Earl Weaver sat in the Oriole dugout, cigarette in hand, cap pushed back like a little boy's. "We wanted to keep it quiet, but snakes in the grass and bleeps wrote the story," he rasped. Weaver paused, half smiling at his gruffness. "But what the hell are you gonna tell your friends? They want to know what you're going to do next year."

Weaver acknowledged last week what many had long suspected: After two terms and 17 seasons of managing the Orioles, he will not return in 1987. The news had leaked out one drip at a time into the papers, until Weaver—who had been hinting at his decision for weeks—finally confirmed it. To what effect? His team yawned, his city shrugged, and Oriole owner Edward Bennett Williams didn't try to dissuade him. The name of one Billy Martin surfaced. O, Baltimore.

The season wasn't supposed to end this way. Not for Weaver, not for the Orioles, not for the American League East. Just as the division was gathering into a tight pennant pack early last month, the Red Sox pulled a switch, reversed the polarity and sent their six rivals racing for the bottom. Baltimore, just 2½ games out on Aug. 5, fell into a 9-27 tailspin that dropped the team from second place to last and left it 7 games under .500 and 18 behind Boston as of Sunday. The Orioles now face their first losing season since 1967 and possibly their first last-place finish ever. They are suddenly a team without pitching, defense, direction or spirit. Even worse, they seem to be turning into the Yankees.

"It seems strange to see an Oriole team not in a pennant race in September," said former Baltimore mainstay Don Baylor last week, as his Red Sox took three of four from the Birds on the strength of 12 home runs. "It's just not like the Orioles to lose the way these guys have lost."

The Baltimore way was always steady: Learn fundamentals, pitch and field well, keep Earl sparking at every cylinder. That combination made the Orioles baseball's winningest team over the last 30 years and helped Weaver to six division titles and five 100-victory seasons.

This year the system has mysteriously broken down. Oriole pitchers have been pounded for an average of five runs a game in the last month. No righthanded starter has won since Aug. 14. The team's offense is ninth in the league in scoring—down one run a game from last season's average—and the defense ranks ninth too. The Orioles' 10 third basemen have combined for 35 errors and only 35 RBIs. "I don't think any of us envisioned that this could possibly happen," said Baltimore general manager Hank Peters.

Maybe even the 56-year-old Weaver put too much faith in the old Oriole magic. When he came out of 20 months' retirement in June 1985 to replace the fired Joe Altobelli, he expected to turn a floundering Baltimore team around. He couldn't. He has tried all his old tricks, worked hard and managed as well as ever—"I haven't lost a bleeping thing," Weaver declared last week—yet he has lost more games than he has won. "I don't know why it didn't work."

Friends say Weaver didn't feel quite the same around the Baltimore clubhouse. There were new faces, new attitudes. Sometimes Weaver would feel a chill of resentment as he paced around the locker room. Yet he insisted that his decision to quit was "as simple as a man not wanting to work anymore."

"Earl's tired," said veteran catcher Rick Dempsey. "He's tired of having to beef up this team. He used to kick butt—jump all over us, yell, scream, push, push, push us to be the best. But that takes a lot of energy. It was hard to watch him go through the frustration. I'm glad he's leaving. I'm glad for him."

Certainly no one could blame Weaver for the Orioles' problems. Injuries have plagued the pitching staff and two key starters—first baseman Eddie Murray and centerfielder Fred Lynn—all season. Lynn and Murray, in fact, have been in the lineup together only 72 times. But that's not the half of it.

The big problem in Baltimore is creeping Yankeeism. Williams, the renowned attorney, is a tough, impatient, tremendously competitive owner who seems to admire the way George Steinbrenner seeks results. He once called the Yankee organization the best in baseball and has reportedly said that Martin, an acquaintance, is the type of manager he would like. It's no secret that Williams doesn't get along with Peters, a proven but conservative baseball man.

Williams is simply not cut from traditional Oriole cloth. Last year he called Altobelli a "cement head" and let the manager twist in the wind while he wooed Weaver back with a $500,000 offer. Williams griped about the farm system, the deficiencies of which, he says, forced him to spend $12 million on free agents. Nonetheless, despite all the talk about Martin, insiders say Williams might yet grant Peters one (last?) request and go with the sentimental choice, longtime third base coach Cal Ripken Sr.

"He [Ripken] has given 30 years to this organization," says Dempsey. "To give it to anyone else just wouldn't seem fair." There is also this to consider: Cal Ripken Jr. has one year remaining on his contract, and if his father doesn't get the manager's job, the All-Star shortstop will probably go elsewhere.

When Weaver saw Jim Palmer last week in the Oriole dugout, he asked his former pitcher and adversary, "Are you here to drop off your resume?" Actually, Palmer says he would consider returning to the O's as pitching coach for Ripken.

And then there's the rather important matter of Murray, in many ways the heart of the team. Williams disturbed the Orioles' nest last month by telling reporters that Murray—who's hitting .303 but has only 14 homers—is having a bad year and should consider an off-season conditioning program. Murray, hypersensitive to criticism, reacted strongly. Already upset at his treatment by media and fans and at the team's handling of his various ankle, groin and hamstring injuries, he went to Peters and asked to be traded.

"Eddie doesn't want to be part of a Yankee organization," says one Oriole source. "He doesn't want to be in a situation where people are sniping or hollering at one another." Fortunately, the Orioles haven't come to that—yet.

PHOTOThat's Earl, folks, sitting among the remnants of a season and a comeback gone all wrong. PHOTOMurray's eyes are no longer smiling, not after insults were added to his many injuries.

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)