For Earl Weaver, The Comeback starts now. The L'il Genius thinks the last two seasons never happened. One year he wasn't around. The other was 'bout half a mess before he returned.

"I'm anxious to get started. We want revenge," says the 55-year-old Baltimore Orioles manager. "Who do we open with? Cleveland? Yeah, then Texas, I think. Well, it's time to go."

Calm down, Earl. Spring training may be only a dozen days away, but Bert Blyleven won't be throwing curve balls to Eddie Murray for two months.

Nothing tantalizes and provokes a great manager as much as the feeling that he sees something very important that everybody else is missing.

When some look at the Orioles, they see a club with a suspect starting rotation, an unimpressive farm system and a general organizational mood of free-floating anxiety and soured luck.

A cogent case can be made that, after fifth- and fourth-place finishes, the Orioles are Just Another Good Team.

However, don't talk about laughingstock trades (Stewart for Gutierrez), lost chemistry and sagging morale around Weaver. He really doesn't buy it.

What he sees is the most powerful (214 homers) and high-scoring (818 runs) team in Orioles history, plus a vastly underrated and deep pitching staff.

As always, Weaver can make his own arbitrary and biased perception of the future seem like the only official and logical version. His gruff, dismissive brand of enthusiasm is mesmerizing.

At this time of year, every team has its traveling caravan of banquets, public appearances, autograph sessions, cocktail parties and other tub-thumping gimmicks to sell tickets and build fan support. For Weaver and his players, it seems like a form of self-hypnosis.

At an Orioles Caravan stop in Washington on Thursday, a little girl asked Mike Boddicker, who was 12-17 last year and had alarming shoulder miseries, whether he thought he could win 20 games this season.

"No, Sarah, I'm not going to win 20," said Boddicker, pausing.

"I'm going to win 25."

A few yards away, Mike Young, who had 28 homers in 450 at bats last year and should play every day this season, signed his name and added the phrase, "40 or bust." Write it and maybe you'll believe it.

"I was at a banquet last month and Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken Jr. both got up and promised the people a winner this year," said Weaver, defiantly, as though his sluggers had hit back-to-back home runs. "If they want to win it all, that's okay with me. I won't argue."

Weaver knows that a large part of a manager's job is to give constant and vivid expression to how a club should feel about itself. He sets the tone.

Weaver, tanned and sassy, is up to the task these days.

"What's your handicap, Earl?" someone asked Weaver this week.


"Is that strokes or pitchers?"

"Very funny," said Weaver. "If our pitching was so weak last year (eighth in the American League in ERA), then tell me how we're going to get down to nine pitchers? Who would you cut?"

Weaver then reels off 11 -- yes, 11 -- pitchers who seem like Must Keeps: Scott McGregor, Mike Flanagan, Storm Davis, Boddicker, Dennis Martinez, Ken Dixon, Rich Bordi, Don Aase, Tippy Martinez, Nate Snell and Brad Havens (sub 2.00 ERA in winter ball).

Between what they've done or might do, Weaver makes this staff sound like the stuff of a manager's dreams.

"We'll go with whoever wins," vows Weaver, which means old heroes better start fast or lose their jobs.

"If we get pitching, we're capable of winning it all. And I think we'll get pitching," Weaver says. "Last season was just one of them fluke years."

Simply standing near Weaver is the next best thing to hearing fast balls popping into mitts in Florida. The tang of the game clings to his most casual phrases.

"Havens looked great in winter ball. Course, they'll chase the breaking ball in the dirt in Puerto Rico, so ya don't know. But he throws 90 (mph), which Tippy never could. And Havens has the sharp curve ball. If he gets it over.

"Aase's stats were just what they shoulda been after I got here. Wonder if he could work more -- three or four days in a row, sometimes. Don't know how he feels about that."

Weaver makes us remember that, in winter, we may miss talking about baseball more than seeing it. Ask him the driest question -- for instance, had the Orioles gotten rusty on fundamentals during his 2 1/2-year retirement? -- and you get a totally unexpected answer, plus a book-length anecdote.

"Our fundamentals weren't bad. We were standin' in the right spots. But we weren't always doin' the right things.

"Hell, I can stand in the right place to take the cutoff and get rid of the ball quick, but my throw only gets to the pitcher's mound. When Belanger took the cutoff, he threw a knee-high strike right over home plate.

"Last year we were careless in executing fundamentals. We'll stress concentration this spring."

Thousands of words have been spilled this offseason on whether American League teams will voluntarily cut rosters to 24 men to save money. Weaver gets it all down to a sentence.

"We'll go with 24, too," he says, "until the Yanks go north with 25."

Starting very soon, and lasting for eight months, Weaver will, once again, give us his own salty, annotated version of what baseball's all about. He'll outrage umpires, insult friends in his organization, infuriate some of his players and get into foul funks that make him look like a 5-foot-7 storm front.

But he'll cut closer to the baseball bone than almost anyone.

Is he glad that Edward Bennett Williams begged and bribed him back?

"It's no fun after a road trip when you land at Dulles Airport at 2:30 a.m., sit on the bus coughing until 4 a.m., get home at 5 a.m., then have to be back at the ballpark the next afternoon at 2 p.m. You might say: 'What am I doin' here?' "

Are Weaver's friends and relatives upset that he's enduring such indignity just so he can try to drag Baltimore out of the second division and back into a pennant race.

"Who cares?" he says. "I'd rather the baseball fans be happy I'm back."