When a significant pleasure is taken from us, the typical human reaction is to deny the loss by erasing the memory.

That, perhaps, is why Earl Weaver has seemed so far from our baseball thoughts for the last 2 1/2 years. Once lost to us as an almost daily pleasure, we forgot his vividness, wit, energy and passion for the sport.

When he saw Al Bumbry heading to chapel services, did he really say, "Take your bat with you"? Was it commonplace for him to toss off lines like, "We're goin' so bad that back-to-back home runs means one today and one tomorrow"? Did he actually mutter, "I gave Mike Cuellar more chances than my first wife"?

Was he really intelligent and original; irritating and insulting, yet also charming; vain and volcanic, yet stubbornly patient and even compassionate? Was he a rich example of coping with the complexity of adult life, yet a poor model to hold up to a child? Was he always and altogether more interesting and profanely human on his dullest day than almost any other manager on his best?

Even the Baltimore Orioles were caught by psychological surprise this week when they learned of his sudden and shocking decision to return as their manager. Their separation from him in 1982 had been such a gradual and painful weaning that it seemed beyond the club's comprehension that such a piece of good luck actually could occur.

Yet in less than two days, the news had begun to be digested. Weaver's return already has had two immediate effects.

First, it energized the team, which immediately went from a comatose five-game losing streak under Joe Altobelli to a three-game winning streak full of home runs, fielding acrobatics and rallies. Suddenly, it became obvious to the Orioles that they had gradually forgotten how to care -- that is, truly care in the head-first-slide, bear-down-every-second sense that had once been habitual.

"We needed a kick in the butt," said Storm Davis. "We didn't realize what Earl meant to us until he was gone," said Rick Dempsey, always an antagonist. "All his sarcasm was our spark. I don't think some of us will ever take his criticisms as personally as we used to. And I know nobody is going to loaf, because we're not going to let anybody take advantage of Earl."

Second, the team felt a fascination with reintroducing itself to Weaver at the personal level because, for 16 men who had played for him previously, it offered the possibility of a final chapter to a long and unfinished story.

The best metaphoric image for Weaver has always been that of a crab. In recent years a molting crab. Once, he was secure in his crustiness. His managerial modus operandi was to pretend that he didn't care about anyone's feelings, that he didn't need friends, that to be successful, he would always have to be perceived as a rotten guy.

He cultivated his irascibility, like a man planting burs under his own saddle, even as he found himself outgrowing his lifelong persona. Twenty years in the minors had taught him how to be a rock, a leader, an invulnerable crab.

And he was sick and tired of it. In baseball, Weaver found challenge, but also strain; wealth, but in some seasons, frayed health; fame, but too little friendship. His two drunk-drinking charges humiliated him. One Orioles executive said, "Earl has killed more brain cells than most managers ever had." When Weaver slap-punched an umpire in 1982, it reconfirmed his own fears that he might snap from his self-imposed demands for intensity. He wanted to be feisty, but he didn't want to leave the game as a burned-out head case who punched umpires.

"Just once I want to see the sky turn to dusk without the stadium lights coming on," he once said in a dugout reverie so touching it made you want to cry for the tenderness trapped so long inside the crab. Weaver had created the prototype for a modern manager: no fines, no rules, no friendships, no grudges, no recriminations. As coach Ray Miller once said, "Earl doesn't care if your hair is down to your hip and you wear 10 pounds of beads, but you better take pride in your work." Weaver's mask of cosmic insubordination seemed to hide a longing to get away and turn inward. Perhaps even rethink himself.

"I've always worked for one reason," said Weaver. "So I could retire." The philosopher's position. Even owner Edward Bennett Williams could not quite reach a high enough rung to grasp why a healthy man at the peak of his powers would want to spend the rest of his life playing golf, visiting relatives and having dinner every night with his wife.

Few men seem capable of growth past a certain middle age. Perhaps personality can calcify, too. Weaver may yet prove an exception. With his passion for finding the simple line of "common sense logic" that runs through events and through personalities (including his own), Weaver always has been a man in slow evolution. If anything, Weaver retired because his development seemed to have reached a cul-de-sac. He needed a sabbatical so that he could come back fresh but also, perhaps, so he could come back slightly different.

After all, the title of Weaver's autobiography was: "It's What You Learn After You Know It All That Counts."

One thing is certain. Weaver knew the animus that surrounded him increasingly during his last two Orioles seasons. In 1982, one of his own coaches said, "I may quit. Earl won't listen to anybody. He's got an autobiography and a biography out at the same time. He's retiring. He's on every TV show. He's carried away with himself. I've made a million suggestions and he hasn't taken one."

Said veteran Tippy Martinez, "He was a pain in the butt. I don't think anybody will miss him personally." Added Dempsey, "We won't have to put up with all his screw-ups and his second-guessing." Jim Palmer, a sort of surrogate son, bade him farewell with bitter public words like the ones that Mark Belanger and Paul Blair had used before: "The game has passed Earl by." Palmer and Weaver didn't speak for months, and that's not a joke.

The Weaver who reappeared in Memorial Stadium on Friday was a hybrid version of the Li'l Genius. He greeted old friends warmly. He almost cried at a news conference when he recalled his final game in 1982. He admitted his nervousness, even his uncertainty about whether he should have returned at all. He apologized to his team for being unprepared to manage the previous night. He begged indulgence of everyone until he got on the same page with everybody else.

In the first inning of that first game, Weaver faced a decision. Storm Davis was wild. Four walks in an inning, one with the bases loaded. Milwaukee's lead already was 3-0 with the bases still jammed and here came two more balls to the No. 9 hitter. Welcome back, Earl. This is exactly what you're paid to decide. How long do you wait? How far can you fall behind?

