July 13, 2009
A MIND FOR THE GAME Before laptops, spreadsheets and VORP, the wizard of Baltimore was winning pennants by following his own internal baseball calculus
"TEAM SPEED? GET SOME BIG#$@&*%$*! WHO CAN HIT THE #$@&*%!$* BALL OUT OF THE PARK!"
On a Saturday afternoon in mid-March, the most irascible manager in the history of the Baltimore Orioles is watching an Orioles pitcher get pasted, one hitter after another. This is only a spring training game at quaint Fort Lauderdale Stadium, not something that counted back at Baltimore's old Memorial Stadium, on 33rd Street. But Earl Weaver, cap pulled low, that leprechaun's twinkle in his eyes gone dark, does not like what he sees. All of his great teams—and they were all pretty great—were built on a foundation of reliable pitching. ¶ He won the pennant one year by making only 167 pitching changes in 159 games. Another year he won a championship by using 12 pitchers—not just in the World Series but the whole season.
"Mix in a wild pitch or something!" the old manager blurts out.
"Oh, my God!" Weaver croaks. Another shot, some 400 feet of solid contact, disappears out of sight, foul.
"Who the hell is pitching?"
It does not diminish Weaver's agitation that this is a spring training game. His reason for being is pretty simple. If somebody is keeping score—be it in the Grapefruit League, in the World Series or in Ping-Pong games against blue-haired ladies on a cruise ship—Earl Sidney Weaver desperately wants to have more of whatever is being counted than you have. What drove him absolutely crazy as a manager, or absolutely [bleeping] crazy in the Weaver patois, were all the messy obstacles to his simple desire to win. What stood maddeningly in his way, besides the guys on the other side of the field, were ballplayers of his who made outs on the base paths, umpires, people who thought the hit-and-run play was good baseball, sacrifice bunts, umpires, the five-man rotation, that smart-aleck Palmer, umpires, pitchers who didn't throw strikes, fans who wanted the Orioles to run more and, well ... those bleeping umpires.
Weaver:You're here for one [bleeping] specific reason.
Umpire Bill Haller:What's that, Earl?
Weaver:To [bleep] us good.
That exchange took place after a grand total of five pitches had been thrown in a 1980 game.
Weaver is told that the Orioles pitcher getting whacked is Adam Eaton, whom Baltimore recycled after the Phillies preferred to pay him nearly nine million not to pitch for them. Weaver is 78 years old and has not managed a game in 23 years, not officially, anyway. He spends his time cooking, visiting the horse track, watching baseball on TV and playing gin rummy with buddies at his country club in Miami, sometimes after a round of golf, though not as often now that needing driver-three-wood-eight-iron to reach a par-4 has sapped much of the fun from his game.
"I'll tell you one thing: He throws strikes," Weaver says of Eaton. "That's something today, to tell you the truth."
Baseball today is a scientific game, far less mysterious than it was 30 years ago. It has been measured, mapped and cataloged like the human genome. Why bunt, we know now, when the run expectancy is 27.123% greater with a man on first base and no outs than a man on second base with one out? But what we know today, Earl Weaver understood back in his time without sabermetrics and computer spreadsheets.
On May 23, 1979, Weaver sent Pat Kelly to pinch-hit for Rick Dempsey against Boston pitcher Bob Stanley with two on and one out in the bottom of the 10th inning of a 2--2 ball game. Weaver knew that Dempsey was 0 for 6 lifetime against Stanley and that Kelly was 2 for 6. Kelly hit a walk-off home run. It was after that game that Weaver delivered to the gentlemen of the press the summary that would do well as the epitaph for his managerial career, if not his gravestone: "Pitching, defense and the three-run homer." (Actually, Weaver said in 1986, "On my tombstone just write, THE SOREST LOSER THAT EVER LIVED.")
Weaver is the grandfather of the modern game. He understood better than anyone in his time the preciousness of the 27 outs (often regarding the sacrifice bunt as a waste of one), the folly of the hit-and-run, the value and symbiosis of pitching and defense, and the importance of batter-pitcher matchups, statistical analysis and on-base percentage. Weaver was the Copernicus of baseball. Just as Copernicus understood heliocentric cosmology a full century before the invention of the telescope, Weaver understood smart baseball a generation before it was empirically demonstrated.
