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HEEEERE'S JOHNNY: A YEAR ON THE JOB Oates proves he's his own man as Orioles manager

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The biggest book on Johnny Oates' desk has nothing to do with the tendencies of certain opposing pitchers. It's not about the life and times of Casey Stengel. In this enlightened age when most managers hang around the office in more than their underwear, "The Man in the Mirror" hasn't yet gone to No. 1 on the list of must-reads in the clubhouse.

It was given to Oates last week by Glenn Davis, which might seem appropriate, or perhaps odd, considering the way life has gone for the oft-injured first baseman since he joined the team. Maybe Oates wanted a better handle on the perplexing Davis, or maybe he just wanted to better understand himself.

"It says the way I prioritize my time is to decide who will cry at my funeral," said Oates, sitting in his office at Camden Yards last week.

Before he became manager of the Orioles a year ago yesterday, Oates' life wasn't nearly as complex, nor the demands on his time as great, as now. But since replacing Frank Robinson, Oates, 46, has watched his life change dramatically and, despite the team's success this season, not always for the best.

"I think the first thing that comes to mind is that I'm not as nice as I was a year ago," said Oates, his relaxed, down-home manner belying that opinion. "When I took the job, I tried to please everybody -- my family, the players, the front office, the fans, the press. I lost 16 pounds, some hair and a lot of sleep."

Not to mention his first four games. He took those defeats hard, much harder than a man who had spent nearly all of his adult life in baseball probably should. He was worrying about everything, thinking about what he could do differently, who he should be playing, whether or not he was cut out for the job.

Most have forgotten those first few days after Oates took over, the memories of quick three-run deficits and subsequent defeats vanished amid the hysteria that has overtaken Baltimore this season. But Oates can remember it clearly.

"I took the job naively, thinking I could do it all," he said.

He couldn't, and the team lost 71 of 125 games Oates managed.

So he did what any smart manager with a new two-year contract would: He got himself a better team, surrounded himself with coaches whose opinions he respected and seemingly made all the right moves. Or at least enough of them to make the Orioles the biggest surprise of the 1992 season, last week's losing streak notwithstanding.

He got free agent Rick Sutcliffe, a former Cy Young Award winner, to stabilize a pitching staff filled with awesome promise and brought in Dick Bosman from the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings as his pitching coach. He gave Brady Anderson a chance to be an everyday leadoff hitter. He chose Mark McLemore over Juan Bell. He used his bench and juggled his lineup.

"He came in with a good idea," said Cal Ripken, who has struggled after his MVP season in 1991. "It's obvious that he's in complete control. He's confident about what he has to do. He's put the players in a position to be successful, by using certain people in certain situations. It's a long season, and to be successful, you need 25 guys."

Said Oates: "I haven't done all of these things by myself. As far as impact on the ballclub, the players are the one who do the job. I honestly believe that my role as manager of this ballclub [is minimal]. But there's been a lot of self-satisfaction. Since the first day of spring training, these players have dedicated themselves to having a great season. I've just sat back and watched. I've had to make some decisions, but the success of this ballclub is the responsibility of the players."

This isn't exactly a revelation. Oates is doing what Earl Weaver did for most of his remarkable career as Orioles manager, though a lot less gruffly. He is doing what Tom Lasorda has done 'D throughout a sure-to-be Hall-of-Fame career with the Los Angeles Dodgers, though a lot less demonstratively. He doesn't need to holler, or hug, to get his point across, though he's not afraid to do either.

"He manages like Earl, but not to the extreme of Earl," said veteran pitcher Mike Flanagan, who, aside from Ripken and Storm Davis, is the only player left from Weaver's first 14-year tenure. "He manages like Tommy, but not to the extreme of Tommy."

Influenced by both, Oates' style is reminiscent of neither. Sure he tries to use all 25 players on the roster, but he doesn't burn them out or send them to the doghouse as Weaver was wont to do. And he tries to stress the importance of a family atmosphere like Lasorda's Dodgers, but he admits that he doesn't know all the names of his players' kids.

Truth is, the late Dick Howser had the most impact on Oates. It came toward the end of Oates' non-descript but resilient career, as a member of the 1980 New York Yankees. Those were the Yankees of Reggie and Billy, of Goose and Gator, of Nettles and Piniella. In a year that New York won 103 games -- Howser was fired after losing to the Kansas City Royals in the playoffs -- Oates appeared in 39 games, had 64 at-bats and hit .188.

