Well, it's a bit of a blue Christmas in Birdland this year. For one thing, there are no glittering acquisitions to be found under the Orioles' tree, waiting to be unwrapped and used in 2005; all the big free-agent signings and trades so far have been made by other teams while the O's have stayed on the sidelines.
Johnny was good
But the really sad news is the death of Johnny Oates yesterday at age 58 from brain cancer. Oates, who played for the Orioles at the beginning of his itinerant career as a catcher and returned to manage the team some twenty years later, was one of baseball's good guys. His down-home demeanor and diligence to detail made him liked and respected by nearly everyone in the game, from fans and players to fellow managers. Everything he did was rooted in his strong Christian faith; although he had a workaholic streak, he acknowledged that God and family came before baseball in his life. This was never more evident than when he took time off in 1995 to be with his wife when she was suffering from depression. In a competitive sport such as baseball, decent men like Oates are a rare quantity. His passing is deeply felt in Baltimore and especially in Texas, where he had his greatest success.
It should not go unmentioned that in addition to those admirable personal qualities, Oates was a first-rate manager, one of the best of the '90s. He won Manager of the Year awards from the Baseball Writers' Association of America in 1996 and from The Sporting News in '93 and '96. After replacing Frank Robinson at the helm of the Orioles in May 1991, Oates proceeded to post winning records with the inaugural Camden Yards teams of 1992-1994. He compiled an overall record of 291-270 for the O's.
But his run in Baltimore was undone by a new, demanding owner, Peter Angelos, who thought Oates's modesty—which masked a chronic insecurity that both tore away at him and drove him to work harder—was a detrimental trait in a team leader. After Baltimore's second-place, 63-49 finish in the strike-interrupted 1994 season, Angelos decided that the Orioles needed to upgrade and threw his skipper overboard with one year remaining on his contract. Oates resurfaced in Texas, where he won three division titles in the next five years. He ended up 506-476 in a little over six seasons there, and 797-746 overall, before resigning in the midst of a disappointing start in 2001. His immediate replacement in Baltimore, Phil Regan, stayed for just one season and led a team that badly underachieved in 1995, going 71-73. Angelos's decision to fire Oates foreshadowed a decade of tinkering and turnover that has exasperated Orioles fans to no end.
A hard worker with a light touch
Oates was a smart manager who was always well prepared. He seemed to get more out of his talent than most managers. Perhaps this was because he understood the worth of underrated, blue-collar players like Randy Milligan, Mark McLemore, and Rusty Greer, giving them ample playing time when not all managers would have. But he also managed MVP winners Cal Ripken Jr. (1991), Juan González (1996 and 1998), and Iván Rodríguez (1999), so he could maximize the return from his superstars as well. Groomed in the Oriole school headed by Cal Ripken Sr. and Earl Weaver and seasoned by ten years as a minor-league manager and first-base coach, he was rarely guilty of overmanaging. He knew that the most important thing a manager does is pick the right players to put in the lineup for each game. Consequently, he did not overuse one-run strategies such as the sacrifice bunt and the hit-and-run.
If Oates's managing record has a blemish, it is the lack of a world-beater team that went all the way to a league championship; his three division winners in Texas were knocked out of the first round of the playoffs by the Yankees. Assigning blame is a tricky undertaking, but Oates's Ranger clubs were always short of pitching, and his Oriole squads usually lacked in the attack. Had he stayed in charge of the talent-rich Orioles from 1995 onward, he definitely would have known how to deploy that talent successfully, although just how successfully can never be known. The main question is how much he would have been bothered by the constant pressure from the owner and the weight of increased expectations.
Other takes on Oates
I did not know Oates personally or cover him regularly, but here's a sampling of the remembrances of his life from those who did. Unsurprisingly, the most extensive coverage comes from the Texas papers:
- “A man of faith, life of integrity” (Peter Schmuck and Bill Free of the Baltimore Sun; if you want to dig into the Sun's archives, Schmuck wrote an in-depth feature about Oates entitled “John Oates, Out of the Shadows” that appeared in the paper on June 27, 1991)
- “Underdog Oates was a treasure” (Tom Singer of MLB.com)
- “Former O's Manager Oates Dies” (Jorge Arangure Jr. of the Washington Post)
- “Maybe he finally can find peace” (Thom Loverro of The Washington Times)
- “Former Rangers manager Johnny Oates dies” (Evan Grant of The Dallas Morning News—requires free subscription; more coverage is available on their site)
- “JOHNNY OATES | 1946-2004 'A great baseball man ... a great human being'” and “Faith, above all” (Fort Worth Star-Telegram—requires subscription)
- “JOHNNY OATES 1946-2004: 'A special person'” and “Oates never was defined by what he did on diamond” (John Markon and Bob Lipper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch)
- “Oates was a battler ... and a good man” (Ken Rosenthal of The Sporting News); also, in a lengthy article that appeared in TSN on April 22, 2002, Oates described his life and his battle with cancer.
So long, Johnny. You will be missed.