"I made no bones about it when I first got the job: I always wanted the next Earl Weaver as manager," says Oakland general manager Billy Beane, whose statistically oriented approach to the game, as chronicled in the 2003 best seller Moneyball, was considered cutting edge. "Earl was ahead of his time. He understood offensive baseball, pitching rotations, the efficiency of three-run homers versus a single and a sac bunt. His personality was something people recognized him for: the run-ins with umpires and Jim Palmer. But if you get to the core of what he accomplished, he was the template of the way I'd like to run a team. Consciously or not, he understood mathematics and probability."
As we are watching this 21st-century game in Fort Lauderdale, I ask Weaver if he has ever heard of moneyball.
"Moneyball?" he says, bewildered. "No."
I tell him it's shorthand for how Oakland gained a competitive edge by understanding, among many other things, the value of on-base percentage. "Ohhhhh, wait ... a ... minute!" Weaver bellows. "That was my favorite right there, on-base percentage! Don Buford wasn't getting to play under Hank Bauer [Weaver's predecessor]. He'd get in a ball game every now and then and feel like he had to get three or four hits. I told Buford, 'I'm willing to play you as long as you have a .400 on-base percentage.' All of a sudden he becomes a regular, and he's walking a hundred times and hitting right around .300." Buford had played 669 career games before Weaver was named Orioles manager on July 11, 1968. His OBP was .335. He played 617 games over the rest of his career, all for Weaver. His OBP under Weaver was .388.
Before Moneyball, before Beane, before Bill James—but not quite before Copernicus—Weaver, a white-haired gnome who never played a day of major league baseball, knew what worked. The most recent generation of general managers, armed with their computer printouts and Ivy League--educated assistants, all channel something from the Earl of Baltimore.
"I'll tell you one thing he did that we all learned from," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein says. "He would develop arms on the big league level by bringing up a young pitcher and putting him in the bullpen, mostly out of long relief. Once he got some experience he could move into the rotation. The Twins did it with [Johan] Santana to perfection."
Much of today's offensive game also can be traced to principles Weaver embraced a generation ago. Every current manager, for instance, makes lineup and in-game decisions based on batter-pitcher matchup data. Weaver is considered the man who pioneered the collection and use of such information. Moreover, his famous regard for the three-run homer is simply shorthand for the relentless offensive style associated with the Yankees dynasty of the 1990s, more recent Red Sox teams and just about every competitive club today: Offense is about getting runners on base. If, as Weaver believed, a team's most precious asset was its allotment of 27 outs, every at bat that does not result in an out is a small victory.
In a 2002 update to his 1984 book, Weaver on Strategy, he wrote, "A manager has to convince his hitters that they have to get on base for the next guy, and that no player can do it by himself. Sometimes that isn't easy. In the playoffs you can get into trouble because everybody wants to be a hero."
Epstein says, "I read that book about 10 years ago, and I remember being blown away by how much it made sense and how well it has held up."
Weaver:[To his team at a closed-door meeting] You guys don't want to win bad enough! I never failed to get a guy in from third base with less than two outs!
Pitcher Dave McNally:Yeah, and you never played higher than Double A.
Weaver:And another thing, if you don't make the last out of the game, you never lose! I never made the last out.
[Pitcher Jim Palmer raises his hand.]
Palmer:We all know why you never made the last out, Earl.
Palmer:Because they always pinch-hit for you.
Weaver:Aw, you ruined the mood, Palmer!
Weaver managed 12 full seasons in the big leagues, not counting the strike-shortened years of 1972 and '81, or 1986, part of a brief tenure when he was coaxed out of retirement to help the Orioles sell tickets. He averaged 97 wins in those 12 full seasons. In 11 of them he won at least 90 games, and the one time he didn't win 90 he won 88. Weaver won 1,480 big league games, more than anybody who never played in the majors except famed Yankees manager Joe McCarthy. He took the Orioles to four World Series and won one, in 1970.
"I played Class D, C, B, A, Double A and Triple A," says Weaver, who was a 5'6" middle infielder in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. In 1956, his 10th year in the minors, he had plumbed back down to A ball in Knoxville, Tenn., when the manager was fired in late July. The club asked the 26-year-old Weaver to run the team for the rest of the season. That winter the Orioles offered Weaver a job as manager of their Class D team in Fitzgerald, Ga., and over the next 10 years he moved from Fitzgerald to Dublin, Ga., to Aberdeen, S.D., to Fox Cities, Wis., to Elmira, N.Y., and Rochester, N.Y., before making the jump to Baltimore in 1968.
