A meeting with Earl, long ago


September 6, 2012; Baltimore, MD, USA; (From left to right) Brooks Robinson, and Earl Weaver, and Eddie Murray and Jim Palmer attend the Orioles Legend ceremony honoring Cal Ripken prior to a game against the New York Yankees at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

In the summer of 1980, a 21-year-old intern at The Baltimore Sun was assigned to two Orioles games to tag along with the paper’s beat writer, Kent Baker, and get quotes from some players and help Baker do whatever was needed. One game was against the Boston Red Sox shortly before the All Star Break, the other against the Oakland A’s.

In both games, of course, the Baltimore Orioles’ manager was the late, great Earl Weaver.

Two key issues leading up to that year’s All Star Game were that Ken Singleton had not been voted to the team by the fans, and that the 38-year-old Tony Perez, now with the Red Sox after a 12 years with Cincinnati and three with Montreal, had been left off the team. One of my jobs was to go over to the visitors’ dugout and ask him how he felt about that. He wasn’t in that bad a mood, considering. He answered questions pretty amiably in his Cuban accent. I hesitated to ask certain things for fear of eliciting a temper, but there was no tantrum. Perez was a pro, and he probably knew, at 38, he wasn’t prime All-Star material anymore, even though a lot of aging or injured stars make the team with less credentials than he had.

When there wasn’t much more to find out other than the obvious, I went back to the Orioles’ bench, just in time to see Singleton come in and almost slam his bat into the bat rack. The other writers also saw this and asked Weaver about Singleton’s omission by the fans. For the record, the American League’s All Star outfielders that year were Reggie Jackson, Fred Lynn and Ben Oglivie. One of the reserves was Baltimore’s Al Bumbry, but the 33-year-old Singleton hadn’t made it, after having finished second in the MVP race a year before with 35 home runs, 111 RBI, and a .295 average.

But the other writers interviewed Singleton later in the process. Baker left me in the dugout with instructions to ask Weaver about the American League’s pitching staff. So there I was, sitting next to the Earl of Baltimore, introducing myself and asking him how the All Star starting pitcher is decided.

“The starting pitcher is decided by the manager,” is what he said, or very close to it, with a finality combined with an unwillingness to be any more generous with his thoughts. Weaver would be the AL’s All-Star skipper that year, having led the O’s to the pennant in ’79.

I was either too frozen or too intimidated to think, but something kept me from asking a follow-up, which would have been who the candidates are, who you’re leaning toward, and why. He sensed a newness about me, and as most managers do with a new writer, he tested me, giving a minimal answer and seeing what else I’d say. Which wasn’t much.

Covering the game against the A’s, I tagged along as the other beat writers interviewed Billy Martin in his office in the visiting clubhouse in Memorial Stadium. He just happened to be having a quintessential Billy Martin day that day, irascible and quotable after getting in trouble with the league office for standing partly out of the dugout while arguing a call in a recent game. The specifics escape me.

At any rate, after we all interviewed Martin and the A’s’ P.R. man, Baker went back up to the press box and needed me to follow Weaver back into his office to ask one other piece of information for a notes story he had to file before the game started.

So there I am, back in the Oriole clubhouse, and when Earl comes in, I stop him on his way to his office. He had someone with him, but I approached anyway.

“Got a minute, Earl?”

“I’m busy.”

“I just need this one other thing …”

“I’m busy, Steve.” And he kept going.

Valuing my life, I didn’t press any further, but the hard part was telling Baker I hadn’t found anything out when I got back up to the press box.

The National League won the All Star Game, 4-2, at Dodger Stadium, even though the Orioles’ Steve Stone – the eventual answer to the question I asked Weaver – threw three perfect innings in a starting performance. He would go on to finish 25-7 and win the Cy Young Award in what was considered something of a fluke, which is being generous. Try major fluke. He was one of several pitchers during the Weaver era who hadn’t set the world on fire up to that point in their careers, but who had a magical year with the Orioles’ Gold Glove infield, not to mention potent lineup, playing behind them.

The Orioles went 100-62 in 1980, the fourth year Weaver’s Orioles won 100 or more games, but finished second to the Yankees , and, this being the pre-wild card days, missed the playoffs (speaking of flukes). The wild card was instituted in 1994, when the major leagues went from two divisions to three per league.

All these things came back to mind in the aftermath of Weaver’s passing late Friday night. He’d suffered a heart attack while on a cruise, the one he took every winter with his wife and some former players. I heard about it standing in line to get into FanFest, and the Orioles devoted the opening of the day’s festivities to a video remembrance of him.

Almost without exception, his players hated him, or hated the way he treated most of them, but loved the way they won so often. If you were a self-motivator beyond reproach in the way you played and had a long track record of excellence, such as Brooks or Frank RobinsonBoog Powell, Singleton, Eddie Murray, or Cal Ripken, Jr. (whom Earl only had for three and a half years before retiring for good in 1986), you rarely had a problem. In various interviews during his advancing years, Weaver said, “I don’t think I said 30 words to Frank Robinson in the entire time I managed him.”

Obviously this line of reasoning didn’t seem to apply to Jim Palmer, who was excellent over many years and self-motivated, but whose feuds with the little general remained the stuff of legend right up to the present. If I thought Weaver was terse in my brief contact with him as an intern, that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Even if the umpires won’t miss him, Baltimore will.

FanFest drew over 18,500, more than double last year’s attendance. Pitchers and catchers report to Sarasota Feb. 12.

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