First place in the American League East, once the exclusive fief of the New York Yankees, has become a dogfight between New York and Manager Earl Weaver's Baltimore Orioles. Since June 15, when they were two games under .500 and struggling, the Orioles have played very close to .700 baseball.
The reason Weaver's name is mentioned so prominently is because Earl, like Oakland's Billy Martin, is never for an instant separated from anything involving his ball club. Just when it was rumored that Weaver would be the next manager of the New York Mets, he signed a two-year extension of his present contract with Baltimore.
When the Orioles took six of eight games recently from the Yankees to win the season's series between the two clubs, 7 to 6, Earl was everywhere -- changing pitchers; using just the right pinch hitters; and eventually drawing a three-day suspension for bumping an umpire.
Now, on an August night in California's Anaheim Stadium, reporters were descending on Earl in waves of two and three as Baltimore began an eight-game road trip only two games in back of New York in the lost column.
Everybody holding a ball-point pen or a microphone or a tape recorder wanted to know the same thing: Did Weaver think the Orioles would stay hot and beat out the Yankees in the AL East?
"I'd say we've got a great chance," Earl replied, disappointing the news media with an answer not really worthy of the Baltimore manager's often incendiary vocabulary. They had hoped for something more dramatic -- like "We'll win it easy," or "The Yanks have been living in borrowed time all season, " Or "New York's personnel isn't nearly as good as ours."
Instead, Weaver would talk more about the positive aspects of his own remarkable ball club, whose 25 players are often asked to do the work of 9.
"Defensively we're playing the best baseball in the American League," Earl said. "We make the routine plays, but we also make the tough plays [about two evry game], and that's what you need to win. We're also hitting well as a team and out pitching is strong. Actually the whole ball club is doing just what it's supposed to do.
"We've got a lot of people involved in this thing," he continued. "We go into Minnesota and our rookie catcher, Dan Graham, drives in 13 runs in three games. We need help from the bullpen, we get it. I bring in the guys off the bench in the late innings to pinch-hit, particularly Terry Crowley, and they deliver for me.
"We had to have strong picthing against New York and we get two complete games from Steve Stone, who is having a terrific year. In fact, in our eight games with the Yankees they bat .211 as a team and mostly we stop Reggie Jackson. Shortstop Mark Belanger, who hasn't done much all year for me with the bat but who never misses anything in the field, is now playing some of the best baseball in his career."
Stone, who would flirt with a no-hitter that same night while beating the California Angels for his 20th victory, was considered a journeyman pitcher only a few short months ago. Before this year, Steve had never won more than 15 games in any of nine big-league seasons; had a lifetime record of 78-79; and had a reputation for misplacing his curve ball for weeks at a time.
Stone's improvement this year is said to have come from two things: (1) a speedup in his delivery, suggested by pitching coach Ray Miller, and (2) the kind of concentration on the mound that George Brett brings to home plate.
Off the field Steve is an avid gourmet who will drive great distances, even when the team is on the road, to get to any famous restaurant. In fact, he is part owner of eight eating places in the Chicago are, including the prestigious Pump Room in the Ambassador East hotel.
But Stone isn't the only Baltimore pitcher who knows his craft. Weaver can also call on starters Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor, Jim Palmer, and Dennis Martinez to get him through the crucial month of September, plus a very tough Tim Stoddard in the bullpen.
While Baltimore doesn't seem to have as many hitters with high averages as it did last season, opposing pitchers have not been able to take many liberties with Ken Singleton, Eddie Murray, al Bumbry, and Crowley since the July All-Star break.
To even suspect what Earl Weaver is all about you've got to spend at least a couple of evenings with him in the Oriole dugout while he fields questions, kids his players, and gets on reporters for not always having their figures right.
Most questions he'll try to answer, but when someone will need to eliminate victories Baltimore will need to eliminate New York, he'll usually glare at them and say: "How can anybody know that?"