At five minutes to three on a chilled, blustery Thursday afternoon in June, the cadaverously pale Joe Altobelli walked into the Orioles offices at Memorial Stadium wearing a clean, white shirt, the kind you might wear to a funeral. His presence had been finally and formally requested, and as he walked through that lobby he was heard to say, "That's why I'm going upstairs," just before opening the door that would bring him face to face with two gentlemen who were recently avoiding him. Everyone in the room, and especially Altobelli, knew he was dead. Edward Bennett Williams and Hank Peters were now going to tell him to lie down and close his eyes.
Little more than an hour later a news conference was held inside the aptly named "Hit and Run Room" to announce that after considerable negotiations, Earl Weaver had agreed to manage the Orioles until the end of the season. Because of "previous commitments," however, Weaver was unfortunately unable to attend either the news conference or that night's game. He would be in uniform on Friday. In his absence, Cal Ripken Sr. would manage the team.
The discussions between Williams and Peters that led to Altobelli's firing, Williams said, began Sunday, the day Boston completed a three-game sweep of the Orioles with a 12-0 victory in Baltimore.
By Wednesday afternoon, Williams said, with the Orioles in Detroit getting ready to play the Tigers, the decision was made: Altobelli was unconditionally through.
With, or without Weaver.
Regardless of what would happen in the game that night.
Almost a full day later -- almost 20 hours after the game started, almost 14 hours after the Orioles had returned to Baltimore, almost six hours after he'd wandered the corridors in Memorial Stadium, plaintively asking faceless people on the Death Watch, "Am I fired? Does anybody know if I've been fired?" almost four hours after he'd cut the final cord by cleaning out his locker -- Altobelli was told.
"It was not an unclassy act," Williams would say in the Hit and Run Room of Altobelli's firing.
Sure it was.
Someone who has argued law cases before the Supreme Court would be familiar with the Constitution's Eighth Amendment, which protects people against "cruel and unusual punishments."
Scott McGregor said of Altobelli, "He's definitely been in the guillotine." But the guillotine is a one-shot deal, relatively clean. Altobelli was hung up like meat and smoked over a slow fire, day by day. If that isn't unusual for a baseball manager, it's still cruel.
Williams defended the process by saying, "We told (Altobelli) at the first moment. We had no replacement for him until 12:30 this (Thursday) afternoon . . . I thought that the fairest way, Hank Peters thought that the fairest way, would be to tell him face to face, and not on the telephone. The first time we could see him, we came over here and saw him."
Even if you accept the rather irrelevant position that the "fairest" way to tell Altobelli was face to face, they'd had plenty of opportunities to do just that. They could have flown to Detroit and told him there, possibly before, but certainly after the Wednesday night game. They could have met the team plane at BWI after midnight and told him then. They could have called him to the stadium early Thursday and told him then.
They didn't see Altobelli because they were seeing Weaver.
The key sentence is: "We had no replacement until 12:30 this afternoon."
They were absolutely positively firing Altobelli so they simply put him on hold. This is known as sticking to the letter, not the spirit, of the law.
No one questions the judgment of firing Altobelli. The team was foundering under him. To follow a legend requires a special gift. Altobelli's gifts seemed ordinary.
No one questions the judgment of hiring Weaver. If he's available -- whenever he's available, even if he's available like this, per diem, for a few months of summer vacation -- you hire him and do what you must to make room for him. He's an incandescent talent; he casts an impossible shadow. In no time at all Weaver will make people forget Altobelli was ever here.
But that's a separate issue.
Altobelli was gone regardless of Weaver.
The Orioles not only preferred Weaver, they preferred anyone to Altobelli.
So tell him.
If Ripken was good enough to manage on Thursday against the Brewers, he was good enough to manage Wednesday against the Tigers.
When Williams said, "I ache for Joe Altobelli . . . I am concerned principally for Joe Altobelli because he's been bruised," surely he had to realize that he had done some of the bruising. Williams said if anything about the episode was unfair, it was "the avalanche of speculation -- some of it really kind of wild -- that caused (Altobelli) to be bombarded with questions in Detroit." That position evaporates when you consider it was Williams himself who started this "avalanche" by telling The Washington Post on Monday he was "very disappointed" in the performance of the team, and "wasn't going to sit by idly and let things go on like this. I want to do something that will ensure a gung-ho effort."
What better, more dramatic way than to fire a manager?
George Steinbrenner does it all the time.
Without putting Williams in the same parade as Steinbrenner, let's say that this isn't the first time the Orioles have needed a shovel for the mess lately. Jim Palmer's release was perhaps an unavoidable trauma, but the Orioles bungled badly and seemed callous waiting until after the last home stand, then releasing Ken Singleton, Benny Ayala and Al Bumbry. The high-level decision to hire Frank Robinson as a coach seemed no less than a loaded gun aimed at Altobelli. All along, Baltimoreans have been fearful of Williams, who they believe wants nothing more than to move the franchise to Washington.
The Orioles no longer hold the higher moral ground. The last symbolic barrier fell when they entered the free agent wars ham-fisted, flashing a brick of a bankroll. Now it appears inescapable that the Orioles are, indeed, like all the rest.
No better. No worse.
Let's face the music and dance.