Oriole success under Joe Altobelli shows there was more to team than Earl Weaver

I always was a big Earl Weaver fan, and I still am, but Baltimore's runaway victory in this year's American League East race does force one to second-guess that position just a little bit.

Over the years, after all, the Orioles were thought to be the creatures of their feisty little manager, and their success a product of his brilliant maneuvering. But now Earl is out there tending his tomato patches - and here's his old team playing even better than it did the last few seasons under his guidance.

This club doesn't look very different, either, from the one that got beaten out by the New York Yankees in 1980 and 1981 and by Milwaukee last year. But after a close race through the middle of August this season, the Orioles just pulled away, making victory a foregone conclusion by mid-September and officially clinching matters Sunday.

Why, Joe Altobelli must be even more of a genius than Weaver was! Or perchance have the Orioles just been a better team all along than most people realized?

The fact is, of course, that the truth lies somewhere in between. Weaver certainly was a great manager, as his record with all sorts of teams over 141/2 years clearly attests. But he did have a way of conning people into thinking he was doing an even more incredible job than he really was.

I recall one day when the Orioles seemed to be playing over their heads as they arrived in Boston for a series with the Red Sox. Earl was holding court in his inimitable fashion, and obviously eating it up. Eventually, someone asked the question he had been waiting for: what was the explanation for his team's success? Earl gave us a big smile, reached in his pocket, and pulled out a couple of small mirrors.

Weaver wasn't really doing it with mirrors, though. He was doing it with guys named Frank and Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Jim Palmer - and then with Ken Singleton, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken, Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor, etc. Now Altobelli is doing pretty much the same thing.

Other teams may have had more ''glamour guys'' (the Yankees of Reggie Jackson , Ron Guidry, and Goose Gossage; the Red Sox of Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, and Fred Lynn; the Brewers with all those sluggers plus Rollie Fingers). But if you look closely at the whole picture - pitching, defense, experience, depth, ability to handle pressure, etc. - the Orioles were always right up there. They may not have had as many household names, but somehow the whole always turned out to be better than the sum of its parts.

Of course Weaver was the man who put it all together. Earl's teams seemed to understand the importance of going out there and playing hard day after day, and they also seemed to be the kind of teams that knew how to win the big games. The O's are still that kind of team, and thus it is only fair to say that they still carry his stamp to some extent.

But Altobelli has to get most of the credit now for the way he has maintained , or perhaps even improved upon, Weaver's formula. Joe was certainly a man on the spot this season, and he had more than his share of problems with injuries to several top pitchers. He kept finding the right replacements, though, and finally the Orioles' combination of ability and depth proved decisive.

It hasn't hurt to have Ripken and Murray in the No. 3 and 4 spots, of course. Murray has been among the league leaders in homers and RBIs all year, while Ripken isn't too far behind him. Designated hitter Ken Singleton provides another big bat, and Altobelli takes it from there with a platoon system just as extensive as any of those employed so masterfully by his predecessor.

Veteran Al Bumbry and rookie John Shelby alternate in center field; Danny Ford is spelled by a variety of others in right; Rick Dempsey shares the catching with Joe Nolan; and then there is left field, where John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke form the basic left-right combination, with others occasionally filling in. For the season, the ''Baltimore left fielder,'' has more than 30 homers and 120 RBIs, which is pretty good any way you look at it.

The infield of Murray, Rich Dauer, Ripken, and Todd Cruz is more stable, though even here Altobelli does some switching except in the cases of the two big guys.

One result of all this is that everybody gets into the act - which helps boost team morale. Another is that the Oriole lineup always has the left-right percentages in its favor regardless of who is pitching for the opposition.

Ironically, it looked for a while as though Baltimore's traditionally strong pitching might be the team's Achilles heel this year. With Flanagan out for a couple of months with a knee injury, with both Palmer and relief ace Tippy Martinez joining him on the disabled list for one three-week period, and with veteran starter Dennis Martinez experiencing the worst season of his career, the staff appeared very thin beyond ace left-hander McGregor (now 18-6) and second-year man Storm Davis. But young right-hander Allan Ramirez won four big games before he also was injured. Meanwhile rookie Mike Boddicker came up in May and has pitched so spectacularly that he is now the team's second biggest winner at 15-7. Flanagan (12-3) and Palmer eventually came back, filling out a strong and deep starting staff, while Martinez returned to head up an excellent bullpen.

But let's not overlook Altobelli in all this. Joe may not have any mirrors in his pocket, but he has more than 30 years in baseball as a player, coach, and manager, and there isn't a whole lot about the game that he doesn't know. Altobelli played 15 pro seasons, mostly in the minors, and managed for 11 years in the Oriole farm system. He piloted the San Francisco Giants in 1977 and '78, earning Associated Press Manager of the Year honors in the latter season after a third place finish, but was fired in 1979. He managed the Yankees' top minor league team to the International League title in 1980, served as New York's third base coach in 1981 and '82, then got the Baltimore job this year.

So while Altobelli's name may not be that familiar to casual fans, it's well enough known to those close to the game. And when Joe leads his Orioles into the playoffs next week - and perhaps into the World Series after that - it couldn't happen to a more deserving, hard-working, and knowledgeable baseball man.

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