New Oriole manager one-up on Earl Weaver as team gets off to rare good start

Compared to most new managers, Joe Altobelli must have felt like a kid let loose in a candy store this year when he took over the Baltimore Orioles from Earl Weaver, who retired at the end of last season.

While Weaver left Altobelli with many pluses from 1982, including a four-man pitching rotation that has a combined lifetime winning percentage of .616, Earl was also considerate enough not to finish first in the American League East.

Of course Weaver couldn't have made it any closer, losing out to the champion Milwaukee Brewers by only one game on the last day of the season. But if there is any pressure on Altobelli this year, it is only the pressure that he puts on himself.

Only don't tell that to Joe, who had two pretty fair years as manager of the San Francisco Giants and was still gone before the end of his third season.

However, Altobelli is already ahead of Weaver in the Getaway Department, meaning the business of winning your share of games in April. During the last four or five years Earl's team never could get going in the spring - a fact he always blamed on bad weather that he said was constantly knocking his starting rotation out of whack.

Asked to explain Baltimore's relatively fast start this season, Altobelli replied: ''I don't have an answer. Since spring training is basically the same for all clubs, I have to assume that things just happened that way. But if it means that we might not play strongly near the end of the season, then maybe Earl's way is better.''

One Oriole who has an explanation, though, is second baseman Rich Dauer, who is now into his eighth year with the club.

''Injuries can destroy a team for a while, and basically that's what happened last year when Dan Ford and Ken Singleton were both hurt and Cal Ripken, who was a rookie, wasn't doing the job at third base,'' Dauer said. ''But once Ford and Singleton got healthy and Ripken was moved from third base to shortstop and started hitting, our whole season picked up. We've also got a fourth infielder this year in rookie third baseman Leo Hernandez, who can hit the ball out of the park.''

Basically Baltimore isn't much different than it was last season, when the Orioles won 94 games; led the American League in fielding; got 11 pinch-hit home runs; and had 45 come-from-behind victories.

But where Weaver was content with a four-man pitching rotation of Scott McGregor, Mike Flanagan, Jim Palmer, and Dennis Martinez, Altobelli has added a fifth member in right-hander Storm Davis.

Storm has to produce to remain in that group, and if he doesn't, look for Sammy Stewart to replace him. Otherwise Stewart will remain in the Orioles' strong bullpen with Tippy Martinez, Tim Stoddard, and rookie Don Welchel.

Eddie Murray, whose power bat accounted for 32 homers and 110 runs batted in last season, rates with Milwaukee's Cecil Cooper as one of the best first basemen in the American League. Dauer, of course, plays a fine second base, while Ripken is a shortstop with big-league range in the field.

Although the third base job currently belongs to Hernandez, who hit 34 home runs last year in the minors, Dauer may eventually be shifted there, with Lenn Sakata coming off the bench to play second.

The Orioles have five good hitting outfielders, plus designated hitter Ken Singleton, who can also play one of the garden spots. So far Altobelli has platooned Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein in left (the way Weaver did); with Al Bumbry in center and Ford in right.

But if Ford doesn't hit, Roenicke will probably be shifted to right, at least temporarily. And Bumbry, despite a fine start at the plate, is being threatened by rookie John T. Shelby, who has more power than Al and hit .279 last year with Rochester. In fact, Altobelli says that Shelby will probably play in as many games this year as Bumbry.

Baltimore has solid catching in Rick Dempsey and Joe Nolan, neither of whom get many headlines, but who know pitchers and usually hit well in the clutch. Two other names worth noting are Benny Ayala, who hit .375 last year as a pinch hitter, and Jim Dwyer, who can play any outfield position.

As for Altobelli, he seems to be managing from the same book that Weaver used. Joe yanks pitchers just as quickly and likes to platoon occasionally for defensive purposes, but he definitely can't match the Baltimore Bantam on the Richter scale!

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