He's Managing Quite Well, Thank You

Joe Altobelli, Earl Weaver's successor, has the Orioles off to a flying start and is even getting along with Jim Palmer
May 15, 1983

The most obvious difference is right there in the standings. Under Earl Weaver the Baltimore Orioles were as well known for their stumbling starts as their fast finishes. But at the end of last week, Weaver's successor as Baltimore's manager, Joe Altobelli, had the Orioles just a half game off the lead in the American League East with a 15-11 record. If they continue to win, Altobelli may recede so far into the background that he will appear to disappear. And that would prove to be the biggest difference of all.

Unlike Weaver, Altobelli would like to convey the impression that the club runs itself: a ship with a confident and veteran crew guided by an invisible, almost unnecessary helmsman. Snacking at his desk after a win, Altobelli has the faintly sheepish air of a man who's sitting there only until the manager returns. As he talks about the game, you find your gaze resting on the broad expanse just above his black eyebrows, between his sleepy, hooded eyes. Joe, say it ain't so—there is something going on in there.

What's going on is a determination to resist every possible comparison with his predecessor, except perhaps that both are winners. Weaver is a short, noisy man who cast a long, noisy shadow, while Altobelli is a 6-foot-tall, slyly easygoing fellow trying to cast no shadow at all. On a banquet dais a few weeks after being hired, Altobelli pushed his chair back to let Weaver get by—and tumbled, chair and all, through a curtain onto the floor five feet below. Talk about deference. Altobelli, who was unhurt, later said that his first thought was to lie there and sue 'em but that he solved the problem at the next few dinners by chaining himself to the table.

Throughout spring training and during the Orioles' early road trips, Altobelli patiently fielded the same questions over and over. Yes, he'd say, Earl was a great manager, a living legend, a sure Hall of Famer; his four pennants and his won-lost percentage (.596 over 14½ seasons) spoke for themselves. No, Altobelli didn't mind the pressure of replacing Weaver. "If there isn't pressure in a job, the job's not worth it," he'd say. Rarely did he point to his own credentials—a managing record in the Oriole farm system as successful as Weaver's was there, and a National League Manager of the Year award in 1978 while at the helm of the San Francisco Giants, whom he skippered from late 1976 until '79. Questioned about the clubhouse gripes that soured Weaver's last years, Altobelli would reply mildly, "Gee, I don't know about that. I wasn't here." The latter is certainly true; he was the third base coach for the Yankees in 1981 and '82.

Altobelli will be 51 years old on May 26. Before turning to managing in the late '60s, he was a first baseman for 15 years, though he played in the majors for just 166 games with Cleveland and Minnesota. As the Orioles took batting practice before a home game with the Angels last week, Altobelli briefly stood in at shortstop; more often he'll take a few grounders—even the ones with hot sauce—at his old position. Then he came to the sidelines to chat up a few sports-writers. He grinned and gossiped, softly pounding his glove, cheerfully unmindful of the flecks of tobacco juice collecting on his white jersey. When the reporters turned for a second to get a look at Kathy Lioi, Miss Oriole 1983, Altobelli saw his chance and disappeared.

At the outset Altobelli said he'd be foolish to make changes in a club that knows how to win. Two rookies are prominent in the lineup, however. Altobelli gave the third base job to Leo Hernandez, a Venezuelan who hit a lot of homers in the minors. The stumpy Hernandez reminds no one yet of Brooks Robinson. But before installing him there, Altobelli and General Manager Hank Peters acquired what amounts to a Spanish-speaking coach and chaperon for him in 35-year-old Aurelio Rodriguez, who by rights should be sunning himself back in Mexico.

Rodriguez, still a mean gloveman, sometimes substitutes for Hernandez in the late innings, and off the field the two are inseparable. When the smiling Rodriguez comes through the door wearing boots, designer jeans and a flashy shirt, an identically dressed Hernandez is sure to follow.

More spectacular has been the introduction of center-fielder John (T-Bone) Shelby. Shelby platoons with 36-year-old Al (Bee) Bumbry, providing Altobelli with what he calls a delightful problem, because Bumbry is running and hitting again on rejuvenated legs, and Shelby, after a .395 April, was batting .364 last week and coasting for line drives with the grace of a Paul Blair.

