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On Opening Day — Remembering Earl

[Reprinted from The Baltimore Sun April 2, 2013]

            April, in these parts, is irresistibly transformative.  Vibrant life and color rise up and relentlessly overwhelm a drab winter’s landscape, inspiring notions in the human heart of renewal and redemption.  And with it comes another baseball season, and all its manifestations of new beginnings and the grand possibilities that await in the lush green days ahead.

            So it was supposed to be 45 years ago.  1968 had dawned with the stunning reports of the Tet Offensive, a sobering reality that stretched deep into March, concluding with a sitting president declining to seek re-election, and bringing to us a reluctant familiarity with places called Khe Sanh, Hue, Lang Vei  and My Lai.  Our weariness longed for April’s explosion of daffodils, bright green leaves, and baseball.

            But the traditional month of promise had hardly begun when news arrived that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated while standing on the balcony of Memphis hotel.  It was a dagger to the heart of the struggle for equality and justice, and our city erupted in an explosion of long accumulated frustration.  We suddenly found ourselves in a warzone of riots and fire bombings that played out against the imposition of a general curfew enforced by uniformed soldiers, leaving us gripped by varying degrees of fear, anger and disbelief.  Many businesses and neighborhoods would never be the same.

            When it was mostly over, we ventured out cautiously and curiously past the smoldering ruble of mangled storefronts, which stood in stark contrast to the spring weather and peaceful calm of Holy Week and spring break.  The Orioles opened play at Memorial Stadium almost immediately after the decrease in violence with a victory over the Oakland As, a win tempered by the palpable discomfort we now felt as we passed along our own streets.

            Only a few short weeks later, with the riot fires fresh in our minds, Senator Robert Kennedy was also felled by an assassin’s bullet, his calls for social justice an end to poverty seemingly having also taken the blow the left him lying on a hotel floor. As we moved toward summer, it was as though madness had become the rule of the day.

            It is somehow fitting that, amidst all this turmoil and uncertainty, a figure should appear on the local stage who would profoundly impact this community’s self-image and confidence.  During the All Star break, the Orioles fired manager Hank Bauer, and replaced him with a relatively unknown coach named Earl Weaver.  The franchise that had astonished the baseball world by sweeping the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the 1966 World Series had staggered through 1967 to finish nine games under .500.  The team that began play in those troubling days of 1968 had been frustratingly inconsistent.  By mid-season, they were over .500, but ten-and-a-half games out of first place.

Enter Earl Weaver, the diminutive firebrand who had spent 19 years as a minor league player or manager before reaching the major league coaching staff with a pronounced chip on his shoulder.  He could be unapologetically antagonistic, bellicose and profane, but, above all, he was supremely confident in his abilities, obsessively rigorous in his dedication to fundamentals, and unwaveringly passionate about the game and his players.  He was a superb match for the town that would come to embrace him.

The record is an undeniably amazing one.  That ‘68 team won 91 games and finished in second place.  During the following 15 seasons, Mr. Weaver’s teams finished first or second 13 more times.  They won 90 games 11 more times, and 100 games 5 times, securing 7 division championships, 5 pennants and a World Series.  He had talented players, but he made them better.  In fact, he used the entire roster in a way that maximized every player’s ability to contribute to a winning team.  Consoling and criticizing as necessary, he motivated them to become greater than the sum of their parts.

But his most significant contribution was coming to us in dark times and giving us something of which to be proud, and, more importantly, a vision of what we could become and accomplish through passion and commitment to the excellence.  That is the essence of the inspiration of sports, and Earl Weaver inspired, not only his players, but a community to believe in itself and its possibilities.  His death this winter is a reminder of what the Orioles can mean to this town and its future.  Buck Showalter and his players appeared to recognize that last year in their magical return to prominence.  May they keep that in mind as this new season begins and possibility fills the air of another April.