The mail piles up on Earl Weaver's desk every day and, patiently, as he does everything, he reads each word, bifocals cocked on tip of nose, then puts each item in its proper stack.

He autographs the pictures of himself for kids and puts them back in the self-addressed, stamped envelopes. He reads the corny poems aloud to visitors, saying generously, "Not bad."

All the diatribes from cranks who want to bench Al Bumbry or dispatch Dan Ford are digested; even a fool might stumble on a good idea.

"St. Christopher medal," says Weaver, looking at the charm that has fallen from one letter. "This guy had a bad season. Got fired, didn't he?" says Weaver of the saint.

Weaver mulls the note that accompanies the medal. "From an 82-year-old lady," he says, reading idly. " 'I watch or listen to all the Oriole games. Thank you, Earl, for making the last years of my life worth living . . . ' "

That stops Weaver cold. Now he wishes he hadn't been reading to the reporters who surround him. "That's kind of embarrassing," he mutters.

Weaver knows how to spot a genuine emotion; he gets embarrassed. His whole face scrunches up like a crab on its back that knows it's vulnerable.

Quickly, on to the next letter.

Today is going to be a tough day for Earl Weaver, an emotional man who hates to show his emotions, a grateful man who's always had a hard time saying "Thank you" to anybody.

That's why Weaver keeps his harvest outside his office doors -- tomatoes, zucchini, whatever's in season; then, without too much of that dangerous emotion, he can say to players or friends, "Take some home. Does your wife know how to make zucchini bread? I've got a good recipe if she wants it."

At Memorial Stadium this afternoon, an anticipated capacity crowd is going to try to set off Richter Scale readings on "Thanks Earl Day."

Of course, when people say, "Thanks," you have to say, "Thanks" back. So, Earl's worried. Been working on his speech all week, scribbling on the same yellow pad that contains Benny Ayala's statistics and his pitching rotation for the Brewers.

"It was hard enough comin' up with something to say at 'Thanks Brooks Day,' " said Weaver. He finally threw away the pad because "it wasn't true and honest feeling." He winged it. And almost broke down, thanking Brooks "one million times" for all the times a future Hall of Famer "saved the job" of a career bush-leaguer trying to manage the best team in baseball.

Weaver has decided to thank nobody and everybody. "How can I mention Frank (Robinson) and Brooks but leave out the guy who sits on the bench without complaining, then wins a game with a pinch hit? It's not fair."

If life were fair, Weaver would just sit back and enjoy this day. Nobody in baseball deserves it more or has less need to apologize for being thanked.

Nothing in Weaver's 35 years in baseball befits him like his leaving it.

His team, a hodge-podge of veterans disguising their weaknesses and rookies just beginning to find their strengths, is the hottest gang in the game. As usual, nobody knows quite how they're doing it, although the suspicion is that Weaver probably has more to do with it than he's letting on.

Weaver no doubt thinks he is being thanked for his victories. And, of course, except for all those wins, he'd be just another managerial casualty. However, what Weaver should really be appreciated for most is the way he has won.

Yes, he has screamed at umpires and acted like a child in public. He has insulted almost anyone who has had regular daily contact with him; then has awakened the next morning regretting it. He forgives others so readily and openhandedly because he knows he often needs some forgiving.

However, Weaver's personal virtues, his consistent down-to-earth decencies -- words with which he would be uncomfortable -- are genuinely exceptional.

If Diogenes met Weaver, he wouldn't have to throw away his lamp, but he might begin to think there was some hope in his quest for an honest man. Weaver abhors lies and liars; he understands instinctively that, the more uncomfortable and worrisome an idea, the more likely it may be the truth.

Weaver knows that good-spirited arguing gives birth to more insights than the habit of agreement. Nothing excites Weaver more than disputation, and the only people to whom he gives his time freely are those who will contradict him.

To his players, to every reporter or fan who encounters him, Weaver is a teacher, a true practitioner of the Socratic method. "Why?" is the probing question by which he lives.

Perhaps because he spent 20 years in the minors, Weaver has resisted the personality distortions of being a celebrity; he is not immune, but he puts up a fight. After years around cameras, he still hides himself as soon as the TV light goes on. Many famous coaches have kiss-off TV shows; Weaver prefers a radio show and hand-writes his scripts.

Odd as it seems, the thoroughly old-fashioned Weaver, whose tastes are from the baseball world of the '40s and '50s -- a steak dinner with his wife, low-stakes golf, the race track -- may be the thoroughly modern manager.

"Earl doesn't care if you wear your hair down to your rear and have 10 pounds of beads," said Coach Ray Miller, "but you better take pride in your work."

No final chapter could be more fitting than Weaver's enigmatic retirement at 52. Nothing delights Weaver more than not being understood.

Why would anyone in the prime of life, with no health problems, leave an outstanding ballclub, walk out of the national spotlight and turn his back on an owner who is anxious to offer him the biggest managing contract ever?

Weaver can give his answer -- his real answer -- in a sentence.

"I've always worked for one reason: so I could retire."

Even owner Edward Bennett Williams, who believes in "competition living," has no instinctive feeling for these words. To him, everything's a game, the sky a scoreboard.

Weaver said this spring, "I'd like to watch the sunset turn to dusk without the stadium lights coming on."

If others live to work, Weaver maintains he has worked, no matter how hard and successfully, only so that he can live. The philosopher's position.

A person may face no harder task than the prospect of filling an endless succession of free days. Idleness has killed more people than labor. Weaver's friends tell him this in everyday phrases: "It'll drive you crazy. You'll be back in a year."

Weaver always answers, "I want to find out."

Working is so much easier than "living" that few have the opportunity and the courage to try the latter. Through 27 years of managing, Weaver's skin has, because of the necessities of a tough job, thickened until it almost amounts to a shell. As Weaver ages, he wants to molt.

Inside this Maryland crab, there's tender meat. Starting today, he can begin to show it.