For the past 10 days, it hasn't just been Earl Weaver who's been on "vacation." It's also been the Baltimore Orioles, who've had a fortnight's respite from their miniature blast-furnace manager.
Now, club and manager are back together, reunited in the dugout here, and both are probably better for the separation. The Orioles needed to get away from Weaver for a while. And, now, facing what may be the toughest 10 days of their season, they need him back.
In the long run, the Orioles are much in debt to Weaver's acidic intensity, barbs, impromptu dugout lectures, wisecracks and profane humor.
The Orioles haven't had a dynamic team leader since Frank Robinson left. In fact, for two years, the Orioles haven't even had a pitching staff "stopper." On such a cool, studious, low-flame, almost starless team, somebody has to raise the devil, strike the flint.
Even though Weaver sometimes lapses into bad taste in his suspension fiascos, they almost always serve a purpose for the Orioles; after all, to Weaver, the only bad taste that matters is the bad taste of defeat. The retiring manager didn't need to go so far as to slap/punch an umpire, then ridicule the American League president. But, as usual, this season's Annual Escapade came at a fortuitous time for Weaver's team.
Yes, almost like the mischievous little gremlin planned it all.
On the day Weaver's suspension was announced, his Orioles had just finished playing three weeks of losing baseball (9-10). The impetus they'd gained through six weeks of excellent play (27-13) was being eroded by the blahs.
When Weaver began his "vacation," the Oriole clubhouse had reached one of its grumpier low points since the spring of '76, when the trade which brought Ken Holtzman and Reggie Jackson to Baltimore also brought in tow a summer of contract squabbles and bickering.
Managers, even legendary ones, are always the first target on any flat ball club. The Orioles were no exception. This '82 team had no major internal beefs, yet the locker room seemed full of uncharacteristically tacky dirty laundry.
Who should play and how much? Who wasn't producing enough and why? What was wrong with the high-ERA pitching staff? Why was Earl doing this, and not that, if he was such a genius? All in all, the same boring little baseball details that make a losing team's bus rides so prickly.
Weaver's suspension turned off the complaining like a spigot. You never miss your water 'til your well runs dry.
Actually, having Weaver off the bench for a few days costs the Orioles almost nothing--as Weaver knows from experience in 1976, '79, '80 and '81.
Weaver's managerial strengths have little to do with his physical presence in the dugout. He's a great offseason team builder and general judge of talent. Because he's so confident of his baseball opinions, he is usually patient with insecure youngsters and slumping veterans. He may understand, teach and insist upon fundamentals better than any other man in the game.
Perhaps no one studies statistics then blends them with intuition so well in making out a lineup card. He can mend fences with an annoyed player as perceptively as anyone. Always planning for the six-month haul, Weaver pays scrupulous attention to keeping his pitching staff healthy; he never sacrifices a week for the sake of a day.
Within games, he has a gift for picking the proper time and place for pinch hitters. As for relieving pitchers, Weaver probably falls in the middle of the managerial pack; he likes radar guns because he doesn't completely trust his own eye in telling when a pitcher is "losing it."
All this can be done, as Weaver has proved, while sitting alone in a room, walkie-talkie in hand, watching a closed-circuit TV monitor.
On the other hand, having Weaver on the bench is a mixed blessing.
No one's going to settle the perennial debate on whether Weaver alienates more umpires than he intimidates, or vice versa. But plenty of Orioles over the years have wished they could cut Weaver's bench-jockeying and nagging in half.
Another recurrent Oriole concern is that Weaver's late-game anxieties--epitomized by, but hardly limited to, his uptight chain-smoking in the dugout tunnel--tend to tighten up players, particularly young or marginal athletes who have worries of their own.
That the Orioles could enter the eighth inning trailing in 30 games this season before they finally managed a come-from-behind victory might, in some part, be traced to Weaver's tenseness infecting his young players. Of course, maybe it had nothing to do with it. We're way beyond what's provable.
What seems clear is that Weaver, who probably understands himself as well as he understands baseball, realizes that one of his "vacations" is a good midseason tonic for his team. After all, he got out of their hair for a few of the dog days in both '79 and '80 and they won 100 games. If Weaver has one unvarying pattern, it's that he always returns to strategies and behaviors that have worked in the past--whether he fully understands their causality or not.
He just calls it superstition, but, more likely, he considers it a mix of 35 years experience and intuitive wisdom.
Now, the Orioles have had a nice, relaxing 10 days away from their resident genius--and responded with a seven-game winning streak, including two victories that kept Weaver in self-imposed subterranean exile. And Weaver has gotten back the voice that was down to a rasp and disappearing fast.
Looking ahead, The Earl of Baltimore sees a schedule that makes him even more nervous than usual. The Orioles Thursday started a stretch of 13 games in 11 days, nine against the Royals and four with Boston. Until Aug. 16, the Orioles play nothing but winning teams.
Meanwhile, Milwaukee is in the fifth day of a 35-game span in which it plays 33 games against the bottom seven teams in the 14-team American League. Weaver knows that if his Orioles can make it to Aug. 17 in one piece, then they begin playing 19 straight games against losers and the division-race tide may turn. After all, the Brewers play their last 30 consecutive games of the season--starting Sept. 3--against winning teams.
Weaver's larynx has healed. The Orioles' eardrums have recovered. It's time for a nice refreshing pennant race, just the way Weaver has planned all along.
"Earl's ready to return," snickers Ken Singleton. "There's not enough credit for him back there in the clubhouse."