As for the offensive stars of last year's team, they've picked up nicely where they left off. John Lowenstein, Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray are all hitting .300 or better. Altobelli gave right field back to Dan Ford, who spent the last half of a poor year on Weaver's nonperson list but was hitting .347 at the end of last week. "Last year you'd get to first base and almost sit down," Disco Dan says, "because you knew Earl wasn't going to run—steal a base, sacrifice, play hit-and-run. With Joe I can do a little bit of everything, and it helps when he smiles at you when you have a good game. Already I've talked to him more than I did with Earl all year."

This is the one difference between the two managers that all the Orioles immediately point to—Weaver kept his prickly distance, win or lose, while Altobelli, though far from gushy, has a personal touch. "When Joe said hello to me the first day of spring training, he broke the other guy's alltime career record," says Pitcher Jim Palmer of the man he loved to hate.

It isn't surprising that when spring began the Baltimore locker room was rife with Weaver revisionism. All the horror stories of 14 years were dredged up and exaggerated—how Earl reduced his players' talents to rigid stats, how he snubbed and screamed at them, even how he pushed one player downstairs. It was as if some group purge had to be undertaken, an expression of release from the man who drove the team to success. By contrast, here came the bland and genial Altobelli, saying hello and patting fannies. Both pictures are distorted. The Orioles will always respect Weaver for teaching them how to win. Now they want to prove they can do it without him—one explanation, perhaps, for the faster-than-normal start this year—and Altobelli is only too happy to stand back and let the players go.

The foundation of Baltimore's success, the key to the best won-lost record in baseball over the past 26 years, has been excellent pitching. But last year the Orioles ranked seventh in the league with a 3.99 ERA, their worst since 1956. Injuries were the principal culprit—Scott McGregor struggled with arm trouble and a loss of confidence, and Mike Flanagan was trying to regain the power on his fastball after shoulder-muscle atrophy in '81. But the pitchers may also have been discouraged by years of Weaver looking over their shoulders. Says lefthander Flanagan, whose 5-0 start is the best of his career, including his Cy Young year (1979), "Earl never asked what I wanted to throw. He'd look at his card and say, 'This guy is 9 for 27 against the fastball. Throw him a curve.' Joe gives us a little more credit to know what we have on a given day."

Besides announcing that he'd give his starters more freedom and that he'd go with a five-man rotation instead of four, Altobelli has said that he'll be more careful of his relievers' arms. Bullpen ace Tippy Martinez complains that he warmed up 300 times last year, sometimes as many as three times a game, en route to making 80 appearances. By comparison, says Martinez, the Yankees' Rich Gossage got up only once in a game in which he wasn't used. McGregor, whose 3-1 record indicates that the eight-hit game can be an art form, says, "Joe's broken in the starters a little easier. In the early games he took us out a little sooner than Earl would have and we were a little surprised. But it's helped that he's not pushing us."

Altobelli admits that he's relying heavily on the advice of Pitching Coach Ray Miller, considered to be one of the best in the business. Miller and Third Base Coach Cal Ripken Sr. were top candidates to succeed Weaver, and it's a tribute to the tight-knit Baltimore organization that both wanted to stay on when Altobelli, who'd been away from the Orioles for six years, got the job. The line on Miller is that at last his insights are being heeded, that he was frustrated and privately critical of Weaver's headstrong management of the pitchers.

Hinting at his past dissatisfaction, Miller says, "I have more input now. Joe and I talk. He'll say, 'What do you think about him?' as a pitcher is coming to the dugout between innings. Earl wouldn't ask you that question—he'd just rely on his baseball judgment. All in all, Joe was a great replacement, given the state of mind of this ball club. We're loose, we're veterans."

Altobelli and Miller present an interesting executive combination. Miller's nickname is Rabbitt, alluding to his big teeth, but under Altobelli it can also apply to the carrot Miller wields while the manager, hanging back in his office, threatens with the stick.

This carrot-and-stick approach was successfully applied in the case of Dennis Martinez, who until his second win last Friday night had Miller and Altobelli genuinely worried. Martinez' five defeats in April accounted for almost half the team's losses through Sunday. But where Weaver probably would have been screaming at him, Miller was working on his mechanics and Altobelli was blaming the cold weather and noting that Martinez, in terms of ERA, always starts the season slowly.

That changed, however, after Martinez was knocked out of a game in Seattle. Martinez publicly criticized Catcher Rick Dempsey and said nobody was allowing him to throw his game. This finally brought out Altobelli, who said, "I told Dennis it was time he took the brunt of this on himself and stopped blaming everybody else. I've had him before [in the minors], and sometimes he needs a kick. Flanagan and McGregor, they're going good—I stay away from them. But with Dennis sometimes you have to kick and then you let up. Kick and then let up." Asked if that wasn't a little like managing rats in a cage, he said, "Yeah, well let me tell you, they're pretty expensive rats."

