Earl Weaver will be back as manager of the Baltimore Orioles in 1986. Bet on it. He hasn't made up his mind, at least publicly. But his team has. From the players to the front office, the same Orioles team that wasn't altogether sorry to see Weaver leave in 1982 is adamant that he stay with the ship.

"Yeah, he'll be back," catcher Rick Dempsey said today. "We're gonna have a lot of fun together again. I think he's as much a part of the game as the game is a part of him . . .

"You'll see a whole lot of changes and a whole different attitude in the way things are done next spring . . . Nobody is going to take him for granted (this time) . . . As long as the talent (here) doesn't take advantage of management, we'll be all right."

"He'll be back," veteran Rich Dauer said. "He has too much talent here not to be back. It drives him crazy. He sees a World Series next year -- for sure."

"I think everybody pretty much assumes he's staying," said Cal Ripken Jr. "You just have to look around this room (at the potential) . . . Even when he was retired and he came back (with ABC) you could tell he really missed it . . .

"I just hope we don't make him so mad with the way we've played that he won't come back," Ripken told Mike Flanagan.

"No," Flanagan said. "We should play even worse. Then he'll be sure to come back. To get even."

"He's flippin' right about that," said Weaver of Flanagan's quip. "He's just saying that 'cause I said it."

What the Orioles think about Weaver may be as important as how Weaver feels about Weaver. The Earl of Baltimore is a man who won't overstay his welcome. His pride won't allow it. In part, he retired because a certain sourness was eroding his pleasure in managing. Now, the sweetness is, mostly, back.

Few knew how ambivalent the '81 and '82 Orioles felt about him. Perhaps 15 years of familiarity had bred a bit of contempt. Too many scabs were rubbed raw too easily. That's history now.

His 2 1/2-year retirement was more than enough to freshen the air. He was appreciated, and even missed, during the last 200 games of the Joe Altobelli era when the team was leaderless.

Throughout baseball the assumption from afar about Weaver is that the Li'l Genius is miserable as his Orioles (once 14 1/2 games behind Toronto) grasp at the fringes of a pennant race. That's almost backward. Weaver has seemed invigorated even when exasperated.

"It's always been a pleasure to come to the park (this year). The first, second and third innings have not always been a pleasure," he snorted today, referring to his pitchers' awful early-inning performances. "Watchin' our guys hit for nine has been fun."

With seven victories in their last eight games, including five in a row, the Orioles weren't even too mad about having a 6-0 lead rained out today.

"Which comes first, winning or (team) chemistry?" Flanagan asked. "When you have as much turnover in personnel as we've had, winning helps start the chemistry."

"Winning changes (team) personality," said Dauer. "When we get on a streak, you'll see us getting back to the old Oriole ways."

"This team is loaded," said Flanagan, bluntly putting pressure on his club's shoulders. "It's frustrating. We're like that sunken treasure in Key West. We're hidden just below the surface. We just need to have somebody knock the silt off us."

As Dempsey said, "Earl's definitely the man for the job."

"Just when you think Earl's finally fed up and is going to blow everybody's socks off, he has a five-minute meeting and says the perfect thing," Flanagan said. "Always positive, always logical. He did it again the other day and it looks like we've responded."

What Weaver said, according to sources, was: finish the season strongly, play for pride and watch out for miracles. His closing thought -- one of which he is proud -- is: "Remember, Detroit won a pennant in 40 games last year."

Weaver bristled when asked: "What pitching staff are you planning to borrow for this 40-game streak?"

"How about if I borrow the staff of the '83 Orioles that won the World Series," Weaver snapped. "Everybody thought they were pretty damn good after they shut down the White Sox and the Phillies in the playoffs and Series (allowing only 12 runs in nine games). They had Boddicker, McGregor, Flanagan, Davis and Martinez."

Of course, that's the Orioles' rotation now. All healthy. All young enough. And all coming off fair-to-good performances. Baltimore's bullpen probably is better now than then.

"Look, there's nothing wrong with our pitching," insisted Coach Frank Robinson, echoing the think-positive Weaver code. "We had a team-pitching slump this year. Okay, it happens. We shouldn't give up on proven pitchers."

The New Weaver, the mellower middle-aged version of the former pepper pot, only has a 30-28 record. Nonetheless, he hardly sounds like a man who plans to go back to Miami's golf courses. "I'm just going around the league for the second time now," he said, as though he were some raw rookie. "I've seen a lot of players who are new to me, including on my own team. Now, I'm getting a lot better idea of what's going on."

Would any man go to such pains if he planned to retire again in six weeks?

Recently, Frank Cashen, general manager of the New York Mets, said that he assumed Weaver had been begged out of retirement and had returned only out of loyalty. "I doubt if Earl will be back," Cashen ventured.

"I knew somebody'd say that as soon as we lost a few," growled Weaver, genuinely miffed. "It's just not true. I enjoyed that (retirement). But I'm enjoying this, too."

As he left for Sunday dinner this evening, he said, "We gotta close that (six-game) gap with the (second-place) Yanks, 'cause they might bring Toronto back to the pack when they play 'em head-to-head. We still got plenty of games left with New York."

Come on, Earl, point blank, are you coming back next year?

"Are we sure they want me back?" he said, laughing, meaning the team and the town.

If that's the only question, then we have our answer.