"Howser made me feel just as important as Reggie or Piniella or anyone else," said Oates, who retired after the 1981 season and began his managing career in the Yankees farm system. "My biggest regret is that I didn't enjoy my playing career. I spent 10 years worrying whether I'd be released, why I was batting eighth. As a manager, I want my players to enjoy it while it lasts."

It was there, in New York, that Doug Melvin first met Oates. Melvin, now the Orioles' assistant general manager, was a batting practice pitcher and advance scout for the Yankees. They talked baseball for hours, on the road or in the clubhouse, and Melvin used Oates' knowledge of both leagues to help prepare his reports. After their careers headed elsewhere, they kept in touch through mutual friends.

One of them was Gene Michael, who brought Oates with him to Chicago as a coach. "I remember Gene saying that Johnny was the best bench coach he ever had," said Melvin. "When he was let go by the Cubs, I told Roland [Hemond] that we had to get Johnny to Baltimore. The tricky part was convincing Johnny to go to Triple-A for a year. The other tough thing was convincing our Double-A manager [Greg Biagini, now the Orioles first-base coach] not to leave after he didn't get the job. It's all worked out."

The confidence Oates exhibits these days was evident in that one year at Rochester. The team won the 1988 International League championship, and Oates, stamped as a future managing star by the Orioles front office, came to Baltimore as a coach under Robinson.

"There's not a whole lot of difference, but you could do a little more down there as a manager -- make things happen a little more than you can up here," said pitcher Bob Milacki, who, along with Mark Williamson and Jose Mesa are the only current Orioles who played for Oates in Rochester. "But he still gets a lot out of his players. When you have a manager who has confidence in you, you're going to excel."

Those who watched Oates as a player see basically the same person that he is now. Outwardly friendly, the competitive fire is never too far from view. As Melvin said: "Even though he didn't play a lot, the losses hurt. He can be funny, but he also can get hot. He'll admit that he can be very stubborn, but he'll also listen. He's a great communicator."

Said first baseman Randy Milligan: "He told everybody what their roles would be in spring training and he hasn't swayed from that at all. If you're not going well, some managers will put you on the bench and forget about you. What Johnny tells you is going to happen."

Unlike Robinson, Oates is a presence in the clubhouse and on the field during pre-game. He learned from Weaver how to carry on a conversation with reporters and watch batting practice at the same time. He learned how to have compassion for those who were not playing, not only from Howser but through his experience as a backup for 10 years in the majors.

It is difficult to characterize Oates' managing style. Last season, faced with situations in which they were forced to come from behind most of the time, the Orioles could hardly be aggressive. This season, at least until last week, the team has been able to take a few more chances. But Oates believes that there is room for both, and the idea is to keep the opposition off-guard.

"I'm a firm believer that there's sound managing and that there's managing by the seat of your pants," he said. "The one thing you don't want to have to do is play by the other guy's book."

"I relate it to a game of pool," said Flanagan. "Johnny's always thinking three balls ahead."

Just as Oates didn't get carried away with his team's astounding start, he isn't that concerned with the way it has crashed back to reality with this week's losing streak. He hopes to keep his children's description of him -- "They say I'm consistently blah," said Oates -- in mind when approaching his team.

It is only May, and Oates knows how many teams have started the season like a rocket and flamed out before the All-Star break. He also sees the potential of a team that he believed, coming out of spring training, had a chance to be a factor in its division.

"You can overmanage some things and try to be too overbearing," said Oates. "I think that can create problems. I'm very fortunate, being a young manager and not having the testing-type players. We have a good bunch of athletes. They respond to discipline, to encouragement."

And to Johnny Oates, who must like what he sees when he looks in the mirror these days.

Oates' managerial career

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..1st.. .2nd.. Playoff

Yr. Club.. .. ..League.. ..W-L.. .Pct. half..half..result

'82 Nashville.. Southern..77-67 .535.. 4th.. 1st.. Champions

.. .. .. .. .. (Double-A)

'83 Columbus..Internati-..83-57 .593.. 1st.. .. .. Lost to

.. .. onal (Triple-A).. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. West Tidewater

'88 Rochester..Internati-.77-64 .546.. 1st.. .. .. Beat Tidewater,

.. .. onal(Triple-A).. .. .. .. .. .West.. .. ..lost to Ind'polis

'91 Orioles.. .American.. 54-71 .432.. 6th

.. .. .. .. .. League.. .. .. .. .. .. East

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