Jim Palmer looks expensive, but not at all ratlike. He stands on the mound in Memorial Stadium facing centerfield. It's his first appearance of the two-week-old season; he missed his Opening Day start because his back was hurting after he was rocked by a University of Miami team in his last start of spring training. (Last week the same injury, aggravated, put Palmer on the disabled list until May 20.) Tall and slim-waisted, he's the only Oriole who listens to the anthem with his legs firmly together, like a proud Boy Scout. Looking closely, you can almost see the lines of his Jockey underwear through his pants. Palmer is a paradox. A no-contest Hall of Famer with three Cy Youngs, a tireless worker for charity, a celebrated model and future broadcasting star, a total all-American. Also: a complainer, a kibitzer, an egotist and—it's being whispered—cowardly for removing himself from important games. How will Altobelli ever be able to handle a man who usually got the last word in on Weaver, no slouch with the brickbat?

Altobelli so far has taken the tack of deferring to Palmer's every wish, particularly with regard to his numerous aches and pains. "We're each of us the best judges of our own bodies, and Jimmy especially so, with his experience and his great record," says Altobelli. "If he says he can't pitch, he can't pitch. As for the controversy he may cause, we'll live with it as they did in the past." Palmer is just as complimentary in return, saying, "Baseball's always been fun, but with Joe it's a little bit more fun. He understands that sometimes you're going to lose. Earl wouldn't. Everything he said was negative."

In his first outing Palmer gave up five hits and no runs over five innings against Cleveland and got his 264th career win. His most critical moment came in the second, with runners on second and third and two out, when Ron Hassey hit a screamer toward the leftfield wall. Lowenstein, staggering straight back in the wet outfield grass, caught up with it for the third out. It was a heart-in-mouth situation, but a glance at Palmer showed him walking nonchalantly toward the dugout, head down. He was crossing the line as the catch was made. Later he maintained he'd been worried and was on his way to back up third base, but a cynic could see that more likely he was positioning himself to be amazed if Lowenstein failed.

After the game Palmer met briefly with reporters. Briefly, because he was dressed in smart white underwear and a red T shirt. He looked tanned, handsome and glowing. Six feet away from the tight throng around him, Altobelli sat alone and unregarded, contentedly munching a sandwich.

In his second start Palmer allowed no earned runs in eight innings, though Tim Stoddard got the win in the 14th. But on April 26, pitching with a stiff neck, he lost to Oakland, giving up four runs in 3‚Öî innings. Four days later he scratched himself from a start, and after his back was examined in Boston by one of the orthopedists he consults, it was agreed that Palmer would go on the disabled list in the hope that his 37-year-old musculature might come around.

Altobelli looked on the bright side. About Palmer's Oakland performance he said, "He really could have got knocked around in there, the way he felt"—though Altobelli only learned the way Palmer felt after the game began—"but he didn't and that shows you something. I think Jimmy will come back and gain momentum." What he means is that it's too early in the season to take the chance of alienating Palmer, or anybody else on the team. Altobelli was fired from the Giants before the end of the '79 season because he lost control of a club that was losing. He was something of a disciplinarian then, and when he banned drinking on the team plane, some unhappy players drank anyway and had some loud things to say. After more second-guessing by his players and the press, the Giants' owner felt Altobelli had to go. On the Orioles' charter flight west last month, most everyone was in high spirits, literally, while Altobelli sat up front with his headphones, laughing silently at a comedy recording.

Says Peters, "When we decided on Joe we thought that his having been fired was a plus. We thought he might have learned something from that experience about handling players. Our players know that he's got emotions and a temper—he's got a bomb in there just like everyone else. But I expect he'll do things differently."

Altobelli doesn't have much to say about his San Francisco days except "I got into trouble there once because I was quoted as saying that I didn't want my players to be too gay. They told me that was the wrong word to use. Anyway, I don't want happy players, I want good, aggressive players. If frustration makes them better, well, I'll take it." But is he having fun now? "I never have fun," he says. "But I enjoy it. I believe in being content, but not happy. Happy leads to not caring very much."

PHOTOAltobelli has been making the right moves both on the bench and behind the scenes. PHOTOThough disabled, Palmer carries on with Rich Dauer. PHOTOShelby has stepped out of Bumbry's long shadow to play scintillatingly in centerfield. PHOTOAbout the only thing Rodriguez (right) doesn't do for young Hernandez is sign his name.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)