The most obvious difference is right there in the standings. Under Earl Weaver the Baltimore Orioles were as well known for their stumbling starts as their fast finishes. But at the end of last week, Weaver's successor as Baltimore's manager, Joe Altobelli, had the Orioles just a half game off the lead in the American League East with a 15-11 record. If they continue to win, Altobelli may recede so far into the background that he will appear to disappear. And that would prove to be the biggest difference of all.
Unlike Weaver, Altobelli would like to convey the impression that the club runs itself: a ship with a confident and veteran crew guided by an invisible, almost unnecessary helmsman. Snacking at his desk after a win, Altobelli has the faintly sheepish air of a man who's sitting there only until the manager returns. As he talks about the game, you find your gaze resting on the broad expanse just above his black eyebrows, between his sleepy, hooded eyes. Joe, say it ain't so—there is something going on in there.
What's going on is a determination to resist every possible comparison with his predecessor, except perhaps that both are winners. Weaver is a short, noisy man who cast a long, noisy shadow, while Altobelli is a 6-foot-tall, slyly easygoing fellow trying to cast no shadow at all. On a banquet dais a few weeks after being hired, Altobelli pushed his chair back to let Weaver get by—and tumbled, chair and all, through a curtain onto the floor five feet below. Talk about deference. Altobelli, who was unhurt, later said that his first thought was to lie there and sue 'em but that he solved the problem at the next few dinners by chaining himself to the table.
Throughout spring training and during the Orioles' early road trips, Altobelli patiently fielded the same questions over and over. Yes, he'd say, Earl was a great manager, a living legend, a sure Hall of Famer; his four pennants and his won-lost percentage (.596 over 14½ seasons) spoke for themselves. No, Altobelli didn't mind the pressure of replacing Weaver. "If there isn't pressure in a job, the job's not worth it," he'd say. Rarely did he point to his own credentials—a managing record in the Oriole farm system as successful as Weaver's was there, and a National League Manager of the Year award in 1978 while at the helm of the San Francisco Giants, whom he skippered from late 1976 until '79. Questioned about the clubhouse gripes that soured Weaver's last years, Altobelli would reply mildly, "Gee, I don't know about that. I wasn't here." The latter is certainly true; he was the third base coach for the Yankees in 1981 and '82.
Altobelli will be 51 years old on May 26. Before turning to managing in the late '60s, he was a first baseman for 15 years, though he played in the majors for just 166 games with Cleveland and Minnesota. As the Orioles took batting practice before a home game with the Angels last week, Altobelli briefly stood in at shortstop; more often he'll take a few grounders—even the ones with hot sauce—at his old position. Then he came to the sidelines to chat up a few sports-writers. He grinned and gossiped, softly pounding his glove, cheerfully unmindful of the flecks of tobacco juice collecting on his white jersey. When the reporters turned for a second to get a look at Kathy Lioi, Miss Oriole 1983, Altobelli saw his chance and disappeared.
At the outset Altobelli said he'd be foolish to make changes in a club that knows how to win. Two rookies are prominent in the lineup, however. Altobelli gave the third base job to Leo Hernandez, a Venezuelan who hit a lot of homers in the minors. The stumpy Hernandez reminds no one yet of Brooks Robinson. But before installing him there, Altobelli and General Manager Hank Peters acquired what amounts to a Spanish-speaking coach and chaperon for him in 35-year-old Aurelio Rodriguez, who by rights should be sunning himself back in Mexico.
Rodriguez, still a mean gloveman, sometimes substitutes for Hernandez in the late innings, and off the field the two are inseparable. When the smiling Rodriguez comes through the door wearing boots, designer jeans and a flashy shirt, an identically dressed Hernandez is sure to follow.
More spectacular has been the introduction of center-fielder John (T-Bone) Shelby. Shelby platoons with 36-year-old Al (Bee) Bumbry, providing Altobelli with what he calls a delightful problem, because Bumbry is running and hitting again on rejuvenated legs, and Shelby, after a .395 April, was batting .364 last week and coasting for line drives with the grace of a Paul Blair.
As for the offensive stars of last year's team, they've picked up nicely where they left off. John Lowenstein, Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray are all hitting .300 or better. Altobelli gave right field back to Dan Ford, who spent the last half of a poor year on Weaver's nonperson list but was hitting .347 at the end of last week. "Last year you'd get to first base and almost sit down," Disco Dan says, "because you knew Earl wasn't going to run—steal a base, sacrifice, play hit-and-run. With Joe I can do a little bit of everything, and it helps when he smiles at you when you have a good game. Already I've talked to him more than I did with Earl all year."
This is the one difference between the two managers that all the Orioles immediately point to—Weaver kept his prickly distance, win or lose, while Altobelli, though far from gushy, has a personal touch. "When Joe said hello to me the first day of spring training, he broke the other guy's alltime career record," says Pitcher Jim Palmer of the man he loved to hate.