Elrod Hendricks has seen the ploy so often since Earl Weaver arrived in 1968 that he laughs as soon as the bullpen phone rings. Some Oriole ace, a Cy Young Award candidate, is laboring in the late going. Weaver orders his worst reliever to get warm.

"It's up to you," Weaver says to Jim Palmer or whomever. Then, with a slow, disparaging gaze, Weaver looks toward the bullpen and says, "You don't really want me to call in that horse's patoot, do you?"

Thus another Orioles complete game.

These days, Weaver's reverse psychology no longer works. No matter whom he warms up, his starting pitcher is likely to say, "Good idea, Earl. Get me outta here." For the first time, when Weaver looks at his pen, he sees his club's strongest, not weakest, link. Weaver is so accustomed to 24-carat starters and gold-plated relievers he hardly knows what to do now.

For decades, the phone number out in left field was extension 77. Recently, some fan figured how to get through and kept imitating Weaver, saying, "Get Sammy up."

Sammy Stewart's in Boston now, but it's still annoying. So, last month they changed it to extension 11 and took it off the outside switchboard.

For years, the Bird brains in left field concentrated on perfecting their insanity. Moe Drabowsky once used the phone to call Tokyo for carryout food. Swarthmore grad Dick Hall, as soon as World Series fourth game attendance was announced, would figure out the team's shares. "How much we gettin', babe?" the players would ask the right-handed CPA.

When Stewart wasn't sending mash notes to rock star Joan Jett in the stands, Don Stanhouse was feeding beer to Mighty Joe Young, his stuffed gorilla.

Now, that's changed, too. Silence reigns. "Sometimes I look behind me and count to make sure they're all there," said coach Hendricks. "They're the first group of sane relief pitchers I ever saw. They're a very boring bunch, but a nice kind of boring. They keep the games quiet, too, after they go in."

Sometimes all Hendricks can hear is the faint sound of Brad Havens chewing up plastic cups. "He's a nervous wreck and he's got bad kidneys, too. We keep track of his cups and his 'ups.' His record is 11 [restroom] trips in one game."

In the old days, Havens would have been right at home. Weaver's had 'em all out there. Butterballs Eddie Watt, Grant Jackson and Tim Stoddard, the world's only 6-foot-7, 280-pound kerosene can. Hall looked like Ichabod Crane. Tippy Martinez could fit in a vest pocket. Year after year Weaver turned such castoffs as Bullet Bob Reynolds, Drabowsky, Dick Drago and Dyar Miller into "stoppers." At least until he wore them out.

Once, Weaver told Miller he was going back to AAA and the pitcher took it well. Until he started running outfield laps -- back and forth. "First 10, then 15, 20. I was gettin' worried," said Weaver. "When he finally comes in, I figure I'll give him a couple of more friendly words. Then, I see it's not only sweat. Tears are just pouring down his face and he says, 'Get the hell away from me.' . . .

"And I did, too, 'cause I remembered the time some writer put in the paper that Dyar hadn't taken a shower after he was knocked out and the next night Dyar put the writer in a headlock and they went and took a shower together, both of 'em fully dressed. Dyar kept tellin' this guy, 'Now you can write about the shower I did take.' "

The bullpen was always Weaver's home for lovable eccentrics, especially Stanhouse, who drove a long black hearse to the park, played "Dirty White Boys" incessantly at full volume on his clubhouse stereo and let out a blood-curdling scream in the shower before every game. "A free spirit," said Weaver, with raised eyebrow, "maybe the freest."

To Weaver, you see, the word "reliever" has never meant relief. One spring, he tried desperately to get the team to trade Reynolds before he could lose any more games. "Get anybody," pleaded Weaver. At 0-5, Reynolds fetched one Fred Holdsworth on the open market. Weaver was delighted. Reynolds, a fading star, was dangerous. You had to use him. Holdsworth was harmless.

Until the day he was running sprints in the outfield without looking where he was going and knocked Palmer onto the disabled list.

Nothing, Weaver fears, is beyond the reach of his 'penners. One reliever, Nate Snell, aged three seasons in a day -- the day he went through customs with the team and had to show his real age on his passport.

In all his tenure, not one of Weaver's relievers has been asked to throw a pitch in an All-Star game. Somebody knows something. In the age of relief giants like Sutter, Gossage, Lyle, Fingers, Quisenberry and Righetti, Weaver says the best stuff be ever had in the bullpen belonged to Pete Richert: the one who saved 13 games his best year and just 29 in his Baltimore career.

"Behind every smart manager," said Sparky Anderson, "there's a great relief pitcher." Weaver's been the exception. Until now.

After 17 seasons of leave-'em-in, he's adjusting to hook-'em-quick. Don Aase, Rich Bordi and Snell have a 7-2 record, 16 saves and a 2.05 ERA in 88 innings. That's a 24-7, 54-save pace. To boot, lefty Havens has quality stuff and Martinez is off the DL and hoping to regain his sharp March form.

Potential is, by Baltimore standards, unparalleled. But bullpens are tricky things. "Last year, we thought we had our best pen ever and by May they were all blown out because our starters were going so bad," said Hendricks. "But this year, everything has just fallen in place. Enough work, but not too much. Confidence is high."

Weaver remains cautious. For instance, he's not ready to anoint Snell (2-0, 2.03); sinkerballers with advanced mileage can fade fast. Havens drives everybody batty. "We can't figure out how anybody hits him, but sometimes they do," said Hendricks. Bordi (3-0, 2.83) looks like a younger version of the versatile slider-slingin' Stewart, but does he have the same rubber arm as the never-say-no Throwin' Swannanoan? Martinez may be useful but few think he'll ever be prime again.

Only Aase, 1.04 ERA and 14 saves 48 games into the schedule, is above reproach. And even he has had his elbow rebuilt by a tendon transplant, so nobody knows his blowout point. "He's been phenomenal," said Weaver. "We've never had a Sparky or Goose. This year it looks like we got one of those guys."

Weaver has had some first-rate composite bullpens. But he's never had a door-slamming superstar, or five live bullpen arms at one time. This is the man who twice won 40 one-run games with Watt as his mainstay. "Eddie had sort of a Floyd Rayford body," recalls Weaver, "only maybe more so." What marvels of efficiency might Weaver produce if he ever had the game's best total bullpen?

For years, Weaver dialed "77" and was never sure quite what he'd get. Now, it's "11."

And silence. Beautiful, boring silence.