"My thoughts were, 'I hope we don't get blown away.' I was nervous," said Weaver, a huge joke bottle of Rolaids on his desk. "Storm was close to his last batter. Maybe he was there. One more hit, it's 5-0, top of the order up. And it's a long way back. I'm looking at him and he seems to have his stuff. Nobody's having good cuts against him . . .

"But I haven't seen a big league pitch up that close for 2 1/2 years. Maybe anybody would look strong to me. You had to figure, 'This guy's throwin' good.' Or is he?"

Many in Weaver's office had never, not in 15 years, heard any such concession of vulnerability in judgment. Seldom would he even admit that he had faced a difficult decision, much less admitted that he feared it.

Weaver left Davis in the game and watched as he allowed no runs and only two feeble hits the rest of the night as the Orioles stormed back to win, 9-3.

"I'm a fortunate person tonight," said Weaver. "I thanked the boys . . . It was something special for me."

In everything, the new Weaver seemed slightly altered, who knows with what results. He tolerated dumb questions. Asked what Brewers Manager George Bamberger had said to him at home plate during his standing ovation, Weaver said, "He told me, 'Enjoy it. Enjoy it.' And I did."

Perhaps more surprising to old Weaver hands was something he didn't do. He did not curse. Least not so you'd notice it. Maybe it was just first-day good behavior. Or a carryover from broadcast booth inhibitions. Nonetheless, nobody ever enjoyed cussing more, or did it better, than Weaver.

Already, Weaver's oldest Orioles acquaintances say they may have to get reoriented. General Manager Hank Peters, asked if he expected to have the same prickly relationship with Weaver that had been so difficult for him in '81 and '82, said, "You know, Earl may be different this time around. He's a man who always surprises you."

The notion of a crab without its shell returning to combat is unsettling. The Weaver of '85 looks a little pudgy, a good deal older in the throat and a lot less pugnacious. On the other hand, Weaver now has several new forms of protection that he always lacked.

To a degree, he almost seems to have reached a point where he knows he can't lose.

"I enjoyed every moment of my retirement," he said, recounting days on roller coasters and dodge-'em cars with grandchildren as well as nearly a thousand straight nights at home with his wife -- nights when he usually did the cooking, just as he always grows his own vegetables and collects recipes and loves to shop for bargains on meat. "Now I'm back. I'm gonna manage a ball club and I'm gonna enjoy that, too."

It's a rare man who knows in his heart that, any day, he can leave his lifework behind without gnawing regrets and a sense of loss. It's rarer still to know that you have the means and the temperament for retirement.

Weaver also is armed with knowledge. Only in retirement -- with the ovations and the tears and the farewells -- did the crab learn how well he was liked. Under his shell, Weaver always wondered how he would be treated when he wasn't the boss, the star, the hot commodity. He found out. His players liked him better once he could let his hair down and say a kind word. Even in his experience as an ABC commentator, where he was fired from a job for the first time in his life (because he was too reasonable, too unemotional, too kind), Weaver learned that he was still accepted by the friends who mattered to him.

It's impossible to say how a slightly aged, slightly altered and somewhat less manic Weaver may fare. What the Orioles want from him is fire. "He needed a break," said Dempsey. "He takes it very seriously. The pressures of the game can get to you, like they may have gotten to Earl a little his last couple of years. Now, he's fresh and full of energy."

The old Weaver, one good enough to have a Hall of Fame plaque locked up, depended on his claws for results.

"Earl has always intimidated young players. Hell, I was scared to come back into the dugout after making a mistake for four years," Rich Dauer once said. "But when you get over the grilling Earl gives you, you're a better player than you ever thought you'd be." Added Mike Flanagan, "You knew he'd be waiting for you on that top step asking you, 'Why?' . . . When you play for Earl, you don't 'Do what your heart tells you.' You better be thinking out there."

"Players have to admit to themselves that what they did was not right," said Weaver, who claims never to have studied a word of Freud. "Then, there can be improvement."

How essential are sarcasm and distance to Weaver as educator and motivator? If he curbs his tongue, even a little, or shows his heart, even a bit, will Weaver become just another weak manager, another Nice Joe who'll have to walk the plank for a bunch of overpaid jocks who need a swift kick? Hourly.

What Weaver and his team may not realize is that a milder Weaver may develop compensating virtues. It's true that Weaver drove his teams to victory. But he also took, and demanded, such a central role that he never allowed leadership qualities to blossom in his players or coaches. He tended to be immune to suggestion and bullheaded on personnel moves until it was too late.

On the greatest stages, and for the highest stakes, Weaver's teams often failed -- in the '69 Series where they lost to the undermanned Miracle Mets, in the '71 and '79 seventh Series games against the Pirates, and in the last stages of the '80 and '82 pennant races. Some believed it was because Weaver's intensity became tension and infected his team. Strange as it seems, both Hank Bauer and Altobelli managed the Orioles to as many world titles as Weaver: one.

The old Weaver felt such complete responsibility, and such tense insecurity, that even his superstitions gave away his state of mind. For instance, he believed that, "Every time I fail to smoke a cigarette between innings, the other team will score."

Casey Stengel once said, "The trick is growing up without growing old."

To Earl Weaver, who once lived as though the only bad taste that mattered was the bad taste of defeat, there's always been growing up left to do.

Tigers, they say, can't change their stripes. But, in Baltimore, they know that crabs come in different kinds. Lots of folks like the soft-shells better.