Friday, December 24, 2004

This may seem cold and irrational, but when I heard three years ago that former Baltimore Orioles manager Johnny Oates had brain cancer, it didn’t surprise me.

He was as tortured as any person I have ever known in sports, and, with the news he died yesterday morning at age 58, I hope he finds peace now.

I know he probably believed he would. Johnny’s salvation, what probably kept him from going over the edge, was his belief in God. He was a man of tremendous faith, and on this day when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, there is some solace in knowing that when he left this world, he was probably comforted by that faith.

Johnny could have been and should have been one of the best managers of his time. He knew the game, he loved the game and he knew how to manage it. A former backup catcher who lasted 11 seasons in the major leagues with the Orioles, Braves, Phillies, Dodgers and Yankees, he was a student of the game who learned from playing for Earl Weaver in Baltimore, Tommy Lasorda in Los Angeles and Dick Howser in New York. And like so many others who came up through the Orioles organization, he was strongly influenced by Cal Ripken Sr.

He sat on the bench and watched and listened to the best managers of his generation, and everyone who knew Johnny figured he was destined to be a successful major league manager. He did nothing to dispel that when he began managing in the minor leagues in 1982 and recorded winning seasons in Nashville, Columbus and Rochester. Once he took the managing job in Baltimore in 1991, Johnny certainly had a measure of success by most standards, finishing his major league managing career in Baltimore and Texas with a record of 797-746 and three trips to the postseason with the Rangers.

But he suffered through every win nearly as much as he did every loss. As a player who had to fight for the 25th spot on nearly every major league roster he was on, he managed with the mentality he was never quite good enough. Self-doubt consumed him and wound him so tight that sometimes his eyes would glaze over with fright when he was forced to defend a move he made in a game or simply had to talk about his team’s success before a game.

Once, before a game in Seattle early in the 1994 season with his team just two games out of first in the American League East, Johnny looked at a group of beat writers and said, “I hate coming to the ballpark because of you guys.” That was because he struggled with being questioned by reporters every day — whether he made the right move, whether he was playing the right guy — even though his knowledge of the game should have given him a level of confidence to dismiss second-guessing and explanations as an annoyance, not a curse.

Also, particularly in 1994, one question he struggled with was whether he was pleasing his new boss, Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos.

Johnny spent the offseason wondering whether he was going to manage the Orioles, even though he had led them to two straight winning seasons since they moved to Camden Yards in 1992. The same media that frightened Johnny urged Angelos to retain him, but Johnny was not equipped to deal with a neophyte owner who was attracted by self-confidence and repulsed by self-doubt.

Perhaps if Johnny had managed 15 or 20 years earlier — when managers were more protected by the front office, patience was more in supply and winning was just good enough — he might have thrived and realized his potential. But these were the 1990s, and managers had to be better than good. A poor country boy from Sylva, N.C., who had to battle just to hang on to a place on a major league roster year after year wasn’t equipped to move between the board room and the dugout. He was a compassionate man. He cared what people thought, sometimes to a fault.

The low point came in 1994 when Oates and Angelos battled over, of all players, third baseman Leo Gomez. Oates was playing Chris Sabo, whom the club had signed during the offseason, but he was struggling with injuries. Angelos wanted the manager to play Gomez, to the point that he called Johnny into his office and ordered him to make Gomez the everyday third baseman.

The next day, Gomez hit a two-run homer to give Baltimore a 7-5 win over Toronto. Angelos, in his private box, basked in the glow of his successful managing move, while Oates told writers in his office after the game that “I concur with Mr. Angelos wholeheartedly.” After most of the writers left, Johnny asked me to make sure I made it clear in the paper he was all in favor of playing Gomez, who was gone after 1995 and had a wonderful career in Japan.

If Johnny Oates had not learned enough by that point to know whether Leo Gomez should be playing every day, then nothing he ever would do was good enough. He was back to fighting for that 25th spot on the roster all over again.

Johnny was fired in the offseason, even though his team went 63-49 in that strike-shortened year and finished second place in the AL East. He was quickly hired by former Orioles assistant general manager Doug Melvin in Texas, and things went better for him there. But he was still tortured by insecurities despite his efforts to try to talk it into existence he was a changed man.

But he remained the same man who would come into a visiting city and go out on the street and pass out money to the homeless. The same man who, when I was hospitalized in Texas on an Orioles road trip, took the time to call from the dugout before the game to see how I was doing.

He was the same man who believed the child born on Christmas Day was his salvation. In the end, there is no greater security than that.

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