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Earl Weaver sat in the Oriole dugout, cigarette in hand, cap pushed back like a little boy's. "We wanted to keep it quiet, but snakes in the grass and bleeps wrote the story," he rasped. Weaver paused, half smiling at his gruffness. "But what the hell are you gonna tell your friends? They want to know what you're going to do next year."
Weaver acknowledged last week what many had long suspected: After two terms and 17 seasons of managing the Orioles, he will not return in 1987. The news had leaked out one drip at a time into the papers, until Weaver—who had been hinting at his decision for weeks—finally confirmed it. To what effect? His team yawned, his city shrugged, and Oriole owner Edward Bennett Williams didn't try to dissuade him. The name of one Billy Martin surfaced. O, Baltimore.
The season wasn't supposed to end this way. Not for Weaver, not for the Orioles, not for the American League East. Just as the division was gathering into a tight pennant pack early last month, the Red Sox pulled a switch, reversed the polarity and sent their six rivals racing for the bottom. Baltimore, just 2� games out on Aug. 5, fell into a 9-27 tailspin that dropped the team from second place to last and left it 7 games under .500 and 18 behind Boston as of Sunday. The Orioles now face their first losing season since 1967 and possibly their first last-place finish ever. They are suddenly a team without pitching, defense, direction or spirit. Even worse, they seem to be turning into the Yankees.
"It seems strange to see an Oriole team not in a pennant race in September," said former Baltimore mainstay Don Baylor last week, as his Red Sox took three of four from the Birds on the strength of 12 home runs. "It's just not like the Orioles to lose the way these guys have lost."
The Baltimore way was always steady: Learn fundamentals, pitch and field well, keep Earl sparking at every cylinder. That combination made the Orioles baseball's winningest team over the last 30 years and helped Weaver to six division titles and five 100-victory seasons.
This year the system has mysteriously broken down. Oriole pitchers have been pounded for an average of five runs a game in the last month. No righthanded starter has won since Aug. 14. The team's offense is ninth in the league in scoring—down one run a game from last season's average—and the defense ranks ninth too. The Orioles' 10 third basemen have combined for 35 errors and only 35 RBIs. "I don't think any of us envisioned that this could possibly happen," said Baltimore general manager Hank Peters.
Maybe even the 56-year-old Weaver put too much faith in the old Oriole magic. When he came out of 20 months' retirement in June 1985 to replace the fired Joe Altobelli, he expected to turn a floundering Baltimore team around. He couldn't. He has tried all his old tricks, worked hard and managed as well as ever—"I haven't lost a bleeping thing," Weaver declared last week—yet he has lost more games than he has won. "I don't know why it didn't work."
Friends say Weaver didn't feel quite the same around the Baltimore clubhouse. There were new faces, new attitudes. Sometimes Weaver would feel a chill of resentment as he paced around the locker room. Yet he insisted that his decision to quit was "as simple as a man not wanting to work anymore."
"Earl's tired," said veteran catcher Rick Dempsey. "He's tired of having to beef up this team. He used to kick butt—jump all over us, yell, scream, push, push, push us to be the best. But that takes a lot of energy. It was hard to watch him go through the frustration. I'm glad he's leaving. I'm glad for him."
Certainly no one could blame Weaver for the Orioles' problems. Injuries have plagued the pitching staff and two key starters—first baseman Eddie Murray and centerfielder Fred Lynn—all season. Lynn and Murray, in fact, have been in the lineup together only 72 times. But that's not the half of it.