Thankful to God for days he has

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MATOACA, Va. - In the days after he resigned as manager of the Texas Rangers last May, Johnny Oates would sun himself on the scenic waterfront of his rural Virginia home and wonder about his future.

His managerial credentials were solid, so there surely would be other chances to guide a major-league team to the World Series, and the rare opportunity to be home in the summer with his wife, near his grown kids and his two young grandsons, quickly took the sting out of an unhappy ending in Texas.

Oates, after 35 years in the high-stress caldron of professional baseball, had found something even better than a world championship ring. He had found a contentment he wasn't sure would be waiting for him outside the game.

Maybe that's why it all seems so unfair.

Five months later, doctors told Oates he had a stage four brain tumor - a particularly aggressive form of cancer known as glioblastoma multiforme - and the concept of inner peace took on a whole new significance.

He had most of the tumor removed in November, but the chances of a complete recovery are small. The likelihood of a recurrence is nearly 100 percent.

Oates and his family have spent the past three months coming to grips with that frightening prognosis. It is not a pretty picture, and yet Oates - held closely by his family and his strong Christian beliefs - seems determined to make the rest of his life a beautiful illustration of the power of faith.

"Everybody on this Earth is going to die, and nobody knows when," Oates said. "Whatever time I have left, whether it be four months, 14 months or four years, I want it to mean something."

This is no battlefield conversion. Oates grew up in a churchgoing family and became a committed Christian during a chapel service at the New York Yankees spring training camp in 1983. He could not have imagined how much that would mean to him 18 years later when a doctor walked into the examination room with an X-ray and some very disturbing news.

The diagnosis

The multiforme tumor is one of the most resistant to conventional medical treatment because it almost always grows back after surgery and radiation therapy.

"It's not a matter of if it comes back, but when," said Oates.

He consulted with specialists in nearby Richmond, but was steered to brain cancer pioneer Dr. Henry Brem of the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Brem performed surgery Nov. 20 to remove as much of the tumor as possible and insert chemotherapy wafers into the brain to fight the cancer.

Since then, Oates has completed a course of radiation therapy in Richmond and cleared one major hurdle. His first two-month radiological examination since the surgery, Feb. 1, showed no new tumor growth.

He and his wife, Gloria, who were high school sweethearts, hope April 1 will come and go the same way.

"It's a journey," said Gloria Oates, as she lovingly massaged her husband's partially bald scalp. "I got something from the American Brain Tumor Association that said, 'This is your new normal life.' That's how you have to look at it."

The cancer has taken a toll. Oates has lost the hair on the right side of his head, the result of radiation treatment and surgery. He has lost much of the strength in his left hand because the tumor was near the area of the brain that controls motor skills.

Otherwise, he said he has experienced surprisingly little pain and discomfort, except for the lingering fatigue that follows a course of radiation therapy.

He looks like he's been in a fight, and he has, but he clearly is not beaten. There is a twinkle in his eye as he ponders his daughter Jenny's coming wedding in August, or the pending arrival of a third grandchild (to son Andy, and his wife, Susannah) in October.

Even in this seemingly dark time, Oates talks like a man with a bright future, and it is not because he is fooling himself.

"He knows he has a malignant tumor," said Brem. "I don't think he has any false illusions about his future, but I don't think anyone can predict the future for an individual person."

Some patients survive only a few months, but the wafer therapy and other advanced forms of treatment are keeping others alive for years. Oates picked the right doctor and hospital. Brem teamed with Massachusetts Institute of Technology bioengineer Robert Langer to develop the chemotherapy wafers, and Hopkins is a leading research hospital in the battle against brain cancer.

It is one of two national brain tumor testing centers (the other is at the University of California, San Francisco) that coordinate clinical trials on an array of possible treatments. If the tumor recurs, as it almost certainly will, Oates will have options.

"What we're able to do at Hopkins is provide new treatments to patients with brain tumors very quickly," Brem said. "There are other treatments available, but he doesn't need that now because he is getting good results.

"I think it's important to emphasize that his treatment came about because other people have gone through clinical trials. We are actively involved in clinical trials to further the treatment of this disease."

Comfort from Jeremiah

Oates has put his trust in Brem, who he calls "an instrument of God," but his hope comes from the knowledge that someone even greater is going to take care of him - one way or the other.

Pressed for a bit of scripture to describe his situation, Oates summons from memory a passage from the Book of Jeremiah:

"For I have a plan for you, not to harm or hurt you, but to give you hope and a future."

"I don't know how I could make it without the peace the Lord has given me," Oates said. "It's a peace only he can give. There are always going to be those who are skeptical, but I am thankful for the mercy and the peace."

He also is thankful for a life lived beyond the wildest expectations of a young boy who grew up in rural North Carolina without electricity and indoor plumbing. The Oates family would move north to the Petersburg, Va., area, where Johnny became a high school baseball star. He would play college ball for Virginia Tech before the Orioles drafted him as a catcher in 1967.

