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Earl Weaver preached moneyball before it became 'Moneyball'

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Earl Weaver’s last great season as a manager, 1982, coincided with my first as a young baseball fan, growing up in Baltimore. So in a sense, he has always been the manager — the Platonic ideal of the species — for me.

What I didn’t know until later was that this fierce little man held a similar place of honor for many fans who embraced the sabermetric movement, the search for data-driven answers to baseball’s great questions.

You might not guess this if you picture Weaver only as the peppery character who roared from the dugout to kick dirt on the shoes of umpires. That guy — immortalized in videos set to the soul classic “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” —  seemed as old school as old school gets.

But the classically gruff exterior obscured a real genius for maximizing the potential of a 25-man roster. Earl Weaver was moneyball decades before “Moneyball” existed.

It was Bill James, the father of sabermetrics, who helped me appreciate the depths of Weaver.

The Earl of Baltimore loved players who got on base and hit home runs. He abhorred small-ball strategies that wasted outs. He trumpeted these theories long before Billy Beane brought them into Hollywood vogue.

But far beyond that, he was a maestro at using the talent afforded him, by his own club’s farm system, by the rules of the sport and by the oversights of decision makers on other clubs.

Here’s James on Weaver: “He used everybody. Probably more than any other manager in history, Weaver had carefully designed roles for every player on his roster — not because he cared about players but because he cared about the games. It was important to Weaver to have a player matched up in his mind with every possible game situation.”

That’s from “The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers,” which offers the best deconstruction of Weaver’s managing style I’ve read, aside from the manager’s own, seminal “Weaver on Strategy.”

“I have nothing against being called a push-button manager,” Weaver told co-author Terry Pluto. “Early in my career, it might have bothered me. But think about it. What else does a manager do but push buttons? He doesn’t hit, he doesn’t run, he doesn’t throw, and he doesn’t catch the ball. A manager has twenty-five players, or twenty-five buttons, and he selects which one he’ll use, or push, that day. The manager who presses the right buttons most often is the one who wins the most games.”

It sounds simple, but it’s amazing how few managers think about the game so cleanly. That’s the trick of genius, I suppose, simplifying that which others complicate.

Weaver tried to avoid sentimentality. He didn’t particularly wish to be close with his players, lest emotions interfere with a tough decision about cutting someone.

That said, there was something wonderfully optimistic about his managing style. As James astutely noted, Weaver did not look at a player and see all the things the guy couldn’t do. He saw what the player could do and figured the best way to fit that talent into his overall plan.

As a result, he squeezed great production from countless players who had been discarded by other organizations.

My favorite example of this was probably his use of John Lowenstein, who had never been able to establish himself as regular in nine seasons with the Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers.

If Weaver had insisted on using either Lowenstein or Gary Roenicke as his everyday leftfielder, he probably would have been stuck with an average or below-average player in a key offensive spot. Instead, Weaver fused them into a hybrid monster, Lowenstein batting against right-handers and Roenicke against left-handers, that added up to the most productive leftfielder in the league in 1982.

Lowenstein had a .415 on-base percentage that year at age 35 and Roenicke wasn’t far behind at .392. Neither man ever played as well under another manager.

Weaver’s decision to play Cal Ripken Jr. at shortstop was also, essentially, an act of optimism. Weaver didn’t see Ripken’s 6-foot-4 frame and think, “Oh, he can never play middle infield.” That would have been common baseball wisdom at the time. Instead, Weaver saw a big kid with unusual gifts, both mental and physical, and figured that if he could stick a guy with Ripken’s offensive skills at a position dominated by slap hitters, the Orioles would start every game with a leg up.

Even now, I judge not only baseball managers but managers in everyday workplaces by the Weaver standard. Do they look for what employees do best and find suitable roles? Or are they always stuck on what a person can’t do?

Far too many fall into the second camp.

Though Weaver was not a direct mentor to current Orioles manager Buck Showalter, I couldn’t help thinking of him as I watched Showalter pull all the right strings during last season’s startling run to the playoffs. The Orioles cycled an incredible number of players through Baltimore last summer, and Showalter demonstrated an equally incredible facility for creating roles to suit each call-up.

Relief pitchers and pinch hitters never wasted weeks, sitting around unused. This in turn created an incentive for Orioles’ minor leaguers, who knew that if they performed well in Triple-A Norfolk, they would not only get called to Baltimore, they would play.

This was classic Weaver-style managing, and he seemed to enjoy being around the ballpark last year, whenever he came up to Baltimore for one of the statue unveilings celebrating the 20th anniversary of Camden Yards.

When Weaver’s own statue was unveiled on June 30, he jokingly thanked sculptor Toby Mendez for making me “look like Buck.”

“I think he got where he got because he was not going to leave any stone unturned,” Showalter said of Weaver that day.

That’s exactly right. Weaver studied players so he could get the best from each. He studied rosters so he could stretch them in ways unfathomable to his peers. And he studied the nine innings of a game, so he could seize the strategic advantage whenever it was available.

There could have been no better teacher for any thoughtful fan who grew up cheering the Orioles.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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