"I loved it," he says of managing in the bushes. "Judging ballplayers and turning in reports, giving my opinion of who will get to the big leagues and who will not.... I think my baseball judgment was really good."
It was Weaver's shortcomings as a hitter that informed his approach to managing. Midway through the 1968 season, Baltimore general manager Harry Dalton named Weaver, then an Orioles coach, to replace Bauer as the manager. After the season Weaver asked Bob Brown, the team's public relations director, "Will you put the stats together on how each of our players has fared against opposing pitchers, and also the reverse of that—how our pitchers have done against opposing batters?"
Before each series, Brown and his staff would give Weaver the batter-pitcher matchups, handwritten with a blue Bic medium ballpoint pen on 8 ½-by-11-inch sheets of paper. (Weaver also famously kept index cards on which he recorded tendencies and individual scouting reports.) Weaver would use the matchup information to choose his starting players and his pinch hitters, much to the consternation of beat writers such as Ken Nigro of The [Baltimore] Sun. "Nigro used to ask, 'How can you do that?'" Weaver says. "'How can you choose between Lowenstein and Crowley?'"
One time in 1975 Weaver let shortstop Mark Belanger, a career .228 hitter, bat against Nolan Ryan in a tie game in the 10th inning with runners at second and third, even though the Orioles had Don Baylor and Doug DeCinces on the bench. Belanger, a lifetime .244 hitter against Ryan, knocked in both runners with a single. "And Nigro went nuts," Weaver says.
Says Nigro, "Mark Belanger couldn't hit anybody, but Earl knew he could hit Nolan Ryan. It made so much sense. If a guy was 1 for 24 against a pitcher, well, Earl knew he wasn't due to get a hit. He was due to make three more outs."
Weaver's use of statistics and his keen eye for evaluation made him one of the most astute strategists in baseball. Time and time again he turned bit players, many of whom failed elsewhere, into important parts of championship teams by deploying them only when and where they could succeed. Buford, Merv Rettenmund, Elrod Hendricks, Jim Hardin, Steve Stone, Kelly, Benny Ayala, Terry Crowley and, perhaps most famously, the leftfield tandem of Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein, who in 1979 combined for 36 homers and 98 RBIs. Even if they did only one thing well—Ayala could hit anybody's curveball; Lowenstein was a great high fastball hitter—Weaver wanted them in his toolbox.
In his book The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers, James wrote of Weaver, "He used everybody. Probably more than any other manager in history, Weaver had carefully defined roles for every player on his roster—not because he cared about the players, but because he cared about the games. It was important to Weaver to have a player matched up in his mind with every possible game situation."
Says Palmer, "Before the game he would walk through the locker room, not saying hello to anybody. So as he walked through I'd go, 'Hey, how are you doing?' And it was like you had just tasered him. Because he was busy thinking about the ball game."
Weaver:You look five or 10 years from now who's in the Hall of Fame!
Haller:Oh, you're going to be in the Hall of Fame?
Weaver:You know it!
Weaver:You know it!
Haller:For [bleeping] up the World Series?
Weaver:You know it!
Haller:You're going to be in the Hall of Fame for [bleeping] up the World Series, Earl?
Weaver:I've won more than I've lost!
Haller:Ah, no you haven't, Earl.
Weaver:Games. Count games, stupid!
Earl Weaver was thrown out of more American League games than any other manager in history. He was thrown out in spring training. He was thrown out in the World Series. He was thrown out twice in one day. Twice. (Both ends of a doubleheader.) He was thrown out by an amateur umpire. (The regulars were on strike.)
"Most of the umpires, it's amazing, 98 percent of them will not hold a grudge," Weaver says. "I always felt a couple of them did. I never wanted to argue with an umpire in my life."
Come on, I tell him.
"No," Weaver says, "but in the heat of battle, when you think something is taken away from you, I had to go out there and holler at them. I knew it wasn't going to do much. That one with Haller was embarrassing. We both acted like five-year-olds. 'My dad can beat up your dad' kind of thing. It's terrible."
The Haller argument, which happened the year after Baltimore blew a three-games-to-one lead to Pittsburgh in the '79 World Series, lives on in YouTube posterity because Haller was wired for sound for a local newsmagazine show. Haller is the same umpire who said of Weaver in 2007, "When the bastard dies, they'll have to hire pallbearers."
