Joe Altobelli, who once managed 11 years in the Baltimore organization, waiting in vain to direct the major league club, has been hired by the Orioles to replace Earl Weaver as manager, according to team sources.
The Orioles will formally announce Altobelli's hiring this afternoon at a press conference in Memorial Stadium. Altobelli was to fly to Baltimore from his Rochester, N.Y., home last night.
Altobelli's contract is believed to be for two years -- the period Weaver is under contract to the Orioles as a part-time scout and adviser.
For Altobelli, 50, this selection brings a happy culmination to a hard-knocks odyssey that covers nearly a third of a century.
In 20 years as a player, starting in 1951, Altobelli got only cups of coffee in the majors, playing in 166 games in bits of three seasons. After 11 seasons as an Orioles minor league manager, he tired of waiting for the famous Weaver to vacate the top job and went to the San Francisco Giants as manager in 1977.
After being voted National League manager of the year in 1978, then unexpectedly getting fired the next season, Altobelli found himself back managing in the minors at Columbus in 1980 at the advanced baseball age of 48.
Once, in a fury during the Giants' sour days of '79, the usually placid Altobelli showed his anguish, bellowing at a critic, "If you want to be a manager, go sweat your butt off for 14 years in the minor leagues." The actual count, as player and manager, has been more than 25 years in the minors.
For the last two seasons, Altobelli has been third base coach for the New York Yankees. Until the Orioles called him, he had not been in the running for a managerial job.
"Joe's a very good, solid person and a good, solid baseball man," Baltimore General Manager Hank Peters said yesterday.
As word of the decision spread along the team grapevine, players reacted with almost unanimous enthusiasm.
"I was really happy to hear it," said pitcher Scott McGregor, one of nine Orioles who have played for Altobelli. "For the last couple of years, every time I've seen him with the Yankees, I've called him 'Skipper' and told him, 'You'll end up being our manager. Just wait and see.' "
"Allll right!!!" said pitcher Dennis Martinez. "I hope he stays even longer than Earl."
"He's a fair manager who knows baseball," said Al Bumbry. "He's not as high-strung as Earl. You can talk to him. He's a calm, rational man. He'll have a closer rapport with players (than Weaver)."
"I'm the happiest man in the world that we made a change. Things can only get better for the team," said veteran Terry Crowley, who has been ambivalent about Weaver's work in recent years.
"With Joe, I think of a gentleman, a patient man with the ability to get an awful lot of respect from his players without ranting and raving," added Crowley. "He's one heck of a fine individual, and he's never changed. And he's had reason to be down on baseball at times with some of the breaks he's had.
"With Joe, there will be a lot of discussions, but I don't think there'll be any votes."
Altobelli was not available for comment, but earlier this week, when he knew a decision was close, he repeated the reasons he had given team owner Edward Bennett Williams explaining why he'd make a good manager of the Orioles.
"I know everybody in that damn organization: the players, the front office, the town. It would fit me like a glove, made to order," said Altobelli. "When I think about it, I don't fear anything about that job. It'd be like a nice, old comfortable shoe.
"It would be silly on my part to think of any major overhauling," he added. "Leave well enough alone.
"I saw them play the Yankees eight times in September and they were just excellent. Came from behind to win several times in a row, and I mean they were coming back sometimes from four-five runs down. Just excellent. They came from nowhere and almost won the division. Don't change the success they've had."
Altobelli's choice was, in essence, a process of elimination.
According to Peters, the Orioles decided long ago not to approach any manager who was under contract, considering such tactics to be below the belt. That ruled out people such as Tony LaRussa, Frank Robinson and Rene Lachemann.
Next, the Orioles decided, in Peters' words, it would be preferable "to employ someone who knew our ballclub well, knew our methods and the league." That eliminated Peters' long-time friend John McNamara, now California manager.
The only three plausible candidates remaining were Altobelli and Orioles coaches Cal Ripken and Ray Miller. Neither Ripken nor Miller could approach Altobelli's experience. Now, unless Oakland hires Miller as its manager -- and he is considered to be the A's second choice behind Montreal coach Steve Boros -- the Orioles can have all three on the same staff.
Despite his warm relations with the Orioles, Altobelli's road to the top has had a few rough spots.
In the mid-1970s, when Weaver's job was in jeopardy more than once, Altobelli's name always was the first mentioned as a replacement. Feelings were strained between the two. Weaver never brought Altobelli to the majors as a third base coach, perhaps, in Bumbry's words, "because he was worried about the job."
In San Francisco, Altobelli had one major problem and one minor one. The big mess was a crybaby clubhouse that became the scuttlebutt of baseball with its whining and its cliques.
At a technical level, Altobelli had a reputation there for occasionally falling a move behind in the game's more cerebral machinations. That, however, doesn't necessarily bother the Orioles.
McGregor recalls that, at Rochester, Altobelli once made a managerial misstep, then turned to the players in the dugout and said, "Come on, guys. I can't see everything. Let me know."
"I can't imagine Earl doing that," McGregor said, laughing. "He'd go crazy if we tried to help him manage."