Ornithologists know Orioles are fond of camouflage. But Earl Weaver is ridiculous.

The Baltimore Oriole 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 607 career winning percentage - it suits him just as well if they are occasionally left shaking their heads.

Many a manager would never risk the censure of forfeiting a pennant-race game. And if, somehow, such a thing came to pass during their appointed time, they would unravel in the ensuing debate over their culpability.

Weaver, typically, is right at home in the midst of the confusion over his motives for tossing away the chance to overcome a 4-0 deficit in Toronto last week. He throws a hint here of some exotic ulterior motive. Then follows with a tirade about forfeit umpire Marty Springstead's IQ. Finally, he insists, against all common sense, that he did the whole thing to protect his players ankles.

That's the way Weaver likes it. Keep 'em guessing. Keep 'em on their toes. That applies to everyone he deals with: his players, umpires, press, even his bosses in the front office.

Some times he goes too far. A year ago this week, coach George Bamberger was so sure he had been fired after a remark by Weaver that he flew back from Boston to Baltimore just before a game.

"He musta' heard me wrong," was all Weaver said.

Yet underneath all his veils, Weaver has a simple code to manage by, one that goes far to explain his flabbergasting success this year with a Baltimore team that had nine rookies, and played like it had nine lives.

"I'm a person that believes in everyone doing their job to the best of their ability. And I believe in always telling the truth as you see it, doing what you think is right, regardless of consequences," Weaver said today.

"No promises to anybody. And no lies," he expounded. "Those two go together, if you tell one lie to one player, it gets around instantly. You cease to exist."

It is perhaps Weaver's dominant managerial characteristic that, unlike Sparky Anderson or Bill Martin, Weaver's players seldom think of him in terms of love or hate. Weaver is so candid, lets every regard him not with affection or loathing, but with a strong professional respect and a tepid, unemotional loyalty.

"We're all on seaking terms," said 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 Martin is the classic example of that frenzied insecurity.

Weaver, by contrast, says of Jim Palmer, Paul Blair and Mark Belanger, respected players who are or were with him for almost all of his nene big-league years: "We have a little rapport. Not too much. I've done things they don't like, and they've done things I don't like . . . well, maybe not Belanger. He never had no trouble with nobody no time . . . but we get along OK."

That's it. No cheerleading. No gratitude from Weaver for the fame they have brought him. No bouquets thrown to Weaver for the wealth he has helped guide them to.

With Weaver the deep lessons, the lines of character that run to the core, are all rooted in the minor leagues. Twenty long, ain't-never-gonna-get-to-the-Promised-Land seasons from Winston-Salem to Knoxville to Fox Cities.

"I learned my biggest lesson in managing the first day in Class D," said Weaver, speaking of a league so grubby and low that today's players have no inkling of it.

"You've got 100 more young kids than you have a place for on your club. Every one of 'em has had a goin' away party. Then been givin' the shaving kit and the $50. They kissed everybody and said, 'See you in the majors in two years.'

"You see these poor kids that shouldn't even be there in the first place. You write on the report card '4-4-4 and out.' That's the lowest rating in everything.

"Then you call 'em in and say, 'It's the consensus among us that we're going to let you go back home.'

"Some of 'em cry. Some get mad. But none of 'em will learn until you answer 'em one question. Skipper, what do you say?

"And you gotta look every one one of those kids in the eye and kick their dreams in the behind and say, 'Kid, there's no way you can make my ballclub.'

"If you say it mean enough, maybe they do themselves a favor and don't waste years learning what you can see in a day. They don't have what it takes to make the majors. Just like I never had it. if it ain't there to start with, no amount of work can help."

Weaver takes a drag on the cigarette that he still holds inside his hand like a schoolboy not wanting to get caught.

"So the first day you learn the lesson. 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."

Because Weaver is a constant prankster and joker, he has to be image conscious.

If managing has given Weaver more than a smidgen of paranoia, it also has made a true leader, a man able to make decisions and stick with them.

Without question, the overriding reason for the Orioles' current position at an amazing 30 games over 500 is Weaver's brilliant string of unconventional and gutty personnel decisions this year.

Weaver let it be known throughout the Bird organization that he did not want to manage in a setting where free-agent, millionaire players were kings and managers their lackeys.

Last year Wayne Garland said that if Weaver remained manager, it might contribute to his leaving. So long, Wayne Garland.

From first to last, Weaver's decisions, and his courage in sticking with them, have paid off.

He wanted aging Pat Kelly in trade for his reputation as a spring hitter. When Kelly started off one for 19, Weave was second-guessed. But Kelly kept playing and his torrid May and June carried the Orioles before the rookies blossomed.

But when Rich Dauer, the second baseman Weaver had put his reputation behind, began the year one for 42, Weaver switched to rookie Billy Smith and milked his hot bat for a time around the circuit until the pitchers got their book on Easy Billy in order.

"We'll see" has been Weaver's pat phrase all year. And Weaver keeps winning.

He stuck with Mike Flanagan when he was 2-8. Now Flanagan is 13-10 and the second-best pitcher in the organization behind palmer. Others urged that flakey, long-haired Ross Grimsley be traded. Weaver has always liked his change-up and his competitiveness. Grimsley is 14-9.

All year Weaver has had to have private conferences: to explain to Rick Dempsey why rookie Dave Skaggs is playing, to break the news to Al Bumbry, hitting 310, that Elliot Maddox will start a crucial game against a lefty.

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

Weaver's greatest asset is being able to stand in the middle of that fire and almost enjoy himself. His naturally competitiveness, and even his love of spirited disputation, may be part of the reason. But when he publically apologized to his young team early in the year for two tactical blunders, it was a act unique in baseball history.

Had Weaver not pointed the finger at himself and then explained his erros in depth, few would have guessed.

Nevertheless, the most revealing moment of Weaver's most complex season came just last Sunday on "Thanks, Brooks" day.

Weaver spent hours wandering around with a yellow note pad, doodling and scribbling.

Making up excuses for the Toronto forfeit? No way. Though Weaver cannot make his reasons for pulling his team off the field clear, those close to him feel his reasons were simple, if, none the less, debatable.

The team was behind four runs on a rainy night to a bad team with a hot young pitcher. Weaver's bullpen was ragged and needed rest, starter Grimsley was out of gas after four innings.What was in store? Simple. Weaver would have to call in his up-for-September bullpen of rookies and the O's would get humiliated. Momentum and esprit de corps might be lost. Valuable relievers might be wasted. And, thanks to the slow game, the team would have to bus to Niagara Falls to fly back early in the a.m. to Baltimore for a vital series with Boston.

Weaver, as usual, made a complicated, controversial decision. He cut his losses by pulling his team off the field when an umpire's ignorance of a rule gave him an opening.

But that decision, even if it resulted in Weaver being second-guessed nationally, did not concern him for long.

Last Sunday he was worried about what to say at Robinson's farewell tribute.

"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 down was so insignificant that it couldn't be said."

So Weaver threw away the yellow pad. He trotted out to the microphone behind the pitchers' 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 his voice was reduced to.

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. 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 an 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 - fiesty, combative Earl Weaver, they guy pecking the bill of his car at an umpire's eyes, 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, the path up and out involves stepping on many toes, even if - like Earl Weaver - you try to step as softly as possible.