Another umpire, Ron Luciano, once said he didn't care who won the AL East, so long as it wasn't Weaver and the Orioles. The league kept Luciano off Baltimore games for a year because of that comment. When the ban expired, Luciano threw Weaver out the first chance he got, ejecting him before Weaver even cleared the top step of the dugout to argue a strike call. Weaver protested the game and had the grounds for his protest announced over the stadium loudspeakers: "Umpire integrity."
Suddenly Weaver yells out in the direction of the Fort Lauderdale field, as if he were back in the dugout. "Oh, he's off the bag!" Weaver says as second baseman Skip Schumaker of the Cardinals turns a double play against the Orioles without coming close to the base when he catches the ball. "Talk about cheating! See, I would have been out arguing on that play."
The subject of cheating brings the conversation to another subject. The Steroid Era, I ask him, does it embarrass you?
"Oh, I don't know." The man who would do just about anything to win a ball game pauses for a moment, letting honesty bubble to the surface. "Not really," he says quietly. "You're always looking for an edge. And guys, that's their living. And if a growth hormone helps you be better physically and able to do more things physically ... but it just shatters the records."
Weaver:[To little-used reliever Dave Leonhard before Game 6 of the 1971 World Series] How do you feel, Leonhard?
Leonhard:I feel good. But you never ask me [to pitch].
Weaver:I want you to be ready. Be ready to warm up around the eighth inning.
Leonhard:Earl, I'm honored you're contemplating using me in a World Series game.
Weaver:I ain't using you. I just want Palmer to see you warming up so he can pitch better.
Weaver was not a players' manager. He barely spoke to his players, especially Palmer, except when it was necessary to point out their shortcomings to get them to play better. "His idea of being positive," Palmer says, "was to give you everything possible that could go wrong. I'd have a one-run lead against Boston in the eighth with Yaz, Rice and Fisk coming up, and as soon as my foot hit the cinders of the warning track at Memorial Stadium coming out of the dugout I'd hear, 'Can't get beat until you walk somebody!'"
Weaver had no use for idle conversation, because idle conversation could not help him win ball games. "I don't think anybody was buddy-buddy with Earl," Brown says. Weaver liked winning a whole lot more than he liked ballplayers. He never shook his winning pitcher's hand after a game. He wanted nothing to do with emotion or friendship, because, as Palmer says, "I don't think Earl ever wanted anything to do with anything that interfered with him winning baseball games."
Watching Weaver manage a game was like watching a stubborn kid try to shake a coin from the slot of a piggy bank. There had to be some way he could make it come out right! There was a game in Cleveland when the Indians raced joyfully into their clubhouse after umpires awarded them the winning run on an overthrow. At home in Baltimore, Brown was so upset he broke his TV.
"I went to bed, woke up and found out we had won," Brown says. Weaver had won an argument with the umpires, who overturned their call and brought the Indians back on the field. The Orioles then scored two runs in the top of the 10th to win the game.
Weaver benched an aging Brooks Robinson in 1976 in order to win. He made Cal Ripken a shortstop when the rest of the organization considered him a third baseman. He watched batting practice intently, thinking that if a hitter's fly balls were not carrying over the fence it was a sign he was tiring and headed for a slump. He carried a rule book with him. He came up with the idea of using a radar gun to track velocity in 1972. "I learned more about pitching from him than any other manager," says Davey Johnson, one of at least 11 of his former players and coaches to become a big league manager.
Weaver's pitchers stayed healthy, and they won. From 1969 through '82, seven of his teams had three starters who threw at least 250 innings—as many as the rest of the league combined in those 14 seasons. "The more you run, the stronger your legs get," Weaver says. "The more you throw, the stronger your arm gets. I had nine pitchers. Four starters. Oh, man. Try to get one of those four to skip a start? Oh, Christ, it was awful. Because they were pitching for next year's contract. ERA, starts, wins ... it all went into getting your pay."
"Love him or hate him," Palmer says, "he allowed me to win and lose games. You never had to worry about the other guy outmanaging him. But nobody manages that long without making a mistake.
"Earl used to have a meeting at the end of spring training every year, and he'd say, 'I'm taking the best 25. If we play together, we have a chance to win.' It was pretty much the case. Well, one year we weren't playing so well, and Earl had a meeting. He said, 'I want to let you know something. I made a mistake.' We all leaned forward on our stools. Earl was going to admit a mistake! And then he goes, 'I picked the wrong 25 guys.'"
