The Earl of Baltimore

TAKING SIDES

ONLY AN unrepentant dreamer or a gifted Hollywood scriptwriter could have conjured up the scene that was evolving out on the playing field in Baltimore last Sunday. Though their team had just been clobbered in a do-or-die season finale, 50,000-plus Oriole fans were on their feet. As thunderous cheers slowly filled the cavernous confines of Memorial Stadium, a tiny, rumpled imp of a man emerged from one of the dugouts to take a bow. His tried face beat back tears--the visible signs of an emotion the fans had never really seen in him before.

The imp was Earl Weaver, the bow his last at a major league ballpark, at least for now. After 15 wildly successful seasons, he was stepping down from the Orioles' helm. Hesitatingly, uncharacteristically, Weaver was basking in one final warm moment of adulation, before watching his name drift off to the Street and Smith's yearbook of history, with all the other Bobby Thompsons, Monte Irvins, and Red Schoendists of baseball lore. It was at once a touching and thrilling moment--for even the most hardbitten of Yankee or Brewer fans. And for the Oriole fan, it almost was like watching a slice of history go by.

Statistics simply don't do justice for Weaver. Yes, his Orioles consistently copped between 90 and 100 victories a year. Yes, they won one World Series, four American League pennants, and several more divisonal titles. And yes, his courageous Birds came back this season from a late seven and one-half game deficit to nearly knock off the high-flying Brewers.

But bare numbers can't scratch the surface of the peculiar personality that made Weaver such a Baltimore--and national--institution. It's not that the Orioles won big, but that they won in such an emotionally satisfying way. Whether by the sterling defensive play, the properly executed cut-off throw, or the sublime curve on the outside corner, the Orioles nearly flawlessly performed the basic fundamentals that so flustered their competitors. They were a thinking-man's team in a thinking-man's game.

What's more, Weaver's Orioles were never a rich man's club, dependent like New York on the free-spending ways of some corporate owner to nab a couple of headline grabbers. They built from the ground up, extensively using their farm system. The Orioles had stars, but they were first and foremost a team. Weaver always had use for every one of his players, down to their lowliest substitute, producing one cohesive, interlocking unit, rather than a sprawling anarchy of 25 disparate individuals.

Of course, there were also the temper tantrums at the poor, misbeggoten umpire who happened to cross Weaver. It didn't matter whether the plucky Bird was right or wrong on a call; he would argue just for the sake of arguing. All to relieve the pressure that often weighed heavily on his players. A good, fullblown outburst was usually a sure signal of an impending Oriole streak.

And finally, there was the wit that put it all in perspective. Weaver had an uncanny ability to uncork a brutal one-liner that could knock baseball a little bit down from its high horse. "The only guy that didn't make a mistake," he once remarked to some second-guessers, "they crucified." His ability to laugh at himself and his sport was almost unrivalled in the self-important athletic world.

Such qualities are rare, especially at a time when sports--which has such potential for excellence--seems wracked by football strikes and collegiate scandals. Indeed you really don't have to be an Oriole fan--or even a sports fan, for that matter--to join in toasting this remarkable man, the Earl of Baltimore.