The Martinet of Maryland

Earl Weaver’s death over the weekend was a jarring and unpleasant surprise, but coming as it did on a baseball-themed cruise, it was maybe an appropriate exit.  Earl loved to hang out and talk baseball with anybody who would listen – old players, young players, reporters, coaches, fans – I can just see him on the cruise ship, bending an elbow and yakking it up in his scratchy, hoarse voice.  There are worse ways to go and given his fondness for hoisting a few, his overall hard-ass attitude and chain-smoking, he didn’t get cheated in making it to 82.  He didn’t often get cheated on a ball field either, though he often thought the umpires were trying to do just that.

I came to think of Weaver as being a direct descendant of John McGraw, who was known (among nastier things I’m sure) as “The Little Napoleon” for his shortness and totalitarian ways.  Both men were great baseball tacticians and strategists, both were irascible, feisty, ill-tempered, combative and mouthy little bastards who hated losing and anyone who stood in the way of their team winning.  Of course, McGraw came first and had much more success as a player, was a more patrician, authoritarian and imposing figure as a manager, though his sleeves were often rolled up and his knuckles bloody and bared.  As a player, Weaver never went beyond the low minors and his road to the majors as a manager was more modest and hard-scrabble, but this only served to make him more human, more like one of us and thus more lovable.

Maybe not if you were Jim Palmer or Rick Dempsey, two of Weaver’s players who famously had a less than cuddly relationship with the five-foot-seven martinet.  And certainly not if you were an umpire.  Many of Earl’s 91 in-game ejections by their thumb were legendary, drawn out, stomping, teeth-bared affairs; spit, curses and bases flying, the bill of his cap somehow finding an arbiter’s eye or throat, both histrionic and funny from such a short, stubby man.

This probably applies to a number of managers, but really there were two Earl Weavers – the uber-intense Mr. Hyde who surfaced during each game, and the gentler Dr. Jekyll who existed before and after them.  The former wanted to win at all costs and could be a snarling, screeching maniac to the umps and to his players a goading, cold pain in the ass who wanted things done his way in seeking any small edge to aid victory.  This makes him sound like Billy Martin, but unlike Martin, Weaver was under control in his private life and away from the game, by all accounts sane, reasonable and warm, comfortable in his own skin, almost folksy and philosophical.  He often showed a gruff, humorous, self-deprecatingly confessional side in admitting almost regretfully that sometimes his differences with players and umpires were overdone and irrational on his part, the product of his fiery, stubborn will to win and unappeasable, underdog background.

Anyone who wants to learn more about Earl Weaver should read his autobiography “It’s What You Learn After You Know It All That Counts”, which I recommend unreservedly.  It’s lively, entertaining and informative, it sounds like Weaver and there’s just so much pure baseball in it.  The importance of defense, how a pitching staff should be built, the proper role of catchers, the importance of coaches and on and on.

I don’t want to get into number-crunching or analysis here, but I think Earl Weaver was clearly one of the best managers in baseball during his time and to me was the most intelligent and interesting of them.  Much of what he learned about the game anticipated the discoveries of sabermetricians like Bill James, now generally accepted wisdom.  That speed and the stolen base are over-rated, that small-ball strategies may increase the odds of scoring one run in an inning, but greatly decrease the odds of having a big inning and it’s not generally a good trade-off.  That getting on base through drawing walks was a key, hidden skill and having men on base was crucial to scoring runs, whereas the key to good pitching was not velocity, but control.  Weaver’s idea of pitching talent was not a guy who could throw 98 m.p.h. but rather a guy who absolutely refused to walk anybody.

He didn’t care about pretty batting averages or speed demons, he wanted guys who had good batting eyes, could catch the ball and hit homers.  His motto that “Pitching, defense and three-run homers” win ballgames was famous, but when you think about it, that really translates to having men on base on offense and keeping them off base on defense.  The three-run homers only come if a couple of your guys get on and the idea of pitching and defense is to minimize opposing base-runners as much as possible.  It sounds obvious now, but in his time it wasn’t.  He always saw hidden things in the game and in players that others missed.

One of the key elements of McGraw’s managerial legacy was the concept of platooning, essentially splitting a position between two players, one a right-handed batter and the other a lefty, in order to take maximum advantage of whoever was pitching.  It was much more complicated than that and McGraw was a master of it, as was his key pupil Casey Stengel, who took it several steps beyond McGraw’s vision to something called ‘complex platooning’.  It had many advantages and applications in building a strong bench and using all of the 25-man roster, analyzing who could best succeed in any given game situations.  On any team there are everyday players who are talented enough to play in all situations, but it helped to have some platoon guys and bench players who were specialists, pinch-hitters or defensive subs etc.  This also eventually applied to pitching, having regular starters and key relievers, but also a few situational pitchers as well.

