Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Earl Weaver and Stan Musial passed away. Here are some thoughts on Weaver, who was 82 when he died on Saturday:
Weaver was the best manager the Baltimore Orioles have ever had, and his outstanding track record speaks for itself. He managed 2,541 games--all with Balitmore--over 17 seasons and his teams won 1,480 of them, good for a .583 winning percentage. He presided over five 100-win seasons, four AL pennants, and the 1970 World Series champions. Six times he steered his club to a first-place finish and eleven times his team won at least 90 games. The Orioles were the American League's answer to Sparky Anderson's Big Red Machine always competitive under Weaver's guidance.
Well, except at the end. His only losing season was his last one, 1986, when the O's went 73-89 and finished last in the division. Weaver initially retired following the 1982 season, after Robin Yount and the Milwaukee Brewers crushed Baltimore 11-2 in a one-game playoff for the AL East flag. The front office lured him back in 1985 as the team slid into mediocrity, hoping he'd light a spark under the ballclub. But when Baltimore couldn't turn it around,Weaver walked away. It was good timing, for the Orioles only got worse without him. They dropped 95 games in 1987, then 107 the year after that. It took Baltimore ten years to make the playoffs after Weaver called it quits.
After a brief resurgence in the mid-1990s, the once-proud franchise deteriorated into the doormats of the American League East. The perennial punching bags for the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Tampa Bay Rays strung together 14 consecutive losing seasons prior to a fluky 2012 in which they made the postseason despite scoring just seven more runs than they allowed during the regular season.
The last quarter century has been filled with lean times for the Orioles, enough to make their glory years feel like they transpired in an alternate reality. But Baltimore was the class of the American League back then, the first dynasty to emerge after the great Yankee run collapsed in the mid-1960s. The O's reaped the rewards of their prolific farm system that churned out waves of multi-talented ballplayers. Weaver, with all his fiery passion, competitive spirit and infamous tirades, was the perfect man to lead a team desperate to escape its losing reputation. No man could erase 60 wasted years in the American League cellar, but damned if this one wasn't going to try.
Of course, it helped that Weaver was blessed with elite personnel throughout his managing tenure. A great manager is only as good as his players, and Weaver had the good fortune of managing a bunch of them. When he first came on the job in 1968 he inherited the core that swept Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the '66 Fall Classic. was penciling the names of Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, and Boog Powell into his lineup cards. Then it was a new crop of stars--Bobby Grich, Don Baylor, Ken Singleton, and Lee May--in the 1970s. His final days at the helm featured Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken Jr., and Fred Lynn.
As for pitching, Baltimore rarely suffered a shortage of quality arms. The Big Three of Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, and Dave McNally carried the day, and the 1971 edition featured four 20-game winners (the trio plus Pat Dobson). Players came and went, especially once free agency came into vogue during the mid-'70s, but Weaver remained ever-present.
Weaver wasn't a master tactician or strategist. He didn't know much about pitching. Common managerial maneuvers such as hit-and-runs, sacrifice bunts and stolen bases were foreign to him. And yet, he was one of the winning-est skippers who ever lived. He earned his plaque in the Hall of Fame. He belongs in the pantheon of legendary baseball field generals with the likes of Casey Stengel, Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa, and Bobby Cox.
And even if the Baltimore Orioles revert to their losing ways this year, his legacy as a winner lives on.