For the past five days, the Baltimore Orioles have been learning to cope with a radical new experience: their manager speaks to them.
Since Friday, Joe Altobelli may have bestowed more friendly hellos, asked about the health of more wives and children and inquired about the status of more sore muscles than Earl Weaver did in 15 seasons as manager.
Altobelli, who says, "I've probably had a little talk with every player in camp," hasn't had to strain himself to surpass Weaver in conviviality.
As Jim Palmer observes, "The first time Joe said hello to some guys, he broke Earl's career record."
In past years, Palmer and John Lowenstein went so far as to say, "Good morning, Earl. How are you?" just so they could study the great man's reaction.
"We did it just to aggravate him," recalls Palmer. "Earl didn't know how to react to a friendly word."
To illustrate the difference between Weaver and Altobelli, Palmer tells a story. Once, former manager Paul Richards leaned across catcher Larry Haney, who was sitting inches away from him, and said to Coach Harry Brecheen, "Cat, will you tell Larry Haney to go down to the bullpen."
"That was the old school approach. Chain of command. Never speak to a player if you could avoid it," says Palmer. "That's basically how Earl was."
In this, as in many things, Altobelli is the managerial antithesis of Weaver. "There's a proper time to say the proper thing to every player," said Altobelli today, sitting in the balmy, breezy dugout watching his pitchers and catchers play a game of "one-eye-cat." "If you know the player inside as well as out, you may get that timing better and get to the crux of the matter."
To the Orioles, Altobelli's quiet comradeship is a symbol of the complete contrast between their old and new managers. Every player knows a line has been drawn, an era has ended. "When the club hired Joe, rather than Cal Ripken (Sr.) or Ray Miller, they were making a statement," says veteran Terry Crowley. "They were putting as much distance between the team and Earl as you could and still hire someone from within the Oriole family."
Weaver is still spoken of here with universal respect; it's always acknowledged that he will be missed. His status as living legend, quick-witted celebrity, future Hall of Famer and Runyanesque character is unchallenged. Officially, Weaver is welcome to put his feet up on anybody's desk any time he wants. He's on the team payroll as a scout for two years and, in the parking lot, there's still a space reserved with the one word "Earl" painted in script.
Despite all this, Palmer summed up the Orioles' new attitude concerning Weaver when he was asked, "Has Earl come to a practice yet?"
"Who?" said Palmer innocently.
This is no longer Weaver's team. As quickly as seems consonant with good taste, his fingerprints are being wiped away. The message here is unmistakeable: Weaver is not only gone, but is not expected back.
"I'm always asked, 'Will Earl come back?' " said General Manager Hank Peters today. "If he were to come out of retirement, I expect he could probably do a better job with another club.
"The last two years, Earl had reached a point where it really bothered him to tell one of his veteran players that he was finished or that his status had changed," said Peters. "He really didn't want to do those hard things anymore. I've heard him say it himself. It started to work away at him. Joe knows our personel, but he doesn't owe anybody anything. He'll sit a guy down when it's in the best interests of the club.
"Sometimes, I don't think the players realized how loyal Earl was to them, probably too loyal . . . Because Earl was never personally close to his players, they didn't feel any compassion for him . . . Some of the players thought Earl didn't like them personally. For them, Joe will be like a new lease on life."
In sports, when one leader replaces another, there's a natural, almost inevitable process of demythologizing the man who's left while boosting his replacement. It's easy to bite the hand that fed you after you think you've learned to feed yourself. Certainly, de-Weaverization is under way here.
"Joe breaks the ice and takes the first step toward you," says Tippy Martinez. "It's a little more comfortable situation."
"There'll be no prejudice, no bias this year," says Palmer. "The change has got to be a godsend for a guy like (Terry) Crowley, who felt left out last year."
"You can't push the man (Weaver) away because he was great," says Sammy Stewart, "but it's a comfortable feeling to deal with a soft-spoken man who says hello, who wants to keep up with all your problems and doesn't want to add any unnecessary weight to your shoulders. Earl was probably second-guessed more than ever before last year. Seems like he made the bad moves more and he pointed the finger sometimes . . . One thing I'll bet is that we'll get a better break from the umpires now.
"Earl was so vocal that we used to go, 'Whaaa, whaaa,' to tease him and get him to pipe down," adds Stewart. "Now, Joe's so quiet that we'll have to go, 'Shhhh, shhhh,' so we can hear him."
Ironically, the person who defends Weaver's memory and reputation most strenuously is Altobelli; perhaps he senses, and is even a bit saddened by, the warmth of his reception here, and the cool shrug of the shoulders that many Orioles give at mention of Weaver's exodus. "What's wrong with being compared to Earl? I kind of like it," says Altobelli. "If I have to live with it the rest of my life, I've lived with worse things."
Will Weaver appear here soon? "Oh, sure, Earl'll be around when the regulars report," says Altobelli. "And he'll do and say the right things."
For now, the Altobelli era is only a matter of tone: soft words, a relaxed dugout, more meetings and, perhaps, a slightly tighter ship. But, soon, many other aspects of the Orioles' world will change. In his last years, Weaver was considered resistent to suggestions; Altobelli will hear years worth of stored-up advice from his coaches, his general manager and the team's owner.
In the long run, Weaver's strengths--his judgment of players, his team-building knack, his prickly wisdom, his strategic deftness, his sure psychological touch in a pennant-race crisis--may prove irreplaceable.
However, in these easy spring training days--perfectly suited to Altobelli's genial gifts--it's almost painful to realize how little the crafty, crusty Earl of Baltimore will be missed in this nest that he feathered for so long.