Of all the more than 40,000 souls in Memorial Stadium today for "Thanks Earl Day", you could have given Baltimore Orioles Manager Earl Weaver 50,000 guesses and he still would not have figured out whose gift he would appreciate most.
It wasn't the four-door van or the Caribbean cruise or the customized golf cart or the song written in his honor or the tumultuous cheers and chants of the 41,194 fans for which Weaver found himself most grateful at sundown.
Believe it or not, it wasn't even Rich Dauer's two-run home run in the 10th inning to beat Cleveland, 4-2, that was most important to the pennant-race-obsessed Weaver.
There's no denying Dauer's two-out drive into the bleachers furnished a marvelous climax to a brilliant autumn afternoon of nostalgia and drama. After the Dauer denouement, the jubilant crowd chanted, "Weaver, Weaver," until the diminutive No. 4 popped out of the dugout and doffed his cap; then, they roared the louder until, finally, Weaver put both hands to his mouth and blew kisses to the faithful.
Despite all this, the sweetest present Weaver received today was a controversial call -- a true gift, in the baseball sense -- from one of the American League umpires who has plagued him most over the years, Steve Palermo.
"Yes, it's ironic that I'd make a call that might have kept his team from losing, especially on Earl Weaver Day," said Palermo. "We've had a bad history in the short time I've been in the league. Maybe now Earl'll admit that we call 'em the way we see 'em; that we're not out to get him."
The Orioles were still alive in the 10th because of a rare and dicey call that led to a game-saving run in the seventh inning when Baltimore trailed, 2-1.
The moment the crowd won't soon forget was the sight of singles-hitter Dauer smashing a 2-0 fast ball from reliever Ed Glynn over the 360-foot sign in left, a homer that gave complete-game pitcher Mike Flanagan (15-10) his seventh consecutive victory and the 100th of his career. The normally understated Dauer stood, Reggie Jackson style, and watched his homer land in a sea of hands, then explained, sheepishly, "Well, I figured I could run as far as first base if it hit the fence."
And, if Dauer was delighted, then Rick Dempsey, the runner who was on third base after a ground-rule double over the center field fence and a short wild pitch, barely retained his precarious sanity; the easily excited Dempsey heaved his batting helmet in the air to second-deck level as the ball settled in the crowd and the Orioles had their 26th victory in 31 games.
However, in the Baltimore dugout, the Orioles know that the reason they're still two games behind the Milwaukee Brewers, rather than three, is because Palermo called the "phantom tag" play at second base on Cleveland's Mike Fischlin.
With Orioles on first and second, one out, Eddie Murray grounded to second and the Indians tried for a double play. Shortstop Fischlin tried to avoid a hard slide by Cal Ripken and, at the same time, make an inning-ending pivot.
Instead, Palermo ruled, Fischlin's foot missed the bag entirely.
"It's the old neighborhood play," said umpire Nick Bremigan. "His foot was in the neighborhood of the bag, but not on it.
"Sure, it's a tough call, especially in that situation. But Ripken made a good, honest slide and Fischlin missed the bag by a foot."
"It takes a certain amount of guts to call that," said Weaver. "Not every umpire would have done it, though they all should."
The Indians raged at Palermo. Replays showed him to be correct.
When the next batter, Ken Singleton, hit a long fly to left, it was a game-tying sacrifice fly. Without Palermo, it would have been the end of the inning and the Orioles might well have lost, 2-1.
The Orioles tried to outdo themselves on Weaver's day.
Flanagan was stung for two runs with two out in the second when Bill Nahorodny hit a line drive inches over the fence in left for a homer; Rick Manning sliced a bloop double to left and superb rookie Von Hayes (18 RBI in 12 games against Baltimore) grounded an 0-2 pitch into center for a single. But Flanagan settled down and lasted for 112 crafty pitches.
Behind Flanagan the Orioles, who may set a major league record for fewest errors in a season, were committing grand larceny. Dauer made stellar plays on a bunt by Toby Harrah and a smash by Larry Milbourne. Rookie John Shelby, who had three singles and now has seven hits in three pennant-race starts, robbed Milbourne of a double in the gap to right center.
Most impressive was Ripken, whom Weaver said was stung in the left eye by a bee an hour before the game. Ripken, his eyelid visibly swollen, reached base four times and scored once, on a single by Murray in the third. At shortstop, he started one double play, turned the pivot on another, fielded six more tough grounders flawlessly, and robbed Nahorodny of a bloop double with a flat-out, galloping, over-the-head fingertip snag of a pop fly. Even Mark Belanger in his prime would not have had it.
"That kid (Ripken) is another Murray . . . yeah, that good," said Weaver. "He keeps amazing me."
Weaver was more dazed than amazed. He'd made it through the speech he dreaded. "I was just hopin' I wouldn't drop my (3 x 5) cards, 'cause then I don't know what I'd have done."
But he couldn't get past the Indians.
"In the 10th, I was tryin' my lucky 'extra cigarette trick' ," Weaver said. "And I'm not tellin' you what it is." According to players, Weaver was also yelling, "Hurry up. Let's go. I got a party to go to," referring to yet another Thanks Earl bash.
Dauer was the proper hero. Weaver, as a minor league player, was a small, slow, tough, short-on-power second baseman who hit and ran, seldom struck out, made the double-play pivot in the face of spikes and hardly ever made an error. That, also, is the description of the totally team-oriented Dauer; more than any other player in Weaver's 14 1/2 managerial years, Dauer is the embodiment of the major league player Weaver never quite got to be.
In a strange, fitting sense, Weaver got to see himself hit the game-winning home run on his own retirement day.