Passion was Weaver's greatest gift

March 07, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

At the hot molten core of Earl Weaver was passion, which was his greatest gift to baseball in Baltimore. Ballgames were won by Eddie Murray crushing one into the cheap seats or Jim Palmer mowing them down from the top of his little hill. But ballgames mean nothing if the heart isn't involved.

For 17 seasons, Weaver brought heart. He stirred the juices. He seemed to capture all the ragged emotions of an entire community that embraced his ballclubs. The record says he goes to Cooperstown now, to baseball's Hall of Fame, for the 1,480 victories, for the pennants and the world championship. But the record doesn't quite capture the Vesuvian spirit of the man.

He raged, he burned. He sat in his little corner of the dugout with the spirit of the little loner who refuses to let the big city slickers put one over on him. He'd been too long in the minor league tank towns to let these major leaguers cheat him, and he retained the outsider's edginess to the very end.

At Memorial Stadium, he stood in his little corner of the Oriole dugout and waited for the world to turn against him. A pitch that missed by inches, and Weaver was hollering abuse. A close call at second, and he was pouncing out of the dugout on those abbreviated legs, on his way to being thrown out of 91 games -- 91! Added together, more than half a season! More than the combined total of all the other major league managers of Weaver's era!

Here's the remarkable part of it: If you stood in Weaver's little corner of the dugout (I did; I wanted to see the world through Earl's perspective), you had maybe the worst view of anybody in the entire ballpark. He was below ground level, and the field slanted back to the dugouts. He was looking uphill, at an angle. There was no way to distinguish a ball from a strike, no way to see clearly if a tag was made or missed on the base paths.

But, somehow, Weaver knew. And, in an instant, he was on the field in a rage, cap turned around, feet kicking dirt, fingers poking in the direction of umpires' eyes, reddened face screaming language that couldn't be heard because the roar of the delighted home crowd drowned out everything.

One night, a Washington television station secretly put a microphone on an umpire named Bill Haller. I still have the tape. Haller signals a balk on an Orioles pitcher, and a furious Weaver, sounding like a man on the brink of a myocardial infarction, accuses Haller of missing the call and subsequently putting his finger on Weaver.

"Don't you ever put your finger on me," Weaver screams, "or I'll knock you right on your [bleep]." Haller says he never touched Weaver, and then commences the following shrieked dialogue. Bear in mind, these are grown-ups doing the shrieking:

Weaver: "You're lying."

Haller: "No, you are."

Weaver: "You're a liar."

Haller: "You're a bigger liar."

Weaver: "No, you are."

Haller: "You're a liar, Earl."

Weaver: "No, you are."

From the stands, none of this could be heard. Up there, it seemed a miniature war zone on the field and Weaver was the grand protector of the home turf. He wouldn't give in. He wouldn't let his ballclub, his community, be cheated.

It was the era when George Steinbrenner was beginning to pour staggering money into his New York Yankees, while the Orioles prided themselves on being "the best team money can't buy." Weaver, the little guy, seemed the embodiment of this tag for a city that saw itself as puny and undernourished next to the wealthy, big-market ballclubs.

On any given night, he brought electricity to the ballpark. Such excitement has never arrived at the new Oriole Park, where the yuppies read the Wall Street Journal and chat on their cellular phones between pitches and the ballclub, taking its cue, has strolled through placid, underachieving summers.

On that October day in 1991 that they played the final baseball game at Memorial Stadium, John Lowenstein, the philosopher-outfielder, stood outside the Orioles dugout and said almost all his memories of the game were tied to Weaver -- including the first American League playoff game in 1979, when Weaver sent Lowenstein in to pinch hit and he lofted a game-winning home run. "I got two quick strikes on me," Lowenstein remembered, "and I call time out and step out of the batter's box. I look over in the dugout, and there's Earl smoking a cigarette. I'm thinking, 'Hey, I don't want to embarrass myself. There's people all over the world watching me.'

"So I hit this fly ball to left. I'm thinking, 'Great, maybe it'll get a runner in.' And then I hear this tremendous roar. It's out of there, my God! And I'm rounding second and I see some little guy come running on the field, out past the third-base line, out toward shortstop. It's Earl! I go, 'Hey, Earl.' His arms are out. And he's got his cigarette in his mouth."

That was Earl. They'll put him in the Hall of Fame for his victories and his pennants and his title. But we know better. What Weaver brought the game was passion, which we remember long after any final pitch has been thrown.

Pub Date: 3/07/96

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