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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
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July 13, 2009

Earl Weaver

A MIND FOR THE GAME Before laptops, spreadsheets and VORP, the wizard of Baltimore was winning pennants by following his own internal baseball calculus

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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.

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