Earl Weaver was the acknowledged master in his time of this, getting the most out of his whole roster by perceiving and exploiting what certain players could do instead of fixating on what they couldn’t, a kind of positive thinking that was ahead of its time.  Aside from his regulars, Weaver always seemed to have a bunch of players sitting around who nobody else wanted because they were too old or too fat, too slow or too ugly, guys like Terry Crowley, John Lowenstein, Benny Ayala, Gary Roenicke, Kiko Garcia et al.  Others saw them as expendable, but in Weaver’s hands these guys were really productive, just deadly.

He and his pitching coaches – George Bamberger and later, Ray Miller – had the same kind of shrewd insight about pitching, turning guys like Wayne Garland and Steve Stone into 20-game winners for the first time and stretching the abilities of relievers like Tippy Martinez, Sammy Stewart, Joe Kerrigan and Don Stanhouse.  When Weaver managed the Orioles in their powerhouse days of 1968-73, they were loaded enough with talent that he didn’t have to make such evaluations, but after free agency hit, his sharp and unconventional talent judgement came into play much more, allowing the Orioles to stay in contention much longer and win more games than they really had a right to between 1975 and 1982.  It’s no coincidence that after Weaver’s retirement from his second stint in 1986, the fortunes of the club headed sharply downhill for over 20 years.  Joe Maddon, who manages the Tampa Bay Rays is very much a current example of Weaver’s practical, no-frills, mix-and-match approach.

The greatest testament to Weaver’s unique baseball genius though can be seen in his handling of Cal Ripken Jr. as a young player.  Weaver was probably the only manager alive who saw Ripken as a shortstop, everybody else would have turned him into a third baseman.  This is because Ripken didn’t fit the traditional mold or image of a shortstop.  He was very tall, muscular, slow afoot and hit home runs; these are not shortstop traits, they’re third baseman traits.  But Weaver saw two things nobody else saw which convinced him that Ripken would make a great shortstop, and he knew Cal would have much greater value there – finding a run-producing, power-hitting shortstop is much harder than finding a third baseman with those assets, there’s just no comparison.  Firstly, Ripken had the best infield throwing arm Weaver had ever seen, incredibly strong and accurate.  And secondly, he had an instinctive genius for playing the hitters by positioning himself properly, bolstered by being highly intelligent and coachable.  These assets more than made up for his lack of speed, allowed him to slow the position down, and this fooled a lot of people for a while.  He didn’t look like a great shortstop because he wasn’t acrobatic, flipping around like a squirrel out there looking flashy, but he made all the plays, his arm gave him great range.  Given the way his career turned out, with him breaking Lou Gehrig’s iron man streak by about 500 games and all, I’d say that worked out pretty well, wouldn’t you?

Weaver had principles and guts, he never backed down from an argument if he thought he was right, which was generally all the time.  I remember a game between the Orioles and Blue Jays in Toronto, back when the Jays played at Exhibition Stadium.  It was late in September, either 1977 or 1978 and against all odds, the Orioles were a close second in the race, maybe 2 or 2 1/2 games back of the Yankees.  The park didn’t have proper bullpens or much of anything else, really it was pretty bush-league.  The relievers just warmed up from makeshift mounds along the sidelines and the grounds crew kept the big rain tarp rolled up nearby.  Something happened during the game that made Weaver concerned about the safety of this arrangement and not being a wallflower, he lodged a protest with the umpires.  Weaver was worried that one of his fielders would seriously injure themselves or one of the relievers by colliding with the tarp while charging after a fly and wanted the Jays to either move the tarp or forfeit the game.  The umpires were only too happy to refuse, so if I remember correctly, Weaver pulled his team off the field and forfeited the game to the Jays.  It was stunning, they really needed the win and Weaver certainly wanted it, but not if it came with risk to the safety of his players.  I always admired him for that and it was around then that I started to pay more attention to the Earl.

He said that his epitaph should read, “Here lies the sorest loser who ever lived” and that’s perfect.  There are many great Weaver quotes and stories, but my favourite is from “The Summer Game”, Roger Angell’s first collection of great baseball writing.  It came after the Orioles had just lost the World Series to the Miracle Mets as they broke a tie with a pair of late runs against Baltimore’s good bullpen and shockingly took the Series.  Weaver was in the Shea visitors’ clubhouse, disconsolate, half-naked, drinking a beer and smoking, surrounded by a few reporters.

One of them asked him if he’d thought maybe with a lead in the late going, if only the bullpen could hold them and the Orioles could take the game, they’d go back to Baltimore and have a shot at winning the Series at home.  He answered,

“No, that’s what you can never do in baseball.  You can’t just sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock.  You’ve got to throw the ball over the goddamn plate and give the other man his chance.  That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.”

Even after such a painful, shocking defeat, he loved the game, was generous.  The crystalline heat and defiant eloquence of his answer always thrills me and he’s right, it is the greatest game of them all.  During his time in baseball, Earl Weaver made the game greater by enlivening it with his brains, wit, humour, his chirpy passion, his towering rages and feuds, his brilliant strategies and all too human weaknesses.  He was never boring, all baseball and it’s certain we won’t see anyone quite like him ever again.

© 2013, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

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