For the last 200 games, the Baltimore Orioles have been, for the most part, a dull and irritating ball club, playing with only presentable intensity and intelligence.

The group that once epitomized the notion of team identity and collective willpower slowly became a collection of barely connected individuals.

The absence of a confident guiding brain became progressively more obvious. The clean and pleasing team assembled and tutored by Earl Weaver over 15 years was forgetting its lessons and losing its confidence. The longer Weaver was away, the more he was missed.

At first, the absence of his sarcasm, grumpy moods and blunt appraisals seemed a blessing. The '83 Orioles, built to the last nail by Weaver and with his voice still fresh in their ears, won a world title as though to prove they didn't really need him.

The last two seasons have proved how much they did.

As personnel changed and roles altered, the Orioles simply lost their identity. Because, to a great degree, their identity was Weaver, much as they denied it.

Now, in a development with an almost chilling amount of spin on it, Weaver has been begged, bribed and badgered out of retirement by Edward Bennett Williams, an owner as eloquent as he is desperate. He's spent himself to the edge for a high-priced ship but has no captain.

Weaver's assignment, and he has been given little choice but to accept it, is to recreate the past.

That's tough.

The last time Weaver had on No. 4 everything was perfect. Last day of the '82 season. Standing-room-only crowd. And a gallant unforgettable defeat. No man, not even Ted Williams with his last-at-bat home run, ever orchestrated a better farewell.

Ted Williams, asked why he never considered one more turn at the plate, said, "I wouldn't want to tamper with the mystique." Now, Weaver, because the Orioles have called in a favor, played on his loyalties and thrown in about $500,000 to boot, is tampering with his mystique. It's a touchy business.

This evening the Orioles clubhouse was a richly blended mixture of excitement at Weaver's return on Friday and a touching concern that, somehow, they might all tarnish and invalidate their past deeds by trying to recycle them.

"Earl's what we need," said Sammy Stewart. "We said goodbye to him with tears. Now we should say hello to him again with cheers."

Gary Roenicke said: "There's excitement around here for the first time in a long time. If we can't do it with Earl, then maybe it wasn't meant to be."

Scott McGregor, however, also hit part of the truth when he said on Wednesday night: "If Earl doesn't want to come back, then he's not the man for the job."

"We're hopin' he hasn't changed too much," said Roenicke. "But, really, we don't know how he's gonna be . . . "

It's far from clear that Weaver's heart is in his comeback. Williams is a master of reading human personality and human frailty. He's also a powerful man, grown used to bending other wills, who puts his own wants above others' needs.

He showed that quality again this week, letting Altobelli twist slowly in the wind in Detroit. The Orioles decided to fire Altobelli on Wednesday, yet on Thursday morning he was still wandering around the Orioles' offices asking, "Am I fired?"

The simple and correct procedure would have been for the Orioles to call him and tell him the truth as soon as they decided it. Next, say publicly that they were trying to get Weaver to come back. That would have given Altobelli his dignity and kept Weaver from looking like a back-stabber. And it wouldn't have hurt anyone.

Would Frank Robinson or anyone else be insulted that they were the Orioles' second managerial choice behind Weaver? Of course not.

The Orioles' feeble excuse -- that they wanted to tell Altobelli face to face -- just won't wash. For some reason, it suited the Orioles to keep their open secret, no matter how much it humiliated Altobelli to be the last person to know his fate.

The Orioles got the best remedy to their managerial dilemma, but in the worst possible manner.

Seldom has any manager's return been awaited with more mixed feelings.

"I'll be glad to see him back," said Tippy Martinez. "Nobody seems to know what their job is anymore."

Martinez also knows what a puzzle Weaver is for his players, how much he's an acquired taste.

"He can be very intimidating," Martinez said. "He'll scream at you for throwing just one ball, let alone a walk. At one stage of my career, I was listening to him too much.

"Rick Dempsey finally told me, 'You gotta scream back at him.' I ended up doing that, just letting all my frustrations out and letting him know what I thought. You know, he ended up liking me and I liked him. And I definitely didn't like him at first.

"He's not really close to anybody. Underneath all that thick skin, it just didn't seem that he had any human feelings at all. But, that last year, we learned that he does."

One of the unique love-hate relationships in sports can now resume between Weaver and his Orioles. Stewart can practice the ducklike squawking sound that he uses to mock Weaver's laugh -- to his face. And Rich Dauer can polish up the death-warmed-over cough -- a perfect imitation of Weaver's -- that he emits from the back of the bus on mornings when Weaver seems to have had a hard night.

The wisecracks and the inside strategy and the arguments about the inner workings of the game can start again.

"I'm just pretending," said Cal Ripken Sr., manager for a night last evening, "that Earl got ejected early."

"Our wheel doesn't have many spokes missing, but this losing has gone long enough," Stewart said. "We gotta get that enthusiasm back. It's time to go to a man like Earl Weaver. His heart and soul's in this game . . .

"You know, I bought a house near him in Perry Hall just so I could steal his tomatoes. What does he do but retire and move to Florida.

"Now I'll get him."