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It isn't surprising that when spring began the Baltimore locker room was rife with Weaver revisionism. All the horror stories of 14 years were dredged up and exaggerated—how Earl reduced his players' talents to rigid stats, how he snubbed and screamed at them, even how he pushed one player downstairs. It was as if some group purge had to be undertaken, an expression of release from the man who drove the team to success. By contrast, here came the bland and genial Altobelli, saying hello and patting fannies. Both pictures are distorted. The Orioles will always respect Weaver for teaching them how to win. Now they want to prove they can do it without him—one explanation, perhaps, for the faster-than-normal start this year—and Altobelli is only too happy to stand back and let the players go.
The foundation of Baltimore's success, the key to the best won-lost record in baseball over the past 26 years, has been excellent pitching. But last year the Orioles ranked seventh in the league with a 3.99 ERA, their worst since 1956. Injuries were the principal culprit—Scott McGregor struggled with arm trouble and a loss of confidence, and Mike Flanagan was trying to regain the power on his fastball after shoulder-muscle atrophy in '81. But the pitchers may also have been discouraged by years of Weaver looking over their shoulders. Says lefthander Flanagan, whose 5-0 start is the best of his career, including his Cy Young year (1979), "Earl never asked what I wanted to throw. He'd look at his card and say, 'This guy is 9 for 27 against the fastball. Throw him a curve.' Joe gives us a little more credit to know what we have on a given day."
Besides announcing that he'd give his starters more freedom and that he'd go with a five-man rotation instead of four, Altobelli has said that he'll be more careful of his relievers' arms. Bullpen ace Tippy Martinez complains that he warmed up 300 times last year, sometimes as many as three times a game, en route to making 80 appearances. By comparison, says Martinez, the Yankees' Rich Gossage got up only once in a game in which he wasn't used. McGregor, whose 3-1 record indicates that the eight-hit game can be an art form, says, "Joe's broken in the starters a little easier. In the early games he took us out a little sooner than Earl would have and we were a little surprised. But it's helped that he's not pushing us."
Altobelli admits that he's relying heavily on the advice of Pitching Coach Ray Miller, considered to be one of the best in the business. Miller and Third Base Coach Cal Ripken Sr. were top candidates to succeed Weaver, and it's a tribute to the tight-knit Baltimore organization that both wanted to stay on when Altobelli, who'd been away from the Orioles for six years, got the job. The line on Miller is that at last his insights are being heeded, that he was frustrated and privately critical of Weaver's headstrong management of the pitchers.
Hinting at his past dissatisfaction, Miller says, "I have more input now. Joe and I talk. He'll say, 'What do you think about him?' as a pitcher is coming to the dugout between innings. Earl wouldn't ask you that question—he'd just rely on his baseball judgment. All in all, Joe was a great replacement, given the state of mind of this ball club. We're loose, we're veterans."
Altobelli and Miller present an interesting executive combination. Miller's nickname is Rabbitt, alluding to his big teeth, but under Altobelli it can also apply to the carrot Miller wields while the manager, hanging back in his office, threatens with the stick.
This carrot-and-stick approach was successfully applied in the case of Dennis Martinez, who until his second win last Friday night had Miller and Altobelli genuinely worried. Martinez' five defeats in April accounted for almost half the team's losses through Sunday. But where Weaver probably would have been screaming at him, Miller was working on his mechanics and Altobelli was blaming the cold weather and noting that Martinez, in terms of ERA, always starts the season slowly.
That changed, however, after Martinez was knocked out of a game in Seattle. Martinez publicly criticized Catcher Rick Dempsey and said nobody was allowing him to throw his game. This finally brought out Altobelli, who said, "I told Dennis it was time he took the brunt of this on himself and stopped blaming everybody else. I've had him before [in the minors], and sometimes he needs a kick. Flanagan and McGregor, they're going good—I stay away from them. But with Dennis sometimes you have to kick and then you let up. Kick and then let up." Asked if that wasn't a little like managing rats in a cage, he said, "Yeah, well let me tell you, they're pretty expensive rats."
Jim Palmer looks expensive, but not at all ratlike. He stands on the mound in Memorial Stadium facing centerfield. It's his first appearance of the two-week-old season; he missed his Opening Day start because his back was hurting after he was rocked by a University of Miami team in his last start of spring training. (Last week the same injury, aggravated, put Palmer on the disabled list until May 20.) Tall and slim-waisted, he's the only Oriole who listens to the anthem with his legs firmly together, like a proud Boy Scout. Looking closely, you can almost see the lines of his Jockey underwear through his pants. Palmer is a paradox. A no-contest Hall of Famer with three Cy Youngs, a tireless worker for charity, a celebrated model and future broadcasting star, a total all-American. Also: a complainer, a kibitzer, an egotist and—it's being whispered—cowardly for removing himself from important games. How will Altobelli ever be able to handle a man who usually got the last word in on Weaver, no slouch with the brickbat?
Altobelli so far has taken the tack of deferring to Palmer's every wish, particularly with regard to his numerous aches and pains. "We're each of us the best judges of our own bodies, and Jimmy especially so, with his experience and his great record," says Altobelli. "If he says he can't pitch, he can't pitch. As for the controversy he may cause, we'll live with it as they did in the past." Palmer is just as complimentary in return, saying, "Baseball's always been fun, but with Joe it's a little bit more fun. He understands that sometimes you're going to lose. Earl wouldn't. Everything he said was negative."