Back home again

During the five months that followed his decision to leave the Rangers, Oates had never really been very far from baseball.

Through the miracle of satellite television, he was able to watch the Rangers play almost every day and maintain a long-distance mentor relationship with new Rangers Manager Jerry Narron.

There was no bitterness about his departure, because it came more or less on his own terms. The Rangers, despite the off-season acquisition of superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez and several other veteran stars, were going nowhere in the American League West, where they were 11-17 and already 10 1/2 games behind the first-place Seattle Mariners. Oates could see that things weren't likely to change on his watch.

"I didn't get fired, but I was going to," he said. "By the All-Star break, I was going to be fired."

The more obvious it became, the more strain it put on both Johnny and Gloria Oates. One night in Cleveland, he returned to the hotel room to find her crying her eyes out.

"We spent the weekend talking about it," he said.

"When we got back to Texas, the team wasn't playing any better. We lost a Thursday afternoon game, and as I was walking up the tunnel after the game I just felt it was time to resign. I just felt comfortable that it was what I was supposed to do."

Oates stops short of viewing that moment as part of some grand design to get him back home among his loved ones. But he clearly is happy for the time he has spent bonding with his oldest daughter Lori's two young sons, Collin and Ethan.

Last summer he enjoyed his only extended period at home since the Johnson administration.

"It was my first summer without a baseball uniform since I was 11 years old," Oates said.

He figured he'd probably put one on again at some point, that 55 years old (now 56) is a little young to retire. He even fantasized about the possibility of someday returning to manage the Orioles, the organization that gave him his first professional contract and also gave him his first chance to manage at the major league level, in 1991.

Oates had reached the World Series as a player twice with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1977 and 1978. He had managed the Rangers in the playoffs three times, but ran into a roadblock called the New York Yankees dynasty on all three occasions.

Maybe someday he would get another chance, but in October he settled for a role as off-site analyst on radio during the exciting World Series between the Yankees and eventual world champion Arizona Diamondbacks.

It was during one of those radio interviews that he began experiencing the speech problems that signaled something was terribly wrong.

"I was on the radio and suddenly I couldn't talk," Oates said. "I knew what I wanted to say but I couldn't say anything. Gloria took me to the hospital in Petersburg, and they thought I was having a seizure or something. That's when we found out I had a golf ball in my head."

Coming to terms

What a terrifying moment it must have been, but Oates insists that he was not frightened at all.

"When the doctor showed me that picture, I don't really remember anything but peace," he said. "Hey, what are you going to do?

"I've told Jerry [Narron], there were a lot of times that I gave you a sign and then changed my mind and took it off. This is one you can't take off."

Narron, one of Oates' dearest friends, was devastated by the news, but he was not surprised at how Oates accepted it.

"He's got a tremendous faith," said Narron, who coached under Oates for the Orioles and the Rangers before replacing him in Texas. "The day he got the biopsy results, Johnny did not ask why. He was not bitter in any way. There was just a lot of strength there. Tremendous strength."

For some, great adversity is a test of faith, but Oates resolved to use his illness to illustrate the importance of God in his life.

"He wants people to know where his strength comes from," said close friend Mike Roberts, who teaches adult Sunday school at a local church and drives Oates to a weekly Promisekeepers meeting.

"He's not glad he's got this illness, but he's glad he has the power to take advantage of his notoriety to highlight that people need the Lord. It's hard enough to live in this world without some kind of hope."

The positive attitude can't hurt either. Studies have shown that patients with an upbeat outlook tend to do better fighting all sorts of diseases than those who view their predicament with pessimism or self-pity.

"It's a bad disease," Brem said. "A lot of people die from it. The grim side is out there, but what's beautiful about him is that he has chosen to say that he's been blessed. He's capable of focusing on the wonderful things he has -his wife, his family- instead of 'what a terrible thing that has happened to me.'"

Don't misunderstand. Oates has not abandoned his earthly goals. He won't be working in baseball this summer, but he won't rule out putting on the uniform again if he is able to stave off the cancer for an extended period.

"I don't know if I will," he said. "I think that's a decision I can't make. If the good Lord wants me to wear it, he'll put it on me. If I don't get to put that uniform on again, I'm very thankful that I did get to put it on. I wore it a lot of days."

Summer, a wedding, a baby

Right now, his uniform is a pair of comfortable jeans, a sweater and - when he gets a little self-conscious about his strange hairdo - a baseball cap with "Gramps" embroidered above the bill. Outdoors, the weather is starting to warm up. It won't be long before he starts his second straight summer on the lake.

There are wedding plans to be made. There's a baby coming. And, just maybe, enough tomorrows to enjoy all that and more.

"When I get up in the morning, I sit at the table with Gloria and we have some quiet time with the Bible," Oates said.

"I thank the Lord for that day. I'm selfish. I'd like to have a few more, but I ask for his will to be done.

"I'm thankful for that day, and when tomorrow comes, I'll thank him for that one."

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