For years, one of the most delicious scenes in baseball was watching the vultures circle Earl Weaver every spring.
The Orioles' little Hall of Fame manager would have another of his solid, veteran clubs in hand. But something would be messed up. Baltimore would be stumbling along below .500.
Day after day, Weaver would be asked about "the bad start" or the deficit "in the lost column" to the Yankees or Red Sox. Subtly, he'd be encouraged to show a lack of confidence in his players or betray a primal fear for his own job. Wouldn't he appreciate a trade for another pitcher? The Orioles were in big trouble, right? Right? Famous for his temper, Weaver would be baited with his 8-13 or 25-28 record.
"They hire me for my baseball judgment. That's all I have," he would rasp. "You make your decisions in the winter when you build your team. You just play it out in the summer."
Then, with almost raw defiance, Weaver would defend his team, insisting he was smarter than all the doubters combined and that, in the end, he'd be vindicated again. He was the genius. His team would prove its excellence over the long season. And the critics were all idiots.
Year after year, Weaver's enormous self-confidence -- and the patience to which it naturally gave birth -- rubbed off on his teams. They knew their hot streaks would come. Because Weaver believed it and they believed him. He might chew them out in the dugout, but in front of the world, he'd be the last to give up on them. "I gave Mike Cuellar more chances than my first wife," he would say proudly.
During many of those years, Ray Miller would watch Weaver. "He's the world's most patient impatient man," the pitching coach would say.
Now, we'll find out if Miller remembers the lessons. You never sell out your team. You picked 'em. You go down with 'em. Because it's the right thing to do. Because it gets the best results. And because you have no damn choice about it. You can't blow it up and rebuild in May.
"It's just Memorial Day," Weaver would say, "not Labor Day."
The '98 Orioles may be ancient and falling apart. Their $74 million payroll may be a joke. And owner Peter Angelos may be remembered as the bully boss who, in a snit, forced Davey Johnson to resign, then discovered why Johnson may have been baseball's best manager.
But we don't know that yet. There's not nearly enough evidence.
Losing Randy Myers to free agency, while spending an equivalent amount in payroll for Joe Carter, Doug Drabek and Norm Charlton, may be a classic case of replacing one star with three washed-up players. And by October, Oriole Park at Camden Yards may be shrouded in black.
But we don't know that, either.
What we do know already is that some in the Orioles hierarchy are reacting to their early season bumbles like self-destructive amateurs. They're close to panicking. It's pathetic. It's un-baseball. Or, rather, it's Steinbrenner baseball. Hey, Earl, call 'em in off the ledge.
"If we have to spend some money to get out of the predicament we're in, I'll be more than happy to do it," Angelos told The Post's Mark Maske this week. The "predicament" is a 16-16 start.
"I've got some concerns. There is a long way to go. But how long can we continue to say that? Pretty soon it won't be early in the season any more," said assistant GM Kevin Malone. "What's wrong? We're just not getting the job done. ... We're all frustrated. I never would have thought we'd be 16-16 after 32 games."
Even the manager and players are starting to sound like nervous suits in the owner's loge. "We haven't just been losing. We've been losing ugly," said southpaw Jimmy Key. After a bad loss, Miller mentioned the team's "$74 million payroll or whatever it is."
Once, the Orioles had a manager with exactly the kind of arrogant self-assurance that such ugly springs require. No, not just Earl. Davey Johnson was that way, too. In '96, Johnson's first Baltimore season, the Orioles also started 16-16. By this juncture, they'd already been humiliated by scores of 26-7, 13-1, 11-2, 11-6, 13-10 and 10-7. Yet they got pretty close to the World Series. One reason you want a manager with a big rep is so when he says, "We're good. It's gonna be all right," the players believe it.
Friday night the Orioles began a series with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays -- not far from Johnson's home in Winter Haven, Fla. Reporters might have cornered him for critical comments. Good luck. Davey's in Tokyo this week. However, the message on his home answering machine is so excessively cheerful, that it's pretty amusing. It might as well say, "If you have any new Peter Angelos jokes, please leave them after the beep."
Just a week ago, the Orioles had a genuine crisis that might have ruined their season: Mike Mussina was on the disabled list. Now, he's back. As long as the wart on his index finger doesn't return, there's no reason for the Orioles to get heart palpitations in May.