Earl Weaver always knew how to pick his moments. The man who was the ninth winningest manager in baseball, who took his Baltimore Orioles to four World Series (victorious in one), won six division titles and notched five 100-win seasons, had a virtuoso’s sense for how to play the keys of his lineup—inserting precisely the right situation player to bat against precisely the right pitcher, or pitch to precisely the right batter, because he knew better than those players themselves how they fared against southpaws, in hot weather, on Sunday afternoons after an extra-inning game of more than 12 innings the night before. He knew when to pick a fight too—when to bait an umpire or tear up a rule book or hurl a third-base bag in order to fire up his team or gin up the fans and likely as not get thrown out of the game for his troubles, which happened nearly 100 times in the course of his fiery career.
It was that sense of not only how to play the game but when to exit it that seemed to be on display this week when Weaver, 82, died while aboard an Orioles fantasy cruise, just two days before the Baltimore Ravens upset the heavily favored New England Patriots to advance to the Super Bowl. The fans who had been mourning the passing of a well-loved legend were suddenly whooping in the streets and thronging from the bars in much the way they did after all of Weaver’s championships so many years—decades, actually—back. It would hardly have suited Weaver to have done things the other way—checking out in the midst of a football celebration and spoiling the city’s fun.
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Much has been written both since and before Weaver’s passing about his pugnacity, the finger-in-the-eye combativeness that seemed so suited to the city in which he was lionized. The 5-ft. 7-in. manager with the low-budget team always seemed to be punching above his weight, just as Baltimore—the lunch-bucket town lost between the glittery New York to its north and stately Washington to its south—had to do. And that was how Baltimoreans seemed to like it.
I grew up in Baltimore during the city’s golden age of sports—not just the era of Weaver but the era of the Baltimore Colts, who won back-to-back world championships in 1958 and 1959 and played in two of the first five Super Bowls. In my family, love of sports wasn’t so much taught as simply offered. It was my Grandfather who took me to my first Orioles game, and if I were a Certain Breed of Baseball Poet, I’d say I was dazzled by the brilliant greensward of the diamond, seduced by the balletic exactitude of the game and felt a deep sense of bucolic peace, sitting by my grandfather as both the clock-less game and the summer day unspooled at a lazy pace all their own.
But I’m not a Certain Breed of Baseball Poet and I suspect I was bored, squirming in my seat and more interested in the popcorn vendor and the hot dog guy than I was in what was happening on the field. My grandfather likely wouldn’t have helped. He adored baseball and no doubt hoped I would too, but he was not the kind to go all rhapsodic on you. This is the game, this is your team. You’re a smart boy; learn to love them. I did—it wasn’t hard. I came to the Colts in much the same way.
Baltimore has in some ways been kinder to sport than sport has been to it. The small-market town was crushed by the big spending cities in the early years of baseball’s free-agent wars and made do with a smart farm system and a lot of young talent, which it hoped to hold onto for a few seasons at least, until the Yankees or the Angels or the Dodgers lured them away. The NFL sat on its hands when the Baltimore Colts skulked out of town at 3 AM in 1984, slipping off to Indianapolis in a betrayal that was equal parts stunning and, for a town with a lot to prove, humiliating. There is some satisfaction in Baltimore that the franchise was forever marked by the low and furtive nature of its departure—Google Baltimore Colts and “middle of the night” and you’ll get 348,000 hits. And while Baltimore eventually picked Cleveland’s pocket the same way—luring the Browns away with the promise of a new stadium and all of the other goodies that go along with such sweetheart deals—there is indignation that the league allowed Cleveland to keep its colors, nickname and records and was granted a new team in just three years, while Baltimoreans waited more than a decade for the NFL’s return and forever must endure the sting of seeing the Colts horseshoe being celebrated in another town.
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Still, Baltimore got by and worked a curious kind of magic on the teams that came to play. The Canadian Football League fielded a team in Baltimore for two years—and it won the Grey Cup in 1995. The defunct United States Football League had a Baltimore franchise for just one year—1985—and it too won its league’s championship. Small beer surely, but better than nothing—a little.
Meantime, the Orioles—post-Weaver—went into a nearly 20-year swoon, finally playing the big-payroll game but doing it all wrong—with money but no smarts, marquee names but no class. Remember Roberto Alomar spitting at an umpire? Remember Albert Belle—just being Albert Belle? The Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell once described those teams as “fan-repellant,” which was a pejorative as apt as it was earned.
The Orioles’ long, 14-year playoff drought ended this season, as a young, well-managed—and well-behaved—team at last re-charmed the city it had alienated for so long. That too may have given Weaver the sense that he could safely go—that the house he had built had at last been put right again. That the Ravens returned to the Super Bowl in the same season offers Baltimore something of a redemption—a restoration to the sports primacy it enjoyed for so long. It won’t last—it can’t last, not in the era of NFL parity and MLB profligacy, with teams like the Yankees and Phillies and Red Sox and Angels shoveling money at players in ways that the Pirates and Royals and Orioles of the league can’t.
Still, the moment is sweet, and I suspect it’s one my grandfather would have loved. In 1984, not long after that year’s baseball season ended, my grandmother—his wife of nearly 60 years—died. He bore it as I always assumed he would—with grace and good humor and not a little Old Forester. After the funeral, he retreated to his den where he liked to listen to baseball games, and sat quietly for a long while. My brother went in to check on him and asked him how he was doing. “Well,” my grandfather responded, “at least spring training starts in four months.” It will start this year too, as it does every year, and now and again, as Baltimore is today appreciating, that wheel of the seasons can lead to great things.