You couldn't pick up a paper during the baseball strike without reading that Pete Rose had hit six zillion balls the day before. The important question around here was whether the Earl of Dispute was keeping in shape.

Two months away from umpires can change a man's character. Without a daily reminder of the umpires' incompetence, might Earl Weaver go soft? Two months as an ordinary citizen could give the Oriole manager a new outlook. If he ever met an insurance salesman, he would kiss the next umpire he sees.

"I never thought about umpires during the strike," Weaver said this afternoon. "Anyway, I don't have any 'thing' with the umpires."

Sure, and Ann-Margret wears combat boots in the shower. If Earl won't tell us how he maintained his fighting trim, we are left to find out for ourselves what went on this summer while the little genius was jailed in his famous tomato patch.

So we dug up a zucchini willing to talk.

"Earl was a real mess," said Z, who didn't want his full name used. "He loves his statistics and he didn't have any to play with. Every day, about 3:30, he'd get in his car before he realized he had no game to go to the ballpark for. He got so depressed he told us he might call up Jim Palmer and talk about ulnar nerves. That's depressed."

Weaver came out of it about the third week in July. "That's when he started screaming at the tomatoes," Z said.

Neighbors worried at first, Z said, but they got over it when Earl explained that it's easy for Pete Rose to get a batting cage but where are you going to get an umpire who'll come to Earl Weaver's house and stand in the rhubarb for an hour's rhubarb?

"So Earl screamed at his prize tomatoes until they were red in the face," Z said. "Sometimes he would kick dirt on their vines. I loved it when he turned his cap backwards and really got into it. It looked like he was about to take a bite out of this one tomato."

"Them tomatoes have more brains than Marty Springstead," Weaver said, according to Z.

This is the kind of thing that happens to sports columnists who don't have baseball for two months. They hear zucchinis talking to them. Truly, the rhythms of life are disturbed when summer arrives and baseball doesn't. As our body clocks go haywire when jet planes carry us across two or three time zones, so do our emotional gyroscopes spin out of whack without a good ball game every night.

I mean, what fun is the 11 o'clock sports on TV without the baseball scores? It is TV's comedy hour, Tank McNamara on the loose. You hear the guy reading the scores of 13 games in about 15 seconds. As he does this exercise in speed reading, they flash the scores on the screen. It is a rule of television that the scores never match what the guy is saying.

For two months, we missed the mental gymnastics necessary to figure out which team won. Similarly we were deprived of the morning paper's man-sliding-into-second pictures, a staple of every sane person's existence. And it takes seven cups of coffee to replace the battery jolt of electricity generated by the mystery of 20 Monday morning box scores.

These seem minor glitches in a well-ordered existence, but only to those people who don't understand what baseball is. Baseball is the best thing in this world. Without the moral compass of baseball to steer by, we fall into the sin and degradation of, dare I say the words, soccer and tennis.

It is no accident that Ronald Reagan approved the neutron bomb during the baseball strike.

This sense of a vague, unidentifiable but sinister uneasiness came to the Weaver household this summer on an occasional Monday night and Saturday afternoon. For this we need no confirmation from Z, since we have Weaver's word this afternoon that it was a surpassing strange summer.

"I'd head for the TV on a Monday or Saturday because I figured if we weren't playing, then everybody else was," Weaver said.

The fire horse in him never gave up. For 33 years he has been in a baseball uniform every July. His routine in Baltimore is unvarying: "I'm up at 5 or 6 in the morning waiting for the paper. I cut up vegetables around 6 or 7. My wife gets up about 7, we eat breakfast and pass the crossword puzzle back and forth. Once she looks up a word meaning 'three-toed sloth,' we're on our way. I go scratch around in the garden a while. And after lunch, I take a nap about 1:30 until I go to the ballpark at 3:30."

At 3:30 most afternoons this summer, the synapses of Weaver's brain crackled with the reminder that, hey, Earl, it's time.

"I never started toward my car," Weaver said, "but I always knew when it was 3:30 and I had to tell myself there was no ball game today."

The newspaper was awful, Weaver said. He likes the Baltimore Sun. But there were no box scores to study. No ball games to read. You couldn't ask for better coverage of the U.S. Open golf tournament, he said, and Wimbledon was good on television, if you go for sin and degradation.

Earl noticed one thing when he read the papers' TV listings each day.

"I'd see some programs that weren't very entertaining, and I'd say to myself, 'This would be a good night to go to a ball game,' " Weaver said.

Instead, he went to bed about 8:30 each night.

Life without baseball is life hardly worth staying awake for.