Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Duke of Earl

"As I walk through this world
Nothing can stop the Duke of Earl."

Gene Chandler

A little while ago, I heard that Earl Weaver has died at the age of 82.

And another piece of my childhood has slipped away.

There were many colorful characters in baseball when I was growing up, and I can honestly say Earl was one of them. He wasn't as flamboyant as some, but, in some ways, he was more unconventional than most.

The conventional wisdom in baseball has long been that pitching and defense win championships. But Earl Weaver didn't quite go along with that.

Sure, he went along with the "pitching and defense" part. At one time, in fact, he had probably the most feared pitching rotation in baseball with not merely one or two but three, even four, pitchers on his Baltimore Orioles roster who were capable of winning 20 games in a season.

As for defense, well, Hall of Famers like third baseman Brooks Robinson and outfielder Frank Robinson didn't make many mistakes in the field.

But he wasn't one of those managers who could ever be satisfied with scratching out a run with a bunt or a steal — even though he had speedy players on his club.

Weaver was an apostle of the "three–run homer."

Defense means different things in different sports. In a sport like basketball, for instance, a professional team that holds its opponents to an average score of 80 or less is probably regarded as a defensive juggernaut. On the college level, a great defense is probably one that holds a team to about 10–15 points below that.

But low scores have always been the norm for baseball — even a decade or two ago when juiced–up players were pounding home runs and driving in RBIs at record–shattering paces.

Things were at the opposite end of the spectrum when Earl was in charge in Baltimore. It was an era that should have favored teams that were built around pitching and defense and scratching out runs.

But Weaver managed team after team that won at least 100 games. In one memorable season, four of his pitchers won 20 games or more. For a time, the Orioles seemed to have the American League's Eastern Division under wraps.

"Earl was about winning," one of those pitchers, Jim Palmer, said earlier today. "That was what he did."

All things must come to an end, though, and so did the Orioles' dominance, but they almost always won more than they lost when Weaver was in charge. They were almost always competitive.

And, whether they were or were not, Weaver was always worth watching, but sometimes, like contemporary Billy Martin, he got into arguments with umpires and wound up being tossed out of games. He even holds the distinction of having been thrown out of both games of a doubleheader.

Weaver didn't particularly care for umpires. Neither did Martin, for that matter. And there were others, although none as notorious as those two.

Weaver's Orioles lost the 1979 World Series to a Pittsburgh Pirates team that rallied behind the song "We Are Family," but, as news of his passing spread today, his former players spoke of how they felt like a family when he was managing the team.

"His bark was worse than his bite," said Davey Johnson, who played under Weaver, "but you had to know him and kind of grow up with him, and then you loved him like a father."

Rest in peace, Earl.

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