"If the Orioles get the wrong person to replace Earl Weaver, it wouldn't just be a mistake, it could be a total mistake. That's a delicately balanced club and not just any manager is going to understand how to run it." Frank Robinson, San Francisco Giants manager

The black smoke above Memorial Stadium probably won't turn to white for several more weeks. The Baltimore Orioles' decision on who will replace Manager Earl Weaver -- the Earl of Baltimore, the Dream Weaver of 33rd Street, The Certified Genius -- has been discussed and pondered, but not yet seriously addressed.

The man with final decision power, owner Edward Bennett Williams, says, "The simplest common sense dictates that you wouldn't make such a decision until after your season is over. And you certainly wouldn't muddy the waters by talking prematurely about what you're thinking.

"Let's just say that the list of candidates is long, very long."

With little more than a month remaining before FOCUS the end of the World Series, the nature of the Orioles' difficult decision is finally taking shape. After recent interviews with Williams, General Manager Hank Peters and all of those close to a dozen leading prospects, it is clear the Orioles' choices fall into three distinct categories.

* If the Orioles believe Weaver is uncertain about his retirement and may want to return to the bench within two years, the logical short-term replacement would be Cal Ripken or Ray Miller, both Oriole coaches, or Yankee Coach Joe Altobelli, a long-time Oriole minor-league manager.

If one of the three succeeded quickly and dramatically, Weaver could be left in Florida to tend his garden. If the in-house, home-grown successor flopped, Weaver might well be begged to return for the good of the club.

Weaver has agreed to a two-year scouting contract, tying him, in theory, to the Orioles through the '84 season.

In the last six weeks, Weaver has given several hints that he thinks he may eventually return to managing. Just this week, he said, "If they had an (NL) expansion team in Miami in '86 (a remote possibility), I'd definitely put in for the (managing) job." When pressed about what he would do if his successor has serious misfortunes, Weaver says, "I wouldn't let the organization down after 25 years with them."

Weaver is believed to favor Ripken, Altobelli and Miller, in that order -- largely because of seniority and loyalty. However, what Weaver thinks in this matter carries almost no weight.

For those who like scuttlebutt, Chicago White Sox Manager Tony LaRussa, a candidate in a later category, said this week, "You mean it's still up in the air? I thought Ripken had the job."

* If the Orioles have given up on a return by Weaver and simply want to grab the best available out-of-work manager, the choice is simple: John McNamara, late of the Cincinnati Reds. McNamara and GM Peters have been close friends since the '50s. If McNamara isn't Peters' choice, then the whole baseball community is fooled.

McNamara's career winning percentage is only .491. With bad teams, like this year's Reds and the mid-'70's Padres, his low-key approach has not proved to be the antidote to lethargy.

On the other hand, from '79 through '81, McNamara's band in Cincinnati had the best winning percentage in baseball. He's also the only candidate in sight who's ever won anything: the NL West in '79. With the Reds, he proved he could take a good but limited team, similar to the Orioles', and, by nursing the pitching staff and using a deep bench, finish well ahead of the predictions for three straight years.

McNamara also has experience at replacing a famous man -- Sparky Anderson, who won the World Series with the Reds in '75 and '76. "Who wants to replace two legends in their own time?" jokes McNamara.

McNamara admits he would like to be offered the job. "I'm out of work. What do you think?" he says.

Williams says, "I wouldn't hold what happened in Cincinnati this year against McNamara." Or, as McNamara, the victim of the Reds losing George Foster, Ken Griffey and Doug Collins in the offseason, says, "I sure got dumb over the winter."

* The third category includes at least four managers -- three of them "names" -- now under contract to other clubs. Therefore, perhaps beyond Baltimore's reach are ex-Oriole great Frank Robinson of the Giants, LaRussa, George Bamberger with the New York Mets and even bright, young Rene Lachemann whose job is reportedly in jeopardy in Seattle.

At one time or another this season, all four have had an "available" look about them. However, much of that has changed -- to owner Williams' considerable dismay. The Giants and White Sox have had hot streaks that got them back in pennant races, at least until Labor Day, and, thus, restored their managers' good standing with the brass.

In fact, Robinson, signed through '84, and LaRussa, signed through '83, are now such favored fellows in San Francisco and Chicago that they might not be able to escape. Bamberger's Mets have done so atrociously that, although his contract is up, Bamberger now says he wants to stay to see the rebuilding job through. As for Lachemann, it would be foolish to fire a leading candidate for manager of the year.

In his most revealing comment, Williams says, "the demand may be greater than the pool (of applicants)." Williams probably wishes Robinson and LaRussa were part of the pool. Since they may not be, he may have to pick from among competent but uncharismatic gents like Ripken and McNamara.

Williams, who hired Vince Lombardi as Washington Redskin coach, loves nothing better than an iconoclastic, controversial, verbal, light-up-the-sky coach or manager; Williams doesn't own a sports team so it can bore him.

Last winter, Robinson said he'd like to have the option of considering the Oriole job. That comes straight from the Weaver handbook of standard managerial answers. However, that innocuous quote has gotten Robinson months of heat by the Bay, so he now says publicly that his future is with the Giants.

"I know one thing," said Robinson, an Oriole coach in '79 and '80. "The next manager is going to have to be a lot like Earl. If you don't use that team -- guys like (Benny) Ayala and (John) Lowenstein -- the same way (Weaver does), you won't get anywhere near the same production."

"Frank may have a point," admits Weaver.

"If I get the job or Cal or Joe Altobelli, who's as much Oriole as any of us, I think this team will go right on winning," says Ray Miller. "But, to be honest, I don't think there's anybody else available who could come in and do the kind of job that needs to be done.

"This team has a unique personality and chemistry. That's a significant part of why it wins. And I don't think anybody from outside the organization, no matter how good a baseball man they are, is going to come in and pick that up."