Umpire Durwood Merrill is a vast side of beef of a man who looks like nobody in the NFL would faze him very much. Everything from his slow, composed, drawling speech to his snakeskin cowboy boots proclaims him as a confident, stolid fellow who was created to stay calm and strong at the center of a crisis.

However, on Monday night, Merrill was still shaken, nervous, suspicious and worried long after he had finished his night of working behind the plate in Baltimore's victory over Oakland here at Memorial Stadium. Earl Weaver -- the 5-foot-6 war machine -- had rocked the vast Merrill to his toes.

"I've never thrown Weaver out before," said Merrill, the way a man would say he'd never been picked up by a tornado and deposited in another zip code.

That brought snorts of laughter from the other three umps in the small dressing room, particularly Jerry Neudecker, and old Weaver foe, who said, "Join the club."

For what particular act did Merrill give Weaver his 79th thumb in 14 years?

Merrill looked incredulous, as though, after all he had endured, it was unfair that he now had to decide which of Weaver's sins was most heinous.

"I don't remember," Merrill growled, then added, "it was probably the second time he buried home plate with dirt."

The crowd of 23,428 thought it was hilarious stuff when Weaver danced circles around Merrill, flung his Oriole cap in a perfect spiral, kicked dirt at random, then, finally, leaped into Merrill's face, smashed his hand together three times an inch or two from the umpire's nose, then "ejected" the umpire with a huge Weaver heave-ho.

After the game, Weaver's baiting, if anything, became more earnest as he carried his battle to the media, firing off charges against Merrill and planting land mines of controversy for the ump to stumble into it he tried to defend himself.

"I was so mad that it took me two innings to calm down," said Weaver, who charged the plate when Merrill ejected Eddie Murray after an extremely brief exchange of unpleasantries over a strike call. Weaver protested with the wrath of a man, who, for once, knows his cost is just.

Not surprisingly, umpires neither find Weaver's tirades amusing nor consider them a normal part of the vicissitudes of their life's calling.Taken as a group, the 27 umpires of the American League have a dislike for Earl Weaver that approaches hate. It is an honest, seriously meant and personal contempt. To them, Weaver is not a showman; he is the symbol of the professional disrespect, the cruel and unusual punishment they encounter everywhere.

"(Earl) Weaver is a militant midget," said American League umpire Steve Palermo. "He just uses us umpires as props in his circus act. We're straight men for his comedy. But baseball is not a circus and the game is not Earl's show. It's not 1892 anymore, where umpires are wooden Indians for the fans to boo. Umpires have earned more dignity now. Like anything else, the times are a changin'. It's a difficult world as Earl may be finding out."

AL umpire Larry Barnett:

"Once you've run (ejected) Weaver, he's like a recalcitrant child that can't accept authority and its enforcement. He goes through the whole log book of everything you've ever done to him. He's an ancient historian. You know, we all spend a lot of time worrying about that little man that's not really necessary . . . I've never seen him do anything funny. No, I take it back. I once saw him slip and fall coming out of the dugout. That was funny."

AL umpire Nick Bremigan:

"Weaver just goes goofy like a raving lunatic . . . he's like a nightmare that just keeps coming back . . . raspy voice, 4-foot-2 . . . to me, he's the real ayatollah of the '80s . . . I think his bad relations with umpires hurt his club. Human nature tells you that. You're move of a man not to take it out on his players and I try extra hard not to. But human beings can be vindictive and umpires are human beings . . . His players think so, too. They've said to me, 'Oh, no, here he goes again. This isn't going to help us.' The question is, does he intimidate umpires or alienate umpires. How could you live with yourself if you let him intimidate you?"

AL umpire Mike Reilly:

"I've never had any trouble with Earl Weaver. The first time I threw him out of a game, he walked up to me quietly and said, 'Mike, you're going to be in this league a long time. You can't umpire that way.' He walked off and that's all he said. I was shocked. A lot of what he does is very calculated."

"I don't want to hear a word for word what they had to say about me. I don't want to carry those bad feelings inside me.You can poison yourself with that stuff," said Weaver when told that about half of the league's umpires had unburdened themselves on by the subject of himself.

"After all I've said about them over the years, callin' 'em incompetent and every other thing, it's only fair to let them say anything they want to about me. They've earned it."

None of the umpires' remarks came after the heat of an argument but were uttered with cool heads before games in answer to the question, "Does Earl Weaver's conduct toward umpires help his team or hurt it?"

Among the dozen umpires interviewed, none spoke well of Weaver and the almost unanimous consensus was voiced by Barnett, who said, "I respect Weaver as a manager, but I don't like him."

For a dozen years, there have been two completely antithetical views on Weaver and the umps. Bleacher psychologists and Bird watchers have no richer perennial subject for discussion than the debate over whether Weaver's antics are the purest proof of his intuitive genius for manipulation, or whether they are, in fact, his Achilles' heel.

Many opposing players believe that Weaver is the best manager in the league of influencing umpires to the Birds' benefit. Last season, Yankee Lou Piniella stood in a Memorial Stadium tunnel and screamed at the umpires, "How can you let that little SOB push you around year after year? Don't you know he has you doing just what he wants?"

In a sense, Bremigan bears this out when he says, "The thing that's different about Weaver is that you never know when Earl will blow up. He can be completely silent until the eighth, then one pitch will set him off . . . A lot of his game involves intimidation. I guess he figures that, subconsciously, you'll call it his way more times than not so you won't get yelled at and have to go through his whole trauma . . . plenty of other teams definitely think he's getting an edge. Having them think that may be worth something even if it isn't true."

In other words, for every conscious act of revenge by an umpire to "get" Weaver, there may be two close calls that go Baltimore's way because of the natural human tendencies toward laziness and avoidance of aggravation. Weaver himself says, "If I'm doing so much damage, how come our record is so good? Especially in one-run games."

