After the initial sadness I felt when I heard Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver had passed away Friday night, I chuckled at my memories of being around the man 30 years ago.
I didn't really know Weaver, but I did spend 5-6 days a year with him in the early 1980s when the Baltimore Orioles played in Oakland. He'd mostly say "Hi" or "Wash this, kid" or "Go see if (A's manager) Billy (Martin) posted his (expletive) lineup." Just one of the perks of working for the A's as a batboy and clubhouse attendant for the visiting teams then. But those brief visits were enough time for me to get a glimpse into what made Weaver so fascinating.
And one of my favorite keepsakes from my days at the Coliseum involves my living proof of Weaver and his love-hate relationship with eventual Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer.
First, let me set the scene.
It was early in the 1982 season and these were frustrating times for the Orioles, and my memento shows it. Weaver's team came into Oakland with a 10-16 record. Palmer had an ERA over 7.00 and Baltimore's heralded rookie, Cal Ripken Jr., was hitting .169 and wouldn't begin his record consecutive games played streak for another two weeks.
In short, they were a mess.
I remember tensions rose in the Orioles clubhouse on an early May evening after Baltimore blew a five-run lead and suffered an extra-inning loss to the A's. Palmer, a proud, All-Star starting pitcher, had been summoned into that game by Weaver as a middle reliever. Palmer gave up two runs and after the game he made sure everyone in the clubhouse knew he was angry.
He yelled at Weaver, who was in the adjacent manager's room. Weaver, who never turned down the chance to participate in a profanity-laced argument, stormed into the locker room, shouting and cursing at Palmer as the two moved closer to each other. From players, to coaches, to clubhouse workers, to batboys, we all stopped and watched these two grown men scream at one another.
I'd seen a lot of stuff in my years working at the Coliseum, but never had I seen a more surreal episode than this.
After taking their argument behind closed doors in Weaver's office, Palmer emerged a couple minutes later, still with the look of anger on his face.
An hour or so later, with the players having left, Weaver and his coaches were still in the locker room while us workers washed uniforms and cleaned shoes. Oh, and one player remained. Cal Ripken Jr., the man who would forge his own Hall of Fame career, was still sitting at his locker, half dressed, with a bat in his hands and his head down. His struggles at the plate seemed to be weighing on him.
I'll never forget seeing the compassionate side of Weaver as the little general walked past Ripken's locker, tapped his rookie on the knee and said, "Get some rest, kid and let's get 'em tomorrow."
Ripken contributed a hit the next day in an Orioles win over the A's. Then, on the last day of the series, Ripken hit a home run in another loss to Oakland.
But I'll always remember that final day of the series as the day I got my souvenir of the Palmer vs. Weaver war.
As often happened, I was asked to take a baseball around the locker room and get it signed by the team. It was truly one of the more trying tasks we had, mainly because some players would get annoyed with having to sign in their relaxed setting.
I asked Palmer, who was much nicer to us than he was to his manager, to sign the ball. As he started to sign it, I saw him committing the cardinal sin of any major league baseball player — he was signing it on the "sweet spot" of the ball! Everyone knows that spot is reserved for the manager's signature.
I quickly blurted out to Palmer, "No, not there!" He shot a smirk my way, handed the ball back to me and walked away, knowing full well that he had infringed on Weaver's territory.
After a few minutes of debating whether or not to ask Weaver to sign the ball, I realized turning in an autographed team ball without the manager's autograph would only get me in trouble. So, I walked into Weaver's office and politely handed him the ball and asked him to sign.
He then looked at the sweet spot and saw Palmer's signature and immediately spewed out a string of four-letter words stacked upon six- and seven-letter curse words. Fortunately, his anger wasn't directed at me.
Still angry, nonetheless, Weaver then proceeded to squeeze his signature into the sweet spot, right on top of Palmer's.
"There, here ya go," said Weaver, satisfied that he'd one-upped Palmer.
I wasn't giving up this baseball, I told myself then.
When I heard of Weaver's death Saturday morning, I replayed this story from 30 years ago in my head. Then I went into my closet, pulled out that signed Orioles baseball, looked at the sweet spot and just smiled at the memories I'll always have of that man.