Once, while taping his radio pregame show, The Manager's Corner, Weaver fielded a question sent in by a listener about why the Orioles did not have more team speed. "Team speed, for crissakes!" Weaver bellowed. "You get [bleeping] little fleas on the [bleeping] bases getting picked off, trying to steal, getting thrown out, taking runs away from you. Get some big [bleeps] who can hit the [bleeping] ball out of the ballpark and you can't make any [bleeping] mistakes."
The exchange—now a YouTube classic, like the argument with Haller—was actually a joke between the host and Weaver, taped for their own amusement and never meant for the air. Disguised as salty parody, it was at heart a genuine take on Weaver by Weaver. "I never had a hit-and-run. No sign," Weaver says. "Here's the deal. I hear it on the radio and Joe Morgan, for crissakes. Get a guy on first. He walked. The pitcher is 2 and 0 on the next batter. 'Perfect time for a hit-and-run,' the announcer says. If the pitcher could throw a strike, don't you think he would have thrown it to the guy on first?"
None of it made sense to Weaver: asking the runner to get a late, conservative break and the batter to swing at anything when he's ahead in the count—all against a pitcher who is wild and in trouble. "But the worst is making outs on the bases," Weaver says. "Run yourself right out of a frickin' inning." No wonder he had 16 managerial offers in three years after he retired following the 1982 season.
George Steinbrenner:Earl, what would you do if you're sitting in the hotel lobby at two in the morning and you see your ballplayers walking in?
Weaver:Well, is it a night game or a day game?
Steinbrenner:We played a night game.
Weaver:Two o'clock ain't that bad, George. You got a day game tomorrow? What do you got tomorrow?
Steinbrenner:We're playing an exhibition game in Columbus, Ohio.
Weaver:You've got to let them do something once in a while.
Steinbrenner:Would you come manage?
Weaver turned down the Yankees owner because he was filming a television show in Mexico at the time. This was in 1985. Steinbrenner had fired Yogi Berra 16 games into the season and replaced him with Billy Martin. Weaver did manage again that season, essentially as a favor to Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams. People paid to watch Weaver manage. The Earl of Baltimore sold tickets. "I made the owner a promise," Weaver said. "When I came back I said, 'I'm going to finish this season for you, and we'll sign one for next year. You don't have to worry about me going anywhere and managing another time. I'll tell you what: I'll let you sign me to a five-year contract, a general contract, and pay me a dollar a year.' Guess what? I got my dollar a year. The Orioles have treated me so good. It's just unreal. Who would have hired a manager out of the minor leagues?"
On the field in front of him, the Orioles throw out a runner at first base by a step. Weaver smiles at the perfection of the mundane. "Doubleday made those bases, home to first, just the right distance," Weaver says. "They're all out by a step."
Weaver looked like a wise old wizard even when he was young. His hair had gone white and his cigarette-ravaged voice had gone raspy by the time he was stirring his hot, bubbling cauldron of lineup concoctions in his 40s. There always was an air of aged sagacity about him, as if somehow he's been here before, while the rest of us are trying to figure out this life thing for the first time. His short stature seemed only to magnify his manic energy.
Years after he retired for good, Weaver would be a guest celebrity on annual Orioles-themed cruises. He wasn't there just to shake hands and pose for pictures. He was there to win. He won the shuffleboard tournament. One year he came from behind to beat Brown in the semifinals of a Ping-Pong tournament, then scolded him, "You're a better Ping-Pong player than I am, but you choked." Weaver played against a little kid in the finals.
"He won, got the trophy and then gave the trophy to the kid," Brown says. "But he made sure he won."
The white-haired wizard doesn't perform magic anymore, doesn't even think about it. "Too hard to put on my shoes," he says. "I really have no desire to get into the dugout. After all these years ... I really enjoyed it. It was fun going out there."
He walks stiffly and slowly. He warns his many well-wishers to go easy shaking his hands. "Don't squeeze," he tells them. "I have arthritis."
But Weaver can still look at a baseball game the way Copernicus studied the heavens, without benefit of telescopic aid, and understand it deeply. He liked to tell his players, "Look, guys, you win games, the manager loses them. And I don't want to lose. So you better win a lot of games."
There are no more obstacles in his way. No league rules. No umpires. Without the almost physical need to win, it is only baseball now for Earl Weaver. And it is beautiful.
Another runner is out by a step at first. "Mr. Doubleday!" he says. "He's right again! There it is. Just the right distance."