Weaver: Volatile, irascible, loyal -- a winner

Mark Rogoff had dinner with Earl Weaver on Friday night, just hours before the Hall of Fame manager died in his berth on the Celebrity Silhouette, the cruise ship carrying Orioles and Red Sox fans on their annual winter voyage organized by Ken Nigro, the former Baltimore sportswriter and Sox consultant.

Rogoff, a former Red Sox public relations aide who is now media relations director for Triple-A Rochester, called Dr. Charles Steinberg the next day.

“You’ve got to know,’’ Rogoff told Steinberg, whose career in baseball -- and first brush with fame -- came as a 20-year-old intern with Weaver’s Orioles, “down to the end, Earl was arguing about the points score in a game of ‘Win, Lose and Draw’ they were playing on the ship.’’’

On the final weekend of the 2012 season, the Red Sox were in Baltimore and were present when the Orioles unveiled a bronze statue of Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson. Weaver had come for the ceremony, and he was pretty feeble, moved easily to tears. “I think he knew,’’ Steinberg said, referring to a death that came less than four months later, of an apparent heart attack at age 82.

Weaver had gotten his own statue outside of Camden Yards earlier in the season, and Steinberg had sat at Weaver’s table at a small dinner for friends the night before the ceremony.

“There are so many things Earl should be remembered for,’’ Steinberg said, “but the thing he wanted to be remembered for was moving the Kid to shortstop.’’

“The Kid” in this case was Cal Ripken Jr., the son of the long-time Orioles coach. Though he had played short in the minors and made seven starts at the position when he was called up to the big leagues in 1981, the Orioles were grooming Ripken to be a third baseman. He was too tall (6-foot-4), in the prevailing view, to be a shortstop.

Weaver thought differently.

“I think Earl loved the idea of having a power hitter at the position,’’ Steinberg said. “And why did he think Cal could be a good shortstop with his size? In his mind’s eye, he saw his childhood shortstop -- Marty Marion of the Cardinals.

“He saw Marion’s long legs and thought Cal with his long legs and long strides could cover as much ground as the pitter-patter strides of Mark Belanger (the Orioles’ former defensive whiz at the position) used.’’

At the dinner that summer’s night, Weaver reaffirmed the story. “Marty Marion was my guy,’’ he told Steinberg. Marion wore No. 4 as a player. Is that why Weaver wore No. 4 as a manager? “He gave me a big smile and nodded vigorously,’’ Steinberg said.

“Earl had announced long before he planned to retire after the ’82 season. ‘Charles, what were they going to do, fire me if I moved him?’ he said. ‘Nobody wanted me to do it. A manager today couldn’t do it. But if they fired me, I just would have started my retirement three months early.’’’

The move paid off in historic fashion. Ripken was in the starting lineup on July 1, 1982, at short, and started every game there until long after he’d broken Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played.

“But make no mistake,’’ Weaver told Steinberg. “Cal was a Hall of Fame shortstop. He’s not in the Hall of Fame just because of the streak. Remember, Cal made as many errors in one season (3 in 1990) as Brooks did in one inning once. I’m very proud of that.’’

As part of Steinberg’s intern duties in 1979, he put together pitcher-batter matchups for Weaver, putting the information on white index cards. Weaver was one of the first to rely on stats to an advanced degree. During the 1979 ALCS against the California Angels, Weaver went to consult his cards before selecting a pinch-hitter to bat against Angels reliever John Montague, but could not find a card for Montague. The pitcher had been added to the Angels’ roster late in the season, and the 20-year-old Steinberg had neglected to add him to Weaver’s file.

A call was made up to the press box, a frantic Steinberg quickly looked up the stats, and the info was delivered to Weaver in time for him to send John Lowenstein to the plate. Lowenstein hit a game-winning home run, but that was of small comfort to Steinberg, who went to Weaver’s office after the game, bracing for the worst.

“I thought my baseball career was over. With my head down, I said, ‘Mr. Weaver, I’m so sorry.’ He said, ‘Charles, come in here, have a beer.’ I said, ‘I’m so sorry.’ He said, ‘Shuddup, I got the stats in time. You won us the game.’’’

It was a lesson, Steinberg said, that he never forgot, and one that reminded him of another baseball figure who he first came to know in Baltimore and would become an ongoing influence on his life.

“Some people are loyal,’’ he said. “Some are fiercely loyal, and some are ferociously loyal. Earl was ferociously loyal, to his ballplayers in particular, but even to a 20-year-old intern.

“Volatile, irascible, aggressive, abrasive, with a relentless pursuit of winning,’’ Steinberg said. “Who did I just describe? Earl, yes, but also Larry Lucchino. Lucchino is Earl in a suit. I told him that once, and he said, ‘I’ll take that.’

“In both cases, people mistake that aggressiveness, intensity, volatility for anger. No, no, no. Animated, agitated, yes. The bark is not anger. The bark is for aggressiveness, and wanting to win. If you want to charge that Earl and Larry want to win every year without taking a step back, they are guilty as charged. That’s their nature.’’

And Weaver won, finishing first or second in all but one of 14 seasons that comprised his first tour as Orioles manager. (He returned in 1985 to manage parts of two seasons). There would be four pennants, one World Series title and five seasons of 100 or more wins. Lucchino, an executive with the Orioles for part of that run, had his model of excellence.

“My work with Weaver,’’ Steinberg said, “prepared me immeasurably for understanding Lucchino.’’

Having watched Weaver show no quarter in Ping-Pong games prepared Steinberg for the time he was pitching in a whiffle ball game and Lucchino popped out to the mound for what should have been the final out, until this: “Lucchino comes running out at me,’’ Steinberg said, “waving his bat like a sword.’’

One more Weaver story: In Miami, where the Orioles trained for years, Weaver ran drills on a small field adjacent to Bobby Maduro Stadium. In the bottom of the 12th in a game against a White Sox rookie manager and a young left-hander named Guy Hoffman, the Orioles executed a play that Weaver had taught them. The Orioles had runners on first and third. Doug DeCinces, the runner on first, took what appeared to be too big a lead. Hoffman thought he could pick him off and threw to first. Eddie Murray, the runner on third, stole home standing up.

The rookie White Sox manager? Tony La Russa. “Every spring after that,’’ he told Steinberg, “we practiced the ‘Guy Hoffman play.’’’

The play should sound familiar. Last May, under similar circumstances, Nationals rookie Bryce Harper stole home on Phillies lefty Cole Hamels. The Nationals manager? Davey Johnson, the second baseman on Weaver’s team known affectionately at the time as “Dum-dum,” probably because he was so smart.

Weaver was delighted, as he told Brooks Robinson at his dinner. “Brooksie, did you see what ‘Dum-dum’ did?’’ he said. “He did our play.’’