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JOHN OATES, OUT OF THE SHADOWS Orioles' new manager has spent a career watching and waiting

THE BALTIMORE SUN

John Oates is not clear on the details, but he is far too organized to believe in something as capricious as fate and far too unassuming to think that his reputation might have preceded him.

He remembers the day he was fired by the Chicago Cubs afte four years on the major-league coaching staff -- and the day after, when the phone rang with a minor-league managerial offer from the Baltimore Orioles.

"I don't know why they called, but I've got a feeling that [Cubs general manager] Jim Frey had something to do with it," Oates said. "He called and told me I wasn't going to be back. It wasn't a day later that Doug Melvin called me."

Frey had nothing to do with it, other than to set up what would be the pivotal moment of Oates' professional career by turning ++ him out into the cold in late 1987. Oates had everything to do with it, and yet he was ready to give credit where credit was not due. Perhaps that reveals something about the man.

Melvin, the Baltimore Orioles' director of player personnel and minor-league operations at the time, did not need references: He had been in the New York Yankees organization when Oates was managing the Class AA Nashville Sounds and the Class AAA Columbus Clippers. Oates, 45, had spent the formative years of his playing career in the Orioles' minor-league system before embarking on a 10-year playing career that included jobs with five major-league teams (including the Orioles). He was a known quantity. The only thing Melvin didn't know was whether Oates would take the job.

"It was a matter of whether he was willing to take a step back for the opportunity to take a few steps forward in the future," Melvin said.

Another defining moment. Baseball is a game of egos. Major-league coaches don't like to become minor-league managers -- it is supposed to happen the other way around. But Oates took the job and took the Rochester Red Wings to the 1988 International League championship in his only year with the Class AAA team.

"It was evident to me in 1988 that John Oates would be a major-league manager someday," said Orioles general manager Roland Hemond at the news conference to announce that "someday" had come.

Melvin wasn't looking that far ahead. He was trying to re-instill confidence in the minor-league system at a time when the major-league club was coming off its worst season (67-95 in 1987) since 1955. Things would get worse -- a lot worse -- for the Orioles before they got better, but Oates turned the Red Wings into a championship team in no time.

"I was very confident that he was the right guy at a time when the organization was struggling," Melvin said. "He brought a winning attitude to the club.

"Greg Biagini was the double-A manager at the time, and I was going to promote Greg, but when the opportunity arose to get someone of Johnny's caliber, Greg understood. He knew his time would come."

Biagini's time came a year later, when Oates joined Frank Robinson's coaching staff and quickly became the Orioles' manager-in-waiting. The waiting ended for Oates 10 days ago, when he was named manager.

No, Jim Frey didn't call the Orioles the day he fired Oates in 1987 -- at least not the way Melvin remembers it -- but he did send a congratulatory telegram the day after Oates realized a career-long dream. No hard feelings. Never were.

The player

To understand Oates the manager, it probably would help to understand Oates the player. He spent five years in the minor leagues and 10 years in the majors, never acquiring marquee status and never expecting it.

"I don't think I ever thought I was going to be a star," Oates said. "I knew I needed to get an education. I never knew how good I was. I just knew I loved to play."

He got his degree in health and physical education from Virginia Tech the year after the Orioles made him their first choice in the January 1967 free-agent draft. He never dreamed he'd still be in the game 24 years later, much less the manager of the closest major-league team to his boyhood home in Prince George, Va.

But Oates learned early on that ability is not everything, that the mental part of the game is as important as the physical. This was fortuitous, since he was not a gifted athlete.

"He took a very sensible approach to the game," said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, who was 10-0 with Oates behind the plate in 1972. "There are guys like Roger Clemens who have an abundance of ability. But a guy like Johnny Oates, he wasn't in the major leagues on ability. He was there on ability plus preparation."

Oates batted .250 during his major-league career. He hit 14 career home runs and never had more than 27 RBI in any major-league season. If Robinson couldn't relate to players without Hall of Fame talent -- one of the criticisms leveled at him at the time of his firing -- Oates should relate to them all too well.

There are successful managers who had a lot less success during their playing careers. Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda was 0-4 in his brief career as a pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but he has won two World Series, four pennants and six division championships in his 14 full seasons as manager. Sparky Anderson played one major-league season and batted .218, but he has won seven division titles, five pennants and three World Series in 22 seasons.

Oates got some of his baseball education playing for Lasorda, who once described him as "one of the most intelligent catchers in the game." Oates also played under Earl Weaver and Dick Howser, among others. He took something from each.

There was plenty of time to watch the manager at work. Oates played 100 games in a season only once. He had two opportunities to play full time, and both seasons were cut short by injuries. He played 60 games or fewer -- sometimes a lot fewer -- his final six seasons at the major-league level.

"He was a bright young man," Lasorda said. "You could see that he had the tendencies to be a good manager someday. He helped our [pitching] staff a lot. I remember one occasion where he was hurt and shouldn't have been playing, but he went out there and played because we really needed him to. That is the kind of guy who is going to be a great leader for them, and I don't say that about many people.

"He was a great guy to have on your ballclub. He was a great handler of pitchers and he was very on top of the game. I think he'll be very good for that club."

