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January 21, 2013
A Chat with Earl Weaver
Earl Weaver was a winner. His .583 career winning percentage as a manager is the ninth-best all-time, and only Al Lopez has posted a better winning percentage since World War II. Weaver's first three full-season Oriole clubs all advanced to the World Series, winning 318 games in that span. Baltimore averaged 96 wins in his first 12 seasons as skipper, and he managed for 27 years in the majors and minors before his club posted a losing record.
Sure, his Oriole clubs were loaded with stars like Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, and Jim Palmer, but Weaver was an impact manager independent of his players. He won because he was able to combine his baseball genius with the ability to keep his talented club focused and motivated.
Weaver took over the helm of the Orioles from Hank Bauer in the middle of the 1968 season, when he was just 37 years old, and he was the perfect manager for an organization that prided itself on pitching and defense. But Weaver was an innovator and a contrarian, too. In 1975, he used radar guns in the Orioles' spring training preparation and also relied on in-depth advance scouting reports long before that practice was popular.
In July of 1982, I was in my first month as a full-time traveling member of the Chicago White Sox and their great field staff that included Tony La Russa, Charley Lau, Ed Brinkman, and Jim Leyland. We were in Baltimore for a three-game series and dropped the second game of the series when a rookie shortstop named Cal Ripken, Jr. hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to produce some Oriole Magic in Memorial Stadium.
Hall of Famer Don Drysdale was one of the White Sox announcers at the time, and he was quickly becoming one of my mentors. We talked immediately after the tough loss, and Drysdale mentioned that Weaver was a master, a manager I should pay close attention to and learn from.
Early the next morning, Don called my room and asked if I would like to meet Weaver. I jumped at the opportunity.
Drysdale and I wandered over to the batting cage as the Orioles began batting practice that evening, and the next 20 minutes were incredible. It was apparent that Weaver and Drysdale were on good terms. Weaver was engaging, eager to talk about the game he loved. He spoke about how essential pitching and defense were to a winning club, because the two components never went into extended slumps. He talked about the need to keep extra players sharp, but more importantly, make them feel they were part of the team by finding spots for them to perform. He stressed that he was constantly trying to find favorable match ups, whether through an in-game substitution or a start for an extra player. Weaver said that his legendary index cards tipped him off to info that would reinforce his gut hunches and also would be used in conversations with players about whether they were playing or going to sit. He mentioned that every player is flawed, and that the key is finding situations where their strengths have the best chance of being best utilized, and not to dwell on their weaknesses.
Then Weaver looked right at me and said, "this game is all about outs." He said that you had to convert potential defensive outs to win regularly and had to maximize your offense's ability to score runs. He and Drysdale talked about how important instincts were, and how nearly all the great defenders in baseball history were equipped with great instincts. Weaver kept mentioning intelligence and instincts being critical elements of players who touched the ball the most on defense, because it was their decisions that would often affect the game's outcome.
Our conversation moved to Ripken, who was in the cage at the time and would win the AL Rookie of the Year Award after that season. Weaver had decided to move Cal to shortstop just three weeks earlier, and he made a couple of terrific plays against us in the first two days of the series. He told us that Ripken was one of those examples of intelligence and rare instincts. Weaver said that Ripken would be outstanding down the line, that he was just learning the position but seemed to be in the right place all the time. He and Drysdale tried to list all the "big" shortstops, and they struggled. Then Weaver added, "plus, this guy is going to hit, and hit a lot."
That is the evaluation side of Weaver that separated him from most of his peers. Not only could he identify talent, but he also knew how to squeeze the most out of his players, and not ask them to do things they were incapable of doing.
I thanked Weaver for his time and mailed him a thank-you note the next day. We played the O's a couple weeks later in Chicago and exchanged hellos. I was 22, and I knew I had enjoyed a rare opportunity to learn from one of the all-time greats. His words have influenced me to this day.
Yes, Weaver was feisty, and some of his arguments with umpires are legendary. He was tossed from 98 regular-season games. I worked with former umpire Bill Haller in 1986 when he scouted for the White Sox, and Haller told me some great stories about Weaver. Funny as hell, so entertaining.
They even had to amend the Designated Hitter rule when Weaver found a loophole and listed a pitcher as the DH when the lineup cards were exchanged, giving him the opportunity to make his mind up when that spot in the order arrived.
When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1996, I remember recalling how great he was and how much preparation La Russa (who was absolutely amazing to work for) and his staff would go through to be ready to battle with Weaver.
The news Friday that Weaver had passed away saddened me, as I appreciate how great he was in that Oriole dugout. His rare combination of baseball acumen, a fiery personality, and confidence to go with his gut hunches made him one of the game's all-time dugout masters.
Thanks for the chat, Earl. I so appreciate that you took the time to talk with me at the onset of my career. Rest in peace, no. 4.