I just got off the phone with former Orioles pitcher Scott McGregor, who was on the cruise ship when Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver passed away early Saturday morning.
The passengers were headed back to Fort Lauderdale from Haiti on the final leg of the trip. McGregor received a call around 1:30 a.m. that Weaver had collapsed on the floor of his cabin. McGregor stood in the hallway while a physician spent more than 30 minutes trying to revive Weaver.
"Basically, for the most part, he had a cough and flu thing and he was coughing quite a bit, but he was typical Earl," said McGregor, who pitched for the Orioles from 1976-1988. "He kept rallying and was attending all the events. He was his normal self. We were playing a game of Jeopardy and he was arguing the score, and it was hilarious. I threw him out of the room at that point. I said, 'You're outta here, Earl!' And he laughed. He was typical Earl.
"Basically, the last couple of days there, he didn't eat much and the cough really hung on him. He went through the whole Friday night thing. We had dinner, there was a cocktail party before. He had his walker on the cruise so he didn't schmooze with people as much, but he was still great with people when they came to the events. He went to the cocktail party and dinner with everybody, and then he went to bed and woke up coughing, from what I understand. He collapsed and that was it.
"The doctor was next door and said, 'Mac, he's gone.' It was an instant death, like a heart attack or an aneurysm. If I'm going to go, that's the way to go. No pain. He was with Marianna, who held him. And he was with the cruise family that's been with him for 25 years or so. They were like a second family to him. Everybody knew him so well.
"I know he wasn't feeling well and maybe he pushed himself a little too much, but that's the way he was with these things. I've been with him for 10 or 11 years on these cruises and he doesn't miss a thing. He sucks it up and he's with the people. I guess it was just his time."
The Orioles held their annual FanFest later that day at the Baltimore Convention Center. It seemed like the worst possible timing at first, but the event - which drew more than 18,500 fans - actually turned into a heartwarming celebration of his life.
"I thought about that, too," McGregor said. "I called Jimmy (Palmer) and I tried to get hold of Buck (Showalter). My first thought was I need to let Buck know, let everyone get their heads around it and talk about how they wanted to do it. And I thought it could end up being the best thing. The whole city was there. They can honor him and not take away from what the team did last year.
"I know he was so proud of what the team did. I'm thrilled that he got to see what the team did, and the statue ceremonies. I'm sure the PR department was like, 'Wow, we're so glad we did that.' Timing is everything. And he's better off now."
McGregor said it was a blessing that Weaver passed away as the ship was returning to Fort Lauderdale and Marianna could get back to her family as quickly as possible.
"It was such a wonderful cruise, and then the whole thing came to a standstill on Saturday," McGregor said. "It was very solemn. I don't know if there's a good time to pass, but if you're going to pass, he was with his wife and he was around friends on a cruise."
Ask McGregor what Weaver meant to him professionally, and he could go on for hours.
The Orioles acquired him in a 10-player trade with the Yankees on June 15, 1976, and he stood on the mound as Cal Ripken snatched a line drive to end the 1983 World Series.
"My God, Earl was a very integral part of my career," said McGregor, who was 138-108 with a 3.99 ERA in parts of 13 seasons with the Orioles. "We were laughing about it the other day. We had a service for him at 5:30 on Saturday and I said the one thing about Earl is, when you played for him, you hated him, but as time went on and you got to know him, you loved him. And he definitely knew baseball and knew what I needed to do to become a pitcher.
"He told me, and we laughed about it the other day, he said the first time he saw me pitch for the Yankees in spring training, he went up to Hank Peters or Frank Cashen, whoever was the general manager, right after the game and said, 'Get that kid. I love him.' He told me that. He said, 'The first time I saw you, I wanted to get you. We tried for years.'
"He stuck me in the bullpen and after the first year he said he realized that I needed to come up with off-speed stuff. He came up to me one day in 1977 and said, 'Hey, you're going to throw batting practice and I want you to throw your curveball in the 60s. I thought, 'I can't throw that slow.' We had a radar gun and I asked what that pitch was and he said '74.' I thought, 'Man, I have to take five more mph off it.' That's where I ended up with a hesitation in my delivery. That's the only way I could do it. I'd stop my motion at the top. And he said, 'That's it.' He was the one who recognized that I needed to change speeds because I wasn't going to be a dominant pitcher. He's the one who made me come up with that stuff and it turned my career around.
"He trusted his pitchers and let them pitch. He put me out there every four or five days. He put me in the playoffs. He believed in me."
As time passed, McGregor discovered that Weaver had a softer side that he often hid from the public and his own players. He feels blessed to have gotten to know Weaver better through the years and to penetrate that rough exterior.
"He was something," McGregor said. "We found out as time went on, as feisty as he was... We knew through Elrod (Hendricks) and the other coaches that, obviously to be a manager in the big leagues, you can't be friends with your players, and he never let on how much he cared until we'd start whining and Elrod would stop us and say, 'Guys, you don't understand. When he's away from you, all he talks about is how much he loves you and respects you.'
"Now I would see it on cruises, with fans on the ships. They were regular Joes and he just loved them. He cared for them. He bent over backward to sign whatever they could possibly have signed. Most of them were there for the statue thing. He really embraced his celebrity and loved who he was, and he made people feel good."