The coach

Oates spent four years with the Cubs, serving in a variety of coaching roles before losing his job in the front-office shuffle of 1987.

He worked under Frey and Gene Michael, but when Frey took over as general manager and brought in Don Zimmer as the new manager, Oates was one of the guys who fell through the cracks.

"Gene Michael told me John was the best bench coach that he had ever been associated with," Hemond said.

Oates also was credited with turning Jody Davis into a respectable defensive catcher at a time when he was one of the most valuable players in the Cubs' lineup, but that didn't keep him from falling victim to baseball's buddy network. Frey, who was a coach with the Orioles when Oates played for them, probably would have retained him, but Zimmer wanted someone else.

"Sometimes an organization makes the mistake of letting good people go just because they were part of the scene," Melvin said. "I had known about the Cubs' situation -- that there might be changes. I heard he was let go. In my job, you keep a list of good baseball people, and John was high on mine."

In Baltimore, Oates was low-profile during his two-plus seasons as first-base coach, but it was obvious that Robinson considered him an indispensable part of the staff. His obsession with preparation and organization freed his predecessor to concentrate on the bigger picture, although that would leave Robinson open to criticism that he was not enough of a hands-on manager.

Oates acknowledges that he long has coveted a managerial job, but he never did anything that could be construed as undermining Robinson's authority or reputation. He seemed genuinely saddened that his first opportunity to manage came at Robinson's expense.

The minor-league manager

The day that Oates was hired to manage the Orioles, the search began for insight into his ability to deal with players and day-to-day responsibilities of running a ballclub. Players were polled in the Orioles and Yankees organizations -- where he managed in the minor leagues -- and never was heard a discouraging word.

Is this guy too good to be true, or what?

"He was real open and honest," said Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly, who played for Oates at Columbus for part of the 1983 season. "He made the game fun."

Oates managed Nashville to a Southern League championship in 1982. He also took the Clippers to an 83-57 record and a regular-season title before falling short in the playoffs.

Many of the current Orioles played for Oates at Rochester, where the Red Wings also won a championship. No one there had anything but praise for the way he handled the team. Hemond even gives him some of the credit for the way the youthful Orioles performed during the 1989 season.

"You judge minor-league managers on the improvement shown by the players," Hemond said, "so the following year was indicative of the job that John did with the players. I remember saying many times that they gained valuable experience the previous year in a winning situation, and that enabled them to handle the pressure of a pennant race."

Pitcher Bob Milacki recalls that Oates always made a point of making things clear to the players, almost to the point of letting them manage along with him in the minor leagues.

"He would go down the bench, letting everyone know exactly what he wanted," Milacki said. "He likes to make things happen. Everybody on the bench was into the game, because they knew what was going to happen."

Of course, Oates managed three winning teams, so the players figure to have largely positive recollections. There is no book on how he will deal with failure, but he got his first taste of it when the Orioles lost his first four games.

The new manager

The hunger strike ended Tuesday night, when the Orioles ended Oates' four-game losing streak with a 5-2 victory over the Cleveland Indians at Memorial Stadium.

Oates lost 9 pounds in his first four days as manager, dropping from 183 pounds to 174 as the club dropped deeper into the American League East cellar.

"Eating just hasn't crossed my mind," he said at the time. "I'd look up and it would be afternoon and I'd think, 'Oh, I forgot to eat.' I just haven't been hungry."

Lasorda has Ultra Slim-Fast. Oates has the Orioles.

If the pressure of his new position already was wearing on him, he showed no other outward signs of stress. The Orioles, after all, had no place to go but up after going 13-24 under Robinson.

This is the leading role he has been waiting to play since his career as a perennial understudy ended at about this time in 1981. Ten years in the making, he has achieved his highest goal. How can there not be some pressure? Is this not the defining moment in his professional career?

"I've given that some thought," Oates said. "I think I'm as prepared for this job as I'm ever going to be. If at the end of the year or at the end of 15 years I get my walking papers, I can look them in the eye and say I was prepared."

The Oates file

* 1968--Graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in health and physical education.

* Sept. 17, 1970--Singled in first major-league at-bat, for the Orioles against the Senators' Dick Bosman. Played in 5 games, with 18 at-bats and 5 hits that season.

* 1972--Played first full year in majors with Orioles. Hit .261 in 85 games.

* 1973-74--Played with Braves.

* 1975--Traded to Phillies in May. Spent rest of '75 and 1976 with Phillies.

* 1976--Traded to Dodgers. Played with Los Angeles through 1979.

* 1980--Released by Dodgers and signed by Yankees. Retired in 1981.

* 1982--Managed Yankees' Class AA team in Nashville, Tenn., to a second place finhish (77-67) in the Southern League. Nashville won the playoff championship.

* 1983--Managed Yankees' Class AAA team in Columbus, Ohio, to a first-place finish (83-57) in the International League.

* 1984-87--Served as dugout, bullpen and third-base coach for the Cubs.

* 1988--Managed Orioles' Class AAA team in Rochester, N.Y., to a first-place finish (77-64) in the International League.

* 1989--Named Orioles first-base coach.

5) * May 23, 1991--Named Orioles manager

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