Oriole veteran Mark Belanger says, "In the book of the umpires' minds, they know that if they blow a play, Earl will be right in their face . . . I don't think that any umpire can say to himself, 'I'm gonna stick it to 'em, I'm gonna stick it to 'em,' because he'll make an idiot of himself and he knows it. However, I do think that Earl sometimes gets umpires so riled that they call a really bad game both ways. You have to realize that some umps are incapable of calling a good (consistent) game. If you make them mad, they just become awful."

In one respect, Weaver definitely helps his team with his rages, whether they are real or feigned. "With the years, I've noticed that Weaver usually gets thrown out exactly when he wants to. It's either to take the heat (of a defeat) off his team, or maybe to jack them up for the next day," said Palermo, who just two years ago said of the O's manager, "Weaver walks around with a block of granite on his shoulder. He's a pest, an insult to baseball, a clown who goes under the guise of a manager."

"Last August, when Earl threw that beauty that got him a (three-day) suspension, I was sure it was deliberate," added Palermo. "Nobody even noticed that the Orioles had lost to the Yankees that day. Somebody asked how I 'rated' that one. I said, 'I'd give Earl a perfect '10.'"

As long as six years ago, O's officials were openly worrying about the deterioration of Weaver's rapport with the umpires. "I've talked to Earl about the way he antagonizes. I don't understand his brand of psychology," said O's scout Jim Russo then. "It's the things Earl says to them. He has this wonderful grasp of the King's English . . . It's a tough situation. I don't know how you reverse it."

In the years since, Weaver has seldom even seemed to try. In '76, Weaver got a suspension for bumping Dale Ford. In '77, he pulled his team off the field in Toronto and forfeited a pennant-race game over a rules debate. That same year, General Manager Hank Peters formally requested a hearing, charging that umpire Joe Brinkman (still in the league) was "prejudiced against the Orioles" and should not work any more of their games. For several seasons, Weaver and Ron Luciano called each other names in a feud that was genuinely heartfelt, not a gimmick, particularly when Luciano said, "I don't care who wins, as long as it's not Weaver's team." Weaver has waved a red flag by publicly challenging "the integrity" of both Luciano (now a TV commentator) and Palermo.

At the height of the '79 pennant battle, Weaver got three ejections and protested four games in two weeks. After one struggle with Palermo, Weaver said, "If I didn't respect the umpire's uniform, he might be dead." In perhaps his jewel of jewels, Weaver, only a few days later, hid in a bathroom in the dugout in Oakland after he was ejected by Jim Evans and managed the game by peeking through a crack in the door. When ump Rich Garcia raided the john and demanded, "What are you doing in here?" Weaver snapped back, "I'm in here throwing up because you guys make me sick."

Last season, after the memorable "10" in which Weaver stood on second base and wouldn't move, Weaver reacted to word of the ensuing suspension by saying, "Suspension? No, I disagree. Those umpires shouldn't be suspended. The poor guys are doing the best they can."

Weaver's pip of '80 was a tirade directed at veteran Bill Haller which, unbeknownst to Weaver, was being taped and recorded for WDVM-TV-9's "PM Magazine" by cameras and a hidden mike. Haller only waited two batters to call a controversial balk, certain it would bring Weaver at the run.

"I see you're here to bleep the Orioles again," began Weaver by way of introduction. Haller gave Weaver more than enough rope to hang himself, saying, "Yup" and Nope" while Weaver made a chump of himself by talking about how, "I'll be in the Hall of Fame someday and you'll have to buy a ticket to get in."

Weaver was furious, and embarrassed, by the incident for weeks, threatening to sue various and sundry folks involved with the telecast. Above all, he was mad because, for once, he had not controlled the Earl-vs.-ump situation so that he would work it to his advantage.

"A lot of umpires enjoyed that tape," said Bremigan with a grin. "It ran all over the country. Earl called it 'entrapment.'"

"Yeah, and all the guys in Abscam were entrapped, too," interjected Barnett.

This season, Weaver is off to the fastest start in his 26-year career. He became the first manager ever to be suspended (three days) during spring training as he pulled his team off the field in midgame once and was ejected twice because of an arcane running debate over whether or not the names of substitutes had to be hand-written on a lineup card. The flap resulted in yet another "Weaver fule" being added to the baseball books. Some, however, think it was merely Weaver's way of ringing a March cowbell to get the attention of his team, a bunch that traditionally plays atrociously in the spring. And, lo and behold, the Orioles are in first place in mid-May.

Perhaps it is more than ironic that Weaver says, "The thing that surprised me most in baseball when I got to the majors was the amount of integrity that most umpires have.It actually took me a while to believe what a good game they'd give you the next night after a blowup."

For now, and perhaps forever, the issue of Earl and his umps will remain moot. Is Weaver the mast of common-sense psychology or is he a little man with a "Napoleonic complex" (Barnett) and an uncontrollable temper? What percentage of Weaver's explosions are premeditated and how many are spontaneous?

"Oh, they're all 100 percent spontaneous," said Weaver, deliberately staking out the only position that can't conceivably be true.

Even the umps have no idea.

"I think he just blows his cork," said Bremigan.

"Sometimes it may be on purpose," said Palermo, "but I've seen him when he was flying way over the cuckoo's nest."

"If I had to pick one word to describe Weaver," disagreed Evans, "I'd call him 'calculating."'

Whatever the proper mixture that constitutes the truth, temper is one of Weaver's trumps and he wouldn't be able to conceive of managing without it. Regardless of the sources of his inspirations. Weaver never wants to let down his public. When he scoots out of the dugout, he's always gunning for a perfect 10.