- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Back in the '40s, when he was being generally nasty on behalf of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Leo Durocher supposedly said of rival manager Mel Ott, "Nice guys finish last."

William Wordsworth, the wordsmith, and Billy Joel, the piano man, came to pretty much the same conclusion: "Only the good die young."

It is possible to dispute both allegations, of course, but not in the case of Johnny Oates, a certified nice guy.

The former manager of the Orioles and Rangers has indeed finished last, with Texas in 2000 in the truncated American League West.

And though he is still smelling the flowers at his home in central Virginia, it is likely that Johnny Oates will die much too young from brain cancer. The possibility of divine intervention should not be discounted, because Oates, 57, is a man of great faith. But the original diagnosis was that he would be gone by this past January, new and inoperable tumors are eating away at him, and as far as we are given to know, his days are dwindling fast.

So what are we to learn from the example of this good man battling valiantly against an unbeatable enemy and thanking his God for every day he has left?

Perhaps the answer is perspective. Perhaps he can teach us how to reorder our priorities to make better sense. This is important to each of us, because as John Donne put it, "And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee." All of us will hear that bell although, please, not in the primes of our lives as in his.

Nearly 13 months ago, Oates threw out the first ball on Opening Day at Camden Yards, doing honor with his presence to the team whose owner first humiliated and then fired him by fax nine years before.

After the ceremony, reporters crowded into a small room under the stands to gently interview Oates, whose illness had been diagnosed five months earlier. He said many inspirational, courageous things during that 15-minute session. Among them were these: "In life 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. But [the illness] is in the Lord's hands."

As a marginal catcher who batted .250 over 11 seasons with five teams, Oates had no security as a major league player. When he took over the Orioles after Frank Robinson was fired in 1991, Oates lacked self-confidence to the point that he asked the media to call him "John" because it sounded more dignified. After impatient, autocratic Peter Angelos bought the club in 1993, Oates tiptoed on the thinnest ice imaginable. His wife, Gloria, commented at times how intense he was about his job how it dominated his life and thoughts, perhaps beyond rationality.

Then, during his first season as manager of the Rangers in 1995, Gloria became ill in Savannah, Ga., on a trip to join Johnny in Florida for spring training. He drove all night to her bedside, and "when I walked into that room, the Lord spoke to me and changed my heart."

The divine message was all about you guessed it priorities. And never again, from that day to this, has Johnny Oates' life revolved solely around a mere game.

By nature, sports are competitive and major league professional sports most competitive of all. Players are taught young that the game, each game, is the thing and nothing had better interfere that only the strongest, the most single-minded, the toughest survive. And perhaps, by implication, that those who get paid for playing or teaching others to play are above rules and regulations that constrict the rest of us. They are special people.

This is the purest bull, of course, but too many of those people never learn it until the lights dim, the music fades and, sometimes, the arm of the law beckons.

No matter how much money they bring in, no matter how many fans go bonkers from joy or heartache, the games that people play are just that games and not very important in the overall scheme of things. This is precisely why fans go bonkers because we know in our hearts that the games and championships don't really matter, no matter how much we pretend.

Only when a Johnny Oates or Lou Gehrig gets sick, when a Hank Gathers or Len Bias dies shockingly, do we realize that it is the people, not the games, that matter. And every time mortality overtakes an athlete or someone in athletics, we hear the Reaper's footsteps more clearly behind our own.

In the end, each of us is so awfully vulnerable. For many, such as Johnny Oates, faith is the only possible response.

I keep thinking back to something else this good man said on Opening Day 2002 at Camden Yards.

"His will be done."

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