For months, Earl Weaver yawned and told the world how he could manage his streaking Baltimore Orioles without ever leaving his hotel room. "They don't need me," he said.
Now, they need him -- badly. And the real Weaver, like an old fire horse in harness, has arrived on time -- pulling a dozen tricks and ploys simultaneously as he runs the gamut of emotions from rage to craftiness to sober analysis to fatherly feather-smoothing.
For the last two weeks, as his Birds have struggled through seven losses in 12 games, Weaver has managed his beak off. Many skippers are paralyzed in a pinch by the ancient baseball certainty that, "Players win games; managers can only lose them."
In a crisis, Weaver always takes the wheel and starts gambling, putting the burden on his own shoulders by suddenly attracting the attention of defeat to himself.
Many a hot-stove argument has raged over the question: What do managers really do -- if anything? Weaver is in the process of giving a daily clinic on that subject.
In the last two weeks, he has been ejected from three games, including last night's four of his players and coaches, joining in the fun, have gotten the thumb, too. Weaver has protested four games, citing umpire error, within those two weeks.
When Weaver isn't winning a game with a double-steal of home in the 12th inning, he is creating a 10-minute delay to rattle a rookie pitcher at the crisis point of the game.
Weaver never joins in postgame back-slapping celebrations on the field, considering it a form of front-running showboating for a manager to inject himself into the player's moment of victory.
But when Weaver stole that 2-1 victory from Chicago this week by pulling a double theft with two sluggers -- Eddie Murray and Doug DeCinces -- on base, Weaver danced around the tornado of jubilant Orioles like a tiny child.
"I guess we'll have to give that win to Earl," said O's star Ken Singleton.
Typically, Weaver will not even take a hint of credit for unsettling New York pitcher Ron Davis a few days before when he came to the plate three times in the space of three crucial pitches to argue points of law.
After Weaver's third departure, Davis' next two pitches were smacked for a double and single that transformed a two-run eighth-inning Yankee lead into a Bird victory.
The Yankees screamed for days. Manager Billy Martin, furious at being outwitted, "protested Weaver's protest" to the league office.
While Weaver kept a straight face, inventing rationales for his gambit that would make a medieval scholastic proud, the Yankees ended up being the ones who got their wrists slapped as AL President Lee MacPhail said, "The Yankees will have to win their games on the field, not with protests."
A fortnight later, Weaver, perhaps smoothing the way for further shenanigans, is still laying down a daily smoke screen of protested innocence about how his delays actually hurt the idle O's pitcher most and allowed Davis extra warmups. Don't sell that tale to the Yankees.
"Everyone says, 'Weaver was so smart,'" pleaded Weaver. "It just isn't so." The shark who knows that the sharpie who gloats gets caught the second time is a dangerous man, indeed.
On the first day of August, with his club on the way to a zenith of 40 games over .500 -- 74-34, Weaver was tooting on a kazoo in the Milwaukee dugout. Since then, he has had to pull so many plugs it is hard to keep track.
Weaver has let Tippy Martinez, a seldom-trusted reliever, become his bullpen ace -- for the moment. While Weaver gets the most out of perhaps the most brilliant streak of Martinez's career, he has assuaged Don Stanhouse, convincing him that his turn will come -- in the World Series.
Rather than aggravate the four starters who have carried his team all year, Weaver has risked hurting Jim Palmer's Hall of Fame feelings by saying candidly that he does not know when, or if, Palmer will start again.
Mentioning Palmer as a spot starter, and even a mop-up reliever, Weaver juggles the possibility of using a five-man rotation for the next three weeks, then switching to a three-man squad for the final three weeks.
"I just hope nobody says the wrong thing to Jim or steps on his toe," said Weaver, oiling the waters, but acidly.
Weaver's most visible, and most understandable, trick in recent days has been his full-scale war with the world of umpires: one of the Earl of Ballmer's great pitched battles.
Weaver's motive was obvious, and sound.The Birds flew into New York Aug. 3 and ran smack into the mourning for Thurman Munson's death.
Like two crests of emotion, the Oriole winning streak joy and the Yankee sorrow collided like two huge waves. The two swells seemed to cancel each other as the teams split four desultory and sometimes distracted games -- the Birds winning two before their momentum faded, then losing two as the Yankees refused to be embarrassed in the hour of Munson's funeral.
The Orioles returned to Baltimore for their longest home stand of the season (17 days) as a flat and drained team. After 100 games of Oriole intensity, the Yanks and the Munson pall seemed to have subdued their coltish enthusiasm.
Not coincidentally, Weaver, who had already started stirring the umpire cauldron in New York, reached high dudgeon as soon as he got home, obviously trying to reawaken his club with anger and a sense of persecution.
Whether Weaver's favorite, and most debatable, strategy has worked or not is definitely moot. Certainly, it has drawn the spotlight away from the O's .117 batting average over five straight games onto Weaver's batting average.
Ump Jim Evans, after heaving Weaver a week ago, called the game's best-known manager "baseball's Son of Sam."
That was just a warmup. After Steve Palermo thumbed Weaver Thursday, and grabbed the manager's arm four times during their finger-pointing tirade, the manager exploded.
