinate genius, then Weaver is the bloom of native American wit and savvy as revealed within our national pastime.

Yet, ironically, baseball may never find quite the right words of thanks to say to Weaver. He is not that sort of man. For his part, Weaver may find it equally difficult to say goodbye to baseball, no matter how much he protests to the contrary.

"My wife says, 'You spend more time on baseball than you do with [daughter] Kim and me. Do you love baseball more?'" Weaver says. "And that's the second wife talking," he adds, as though anyone who knew the first wife could imagine what she would say. "Well, I told her, 'Without baseball, we don't eat so good.'" Then Weaver says more quietly, "A man and work... that seems to be the way it's got to be in this world."

Nevertheless, when the time finally comes to lay that laborious and fruitful work aside, it is doubtful that those who have been close to Weaver for years -- those who have been chewed and needled and lectured and even had dirt kicked on them -- will know exactly what to say.

Weaver is already familiar with the experience. He sensed it in a complex and revealing moment a couple of years ago when Memorial Stadium was filled on Thanks, Brooks Day -- when Brooks Robinson retired.

Weaver spent hours wandering around with a yellow note pad, doodling and scribbling. "I just couldn't come up with the words," said Weaver. "I read all the newspapers and remembered all the one-liners, all the praise and adulation... they were all true, but what I wrote was so insignificant that it couldn't be said."

So Weaver threw away the yellow paid. He trotted out to the microphones behind the pitcher's mound, and he was almost in tears. Of all the speakers, only Weaver nearly broke down. He talked about Robinson's generosity toward a nobody manager who was a career bush leaguer. He talked about how he wondered, the first time he gave the "take" sign to Robinson, if he would obey. And, Weaver said revealingly, "I've wondered every time since."

The crowd, restless, did not know quite what to make of Weaver's words, not to mention the almost inaudible, gravelly rasp to which his voice was reduced. When Weaver thanked Robinson for saving his job "several times over the years," it sounded uneasily like the truth and not a speech. Nobody knew what to say. Finally, Weaver blurted out, "Thank you, Brooks. Thank you one million times."

Weaver went and crouched near his team by the third-base bag. But he remained alone, a little, self-contained man on his haunches. No Oriole said, "Nice speech." Or looked at the manager with his head down.

"I thought of so many things while Brooks was riding around the stadium [in a convertible]," explained Weaver. "What I had planned to say didn't seem like nothin' to me. It wasn't true and honest feeling.So I just did it impromptu.

"No, I don't guess many people knew what I was talkin' about."

Then, Weaver, the man who kicks dirt on umpires, gets booed in rival cities and sometimes in his own -- feisty, combative Earl Weaver -- said, "I'd like to be like Brooks. The guys who never said no to nobody, the ones that everybody loves because they deserve to be loved... those are my heroes."

But when a man spends 20 years in the minors -- learning to be an adult, a rock, a leader -- the path up and out involves stepping on many toes, even if -- like Earl Weaver -- you try to step as softly as possible.