- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 2, 2002

BALTIMORE — The season began pretty much as expected yesterday at Camden Yards. The Yankees, emerging from the third-base dugout, drew a mixture of hoorays and hoots as they were introduced. The Orioles, running in from center field through an archway of orange balloons and along an orange carpet, received mostly polite applause. Possibly Greg Dease, the fan designated as the Orioles' "10th man" for Opening Day, was as well known to the gathered multitude as many of their players.

Then a 56-year-old man from Matoaca, Va., walked out onto the field, and the applause started. It built for perhaps two minutes as the man waved, took off his cap and perhaps shed an inward tear or two.

Johnny Oates was back in Baltimore, his baseball home. He and Frank Robinson are the only men to play for, coach and manage the Orioles in their 49-year history. But while Robinson struggles to keep the lame duck Montreal Expos afloat and alive, Oates faces a much deadlier challenge.

Less than six months after being forced out as manager of the Texas Rangers last season, Oates was diagnosed in November with an especially virulent brain cancer the same kind that killed Kansas City manager Dick Howser in the '80s and former Royals pitcher Dan Quisenberry in the '90s. The average survival time after diagnosis is 14-18 months, but Oates isn't counting the days. He is a man of great faith, and he is placing the matter in the hands of his God.

Most of the 48,058 spectators on the premises presumably knew of Oates' ailment. When the applause finally subsided, he stood a few feet in front of the mound and threw out the first ball to Orioles coach Elrod Hendricks, another former catcher. His toss would have been low and inside to a right-handed batter, but nobody cared.

In the press box, a man suggested, "That's the most emotional moment the Orioles will have all day."

"No," someone else said, "all season."

A few minutes later, Johnny Oates was ushered into an auxiliary clubhouse for a news conference. Above his head, out on the field, Scott Erickson was delivering the season's first official pitch in Baltimore, but this seemed more important.

"What were you thinking as you stood out there with the ball in your hand?" somebody asked.

Oates smiled. "I was thinking, don't drop it," he said.

Then Oates answered other questions for perhaps 15 minutes, until Orioles public relations director Bill Stetka signaled an end to the friendly inquisition. Oates spoke softly, almost inaudibly at times, and a smile played over his lips constantly as he talked about brain cancer, chemotherapy wafers, radiation treatments and faith. It was the smile of a person who has learned that he has the strength to endure anything, no matter how terrifying.

When he managed the Orioles from 1991 to 1994, Oates had a tendency to be uptight and nervous "but not as defensive as some of you thought I was," he told the assembled media yesterday. Now, in the hour of his greatest trial, he appears calm and not necessarily resigned to a tragic ending.

"They tell me I'm doing good," he said, referring to his doctors. "I feel good, and I plan to be here a long time. I know it will all work out for the best, whatever the best is. That's a pretty nice feeling. I have no trouble sleeping and no trouble eating, but I don't know if that's a good sign or a bad sign."

As Oates spoke, seated at a table, he swayed slightly from side to side. His face appeared thinner and his mustache whiter than a year ago. Otherwise, his illness had left no visible signs.

"In life," he said, "you go from challenge to challenge to challenge you persevere. The sun will come up tomorrow, and there's the eternal hope I draw from my faith. … At one time, I thought that winning a baseball game was the biggest challenge. [The illness] is in the Lord's hands."

Then Oates left to watch a little baseball. The Orioles staged a little miracle of their own in the fourth inning, when Tony Batista smashed a first-pitch fastball from future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens over the center-field fence with the bases loaded to provide a 4-1 lead. In the next inning, Melvin Mora lined a bases-clearing double, and it was 8-1. Momentarily, at least, the peasants were rising up against the king of the American League East. But after listening to Johnny Oates, nothing seemed impossible even to the most cynical of scribes.

Unknown at this juncture was whether the Orioles could hold the lead for four more innings, beat the lordly Yankees and perhaps serve mini-notice that 2002 would be a season of deeds rather than disasters. After all, the 1989 "Why Not" O's, coming off a 107-loss season, stayed in the AL East pennant race until the final weekend and Oates was a coach under Robinson on that team.

The trick, you see, is never to give up, and Oates won't. It is easy to do, and miracles are easy to accept when you believe the way he believes.

One of his remarks during yesterday's news conference said it all.

"His will be done."

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