"If that young smart aleck with the chip on his shoulder ever touches me again without that blue uniform on, I'll consider it assault and his family will have to fly in to see him at Johns Hopkins Hospital," stormed Weaver. "I question his integrity, but I respect the umpire's uniform -- otherwise, he might be dead."
Quickly switching tacks from his role of feisty imp, Weaver, probably sincerely, played the violin in a "spare-this-old-gray-head" vein by saying, "Too many of us have put in too many years to see something like this. I'm gald I'll be getting out (of baseball) in three or four years."
For his part, Palermo was pithy, saying, "Weaver walks around with a block of granite on his shoulder. He's a pest, an insult to baseball, a clown that goes under the guise of a manager.
"His comments about me are typically asinine. All the umpires in the league seem to have more trouble with him than any other manager. So where does the root of the problem lie?
"Earl's just bizarre."
Only those who misunderstand Weaver see, him as an immature pepperpot whose furies are accidental. His temper is just another button on the master panel of options. Being in control, even at mock white-heat, is a Weaver trump.
"The thing that has surprised me most in baseball is the amount of integrity that most (big league) umpires have," said Weaver when he had cooled. "It actually took me awhile to believe what a good game they'd give you the next night after a blowup . . .
"If the umps had been after us over the years, we'd never have such a good record in one-run games. That's where they'd get you."
So, at least in Weaver's eyes, his dealings with umps are just an extension of his dealings with players -- in both cases his fundamental managerial strength is what he calls "my baseball judgment."
"I've been exercising it since I was 6 years old and every kid in St. Louis argues over whether Pete Reiser or Terry Moore was the best center fielder. Evaluating talent is the heart of this job.
"I can sum up managing in one sentence. Everybody knows all the strategies and hit-and-runs and all that crud. Almost nothing's changed in baseball in 100 years. It's always the same -- only players win games.
"A manager's job," Weaver defined, "is to select the best players for what he wants done."
Weaver beams, knowing the complexity that is hidden behind that simple thought. A manager may be at the mercy of his players, but at least he can select the people who have him in their hands.
That innocent word "selecting" covers a multitude of decisions and is the essence of what makes a top manager.
"Who do you select in December in a trade?" asked Weaver. "Who do you pick for your club in March in spring training? How good an idea do you have of how those players fit together? Do you know what you want done, and can you find somebody who can do it?"
That selecting, that matching of man to job is constant. The question, Weaver knows, is not when to bunt or hit-and-run or change picthers. That's basic, with a few fundamental variations. The question is, out of the multitude of players, who can do those things.
"People say I've never had to manage a bad team," said Weaver, whose teams have finished lower than third only twice in 21 managing years. "Well, that's the point.
"If you dig hard enough yearround, you should always be able to find the players who can do what you want done. That doesn't mean they're all great players. It means they can all do something," said Weaver.
"That's why managing is so easy. You just let the players do it all."
Now Weaver's theory will be put to a supreme test under pennant race pressure. His team of a few stars and many jigsaw-puzzle players who only together make a picture must hold off the rich talent-mongers of Boston and Milwaukee.
For six months, Weaver has been bolstering confidences -- proving to his players that his certainty of his own ability to judge talent is absolute.
"If Earl wants you on his team, it's because he's so sure of his own judgemtn of your ability," said pitcher Steve Stone. "It's strange. You know he's the best evaluator of talent in the majors, so his confidence rubs off on you.
"The first thing Earl said to me was, 'The record book says you're a losing pitcher (47-52 career). Listen to me and I'll make you a winning pitcher. I'm sure of it and I've done it before.'
"Early in the year, when the whole world was screaming for me to be taken out of the rotation," said Stone, "the one man who had the decision to make was Weaver and he just kept giving me the ball -- long after any other manager would have. Now, I think I'm proving him right."
Where others manage in the abstract, Weaver manages in the concrete.
"Managers have pet theories and they force them on their players," said Stone. "In Chicago, Chuck Tanner, who's a great guy, was gung-ho for a three-man rotation one year with Wilbur Wood. Johnny Sain (coach) said it would make you a better pitcher.
"The only way it could make you a better pitcher was if you could throw with both arms. It ruined Stan Bahnsen's career. I was the third guy and I survived.
While many managers in the dog days of August and the traumatic days of September ask their players to surpass themselves to become heroes Weaver falls back on his basic tenet -- minimal strain, minimal demand.
To that end, Weaver draws the electricity of defeat to himself like a lightning rod so that his players can perform in calm. When they slump, he draws on the trick plays of spring training to ferret a game with a standup steal of home.
When others panic, Weaver sits back in the dugout and claims he expected a little healthy disaster all along. Watching the Memorial Stadium wind blow the wrong way (to his liking) for the sixth consecutive day Friday, Weaver spit and said, "We've had everything our way so long we've got to expect some bad breaks."
At that moment, a delighted rookie, Sammy Stewart, started telling everyone in sight the wonderful news that his wife had delivered their first child just hours before.
While others pumped Stewart's hand, Weaver, never one for hearts and flowers, thought silently, wondering how he could turn the moment into a teaching lesson for a wild young pitcher. Finally, the manager broke his silence.
"Tell the kid," said Weaver to Stewart, "to get his slider over."