- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2003

MATOACA, Va. Johnny Oates never used to notice the squirrels gobbling birdseed on the deck behind his home. He rarely saw the woodpeckers pounding at the pines or scaring smaller birds from the feeders.

Even when he was home, he really wasn't. His wife, Gloria, used to tell him that he always was preoccupied by his job as a major league manager.

That was before the brain tumor. Before doctors told the 57-year-old man and his high school sweetheart that his future might be measured in months.

"It's the same squirrels, the same birds, the same lake, the same grass, but now you see them," Oates said, looking out at his spectacular yard that ends where Lake Chesdin begins in Chesterfield County, 30 miles from Richmond.

"It's something like smelling the roses, and we don't until it's too late," he said. "Too bad I didn't start 15 years ago."

The look on his face briefly suggests regret, but he wipes it away and speaks of life after baseball and making certain his days ahead however many mean something.

Johnny Oates knew the news was bad before he heard it. The giveaway was the nurse's arm going around his wife before the doctor spoke.

The twitching in his left shoulder that he blamed on three straight days of bad golf and that sudden inability to speak during a radio show was glioblastoma multiforme. Brain cancer.

Untreated, he probably had four months to live. With treatment, the doctor said, the average life expectancy was about 14 months.

Oates opted for surgery, and Dr. Henry Brem, chairman of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital University, removed the tumor in November 2001, replacing it with chemotherapy wafers to deliver time-released cancer-killing drugs.

Radiation left Oates bald on the right side, and he gradually lost the use of his left arm and hand.

"When the doctor told me I'd have deficiencies on my left side, I said 'Hey, doc, I know God doesn't make deals … but you can have my left arm if you give me a couple more years,' " Oates said. "He laughed and walked out, but it's looking like that."

Brem marvels at Oates. "He has never had a moment of feeling sorry for himself or being angry," he said. "He's just been consistent from day one, grateful to his family, grateful to be alive and focusing virtually entirely on the positive aspects of what is a very, very difficult situation."

Oates has started a new form of chemotherapy after the tumor recurred, but he remains upbeat and comforted by his faith. "I don't have any worries," he said.

He uses a cane to shuffle around and has days when he hardly makes it off the sofa in his sunroom.

Other days, he's up at 4:30 a.m., off to a Promise Keeper's meeting at 6 a.m. and dozing off watching a favorite Western or a baseball game in the afternoon. He's also known to attend local high school games.

He spends many mornings reading the Bible and sharing devotions with his wife of 35 years, looks forward to visits from children and grandchildren, and chats with friends.

Regular callers include Montreal manager Frank Robinson, Philadelphia coach John Vukovich and former big league pitchers Tommy John, Jim Palmer, Jim Kaat and Ken Brett, who also is being treated for a brain tumor.

"When you look at it, it's a blessing," Oates said, noting his disease has allowed him to appreciate the time he has left.

This brush with mortality isn't the first for Oates and his wife.

In 1995, Oates was at spring training in his first year as manager of the Texas Rangers. During a trip to Florida, Gloria and daughter Jenny stopped at a hotel in Savannah, Ga., and suddenly Gloria had trouble breathing. His wife was panicked, overburdened with the stress of running a family and "ready to sign off," Oates recalled.

"She was the mother, the father, everything," he said.

Jenny grabbed the phone to call her father, but Gloria stopped her.

"She told her, 'Don't call him. Baseball doesn't even stop for death,' " Oates said. "I think that's one of the greatest quotes of all time for a man to listen to. That's been my thing that keeps me going now, that she is here and I don't have baseball."

The medics stabilized Gloria. Oates drove through the night from Port Charlotte, Fla.

"As soon as I walked into that room, the Lord spoke to me and changed my heart for baseball," he said. "Up until that point, I was never going to get out of baseball.

"And when I walked through that door, baseball took second fiddle in my life. I knew I had to get her home and get her healthy."

Instead of going back to Florida, Oates took his wife back to Virginia and spent nearly a month at her side.

"Our marriage has been so much better since," he said. "Unfortunately, she had to get sick to get me closer to her, and I had to get sick to get baseball out of my life."

Oates has played baseball since he was 11, starting with his rural North Carolina church team, a T-shirt his whole uniform.

In his first organized game, Oates watched in agony from center field as his team's catcher let pitch after pitch roll all the way to the chicken-wire backstop.

After one inning, his team trailing 13-0, Oates' coach asked if he could try catching.

"I said no," Oates said. "But my father was standing at the fence right behind me, and he said, 'Yes, you can. Put on the gear.' "

Oates was a catcher throughout his 11-year major league career in Baltimore, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and the New York Yankees, retiring after the 1981 season when a coach asked him to come in early during spring training to learn to bounce throws to second base.

"I still don't know how I got to the big leagues because I wasn't that good," Oates said. "I was a slap hitter. I kept my mouth shut. I couldn't throw a lick."

Cal Ripken Sr. gets much of the credit, in Oates' mind. Ripken would stand on the pitcher's mound with a bucket of balls and hit one-hoppers at him.

"He said if I could block them, I could block any pitches," Oates said. "I never would have made it to the big leagues without Cal Sr."

He managed Baltimore from 1991 to '94 and Texas from 1995 through the first 28 games of the 2001 season. His teams in Texas made the first three postseason trips in franchise history, earning Oates the AP's Manager of the Year Award in 1996.

Jeff Zimmerman's eyes well up when he's asked about his former manager, recalling how Oates' belief in him helped get him to the major leagues when he was at spring training with Texas in 1999.

"He is a man of integrity, a man of belief," said Zimmerman, now in his fifth year with the Rangers. "When a man with a track record like his shows such faith in you, it can't help but build your confidence."

Rangers manager Buck Showalter played for Oates at the Class AA Nashville Sounds of the Southern League in 1982, Oates' first year as a manager.

"He's the best I ever played for," Showalter said. "When you've played for so many guys and been exposed to so many people, you try to be careful with that, but Johnny, I tell you what, he's a solid, good man."

That first year, Oates' team won the championship.

Every two months, Oates and his wife go to Baltimore, stopping at Medical College of Virginia Hospitals in Richmond to see the doctors monitoring his physical condition, then continuing on to have his tumor checked out by Brem.

In April, Brem discovered a recurrence of the tumor and prescribed more chemotherapy. Then they went to an Orioles game.

"Every day, not just for him, but for everyone, is a gift," Gloria Oates said. "He's always made us all laugh, but now, to hear him with his belly laugh, it's like music to my ears."

And Oates is enjoying life too much now to worry about the future.

"Really, there's only one day of the week that has any importance, and that's today," he said. "You can't do anything about yesterday and you can't do anything about tomorrow. It's just today."

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