The Orioles, like every baseball team looking for a manager, ought to think about Billy Martin.
And then forget him.
Better to hire Joe Altobelli, a longtime Orioles man and once the National League's manager of the year, who apparently is the leading candidate for Earl Weaver's job.
1. Why not Billyball for Baltimore?
Martin's battlefield brilliance works such game-turning wonders that each time he does his act of self-destruction, there is another team anxious to suffer his quick-fix kind of managerial sleight of hand. He has won championships with teams as different as the Reggie Jax Yankees and No-Name Twins. Someone will hire Martin now, perhaps Cleveland out of 30 years of desperation or the Yankees out of Steinbrennerian perversity.
Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams said last week that Martin "hadn't been" considered. As to whether Martin's firing changed that, Williams had no comment, presumably because, like all owners, he is tempted by the promise of instant success that is Martin's strength.
It is a temptation better resisted, because the Orioles are not Martin's kind of team. They are too good.
Martin works best building a team from air. He bonds players to him emotionally. He is Svengali in spikes. But when the team wins, Martin inexplicably arranges its disintegration. He often joked about his dual job of manager/general manager at Oakland, saying he at last found a man he could work for.
Sadly, he was wrong. Even in his hometown, where the owners gave him carte blanche, Billy Martin turned success into an enemy. From a division championship in '81, Oakland fell to mediocrity this season. The decline called for patient leadership; Martin's public trashing of his ballpark office was only one signal that he wanted a distance between him and his team's failure.
Not my fault, Billy always says. It's the owner's fault, or the players', or the marshmallow salesman's.
The Orioles are everything Martin is not. They are built on a solid foundation of fundamentals and common sense that, if applied patiently, produces consistent success. Earl Weaver's greatest skill was judging talent. He then let that talent work over a season's time. After 14 years in Baltimore, Weaver leaves a good team maybe two players away from a world championship; when Martin leaves a town, the earth is scorched.
2. Why is Altobelli right for the job?
He is right for every reason that Martin is wrong, beginning with personality.
A pyrotechnic genius with an incurable itch to meddle might cause the Orioles' common-sense, low-key clubhouse to go up in the flames of jitters that always leave Martin's teams in ashes. That also is a good reason for the Orioles to avoid going after Gene Mauch, who quit as manager of the Angels on Friday. In their good-guy situation, the Orioles need a Weaver type who leaves well enough alone. Weaver didn't want players to love him or call him genius; he wanted them to go out and win games.
"Altobelli kept his sanity for two years with the Yankees," said a New York sportswriter. "He's an Italian-priest kind of guy," another said. "Tough, no-nonsense, but nice." "Next to Martin," said a reporter who dealt with both men, "Joe is daylight after the dark."
Altobelli, 50, has been the Yankees' third base coach the past two years, following the '80 season as manager of their top farm team at Columbus (where he won a pennant).
Before that, Altobelli managed the San Francisco Giants for nearly three seasons. After a 75-87 year in 1977, Altobelli was named the league's manager of the year in '78 for an 89-73 record. He was fired late in '79 when the Giants were 61-79.
For 14 previous seasons, Altobelli worked in the Oriole organization, first as a player at Rochester and then, in 1966, as manager of a rookie league team in Bluefield, W. Va. He moved up quickly, taking over the Orioles' AAA team at Rochester in 1971. He succeeded Cal Ripken Sr., who had succeeded Earl Weaver.
In six years at Rochester, Altobelli's teams won four International League championships. His teams, like Weaver's, won with fundamental baseball -- no genius, no Billyball gimmickry -- and with good pitching handled carefully. Among Altobelli's players were Eddie Murray, Rich Dauer, Al Bumbry, Dennis Martinez, Scott McGregor and Mike Flanagan.
"I started Joe as a manager," said Harry Dalton, then the Orioles' general manager and now the boss of the Milwaukee Brewers, "because he had a knack of taking young players and working with them. He had good sense and a good manner handling young players. He still has that. Joe is a good manager."
So is John McNamara, a longtime friend of Baltimore's general manager, Hank Peters. After four undistinguished seasons with San Diego, McNamara won a division championship at Cincinnati in 1979, finished third the next year and had baseball's best record in the short '81 season. With his stars traded away this year, McNamara was fired early on.
Altobelli's edge over McNamara is his Oriole background and his American League experience.
"I took the Yankees' job because I hadn't been in the American League for a while," said Altobelli, who played briefly for Cleveland and Minnesota, last in 1961. "Every day in baseball, you can learn something new. You should learn as much as you can, even to the dimensions of the ballparks . . ."
Altobelli said Peters called him earlier this month. "He was kind enough to tell me I was one of four or five men they were interested in, and he'd see what happens after the World Series . . . "
And what would Altobelli say if Peters asked why he should hire him?
"First, I have three years of major-league experience," Altobelli said. "Second, I know the American League. Third, I was in the organization and I know the Oriole way, the front-office people and the city. Fourth, some of the players know me as a manager."
Any pressure in following Earl Weaver?
"When you're talking about Earl Weaver, well, he's done everything that can be done with a team. Anybody who gets that job, it won't be easy. But somebody has to do it."
Joe Altobelli sounded eager.