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To Showalter, No. 26 is more than a number

The phone call was returned far quicker than Buck Showalter expected, and he wasn't kept in suspense for very long upon answering it.

"I called and I said, 'Is this No.26 speaking?,'" Gloria Oates said. "That's when he knew we were all on board. It's so touching. Johnny was a man who valued friendships so very much. He kept all his friendships intact. They had that mentor relationship and friendship, and they kept it even when they were competitors. It meant so much to both of them. I just know that Johnny is smiling and rejoicing about all of this."

Showalter, wearing No. 26, will watch as Oates, his former manager and friend, is inducted posthumously into the team's Hall of Fame in a ceremony before tonight's game against the Chicago White Sox. He will be in the same dugout at Camden Yards that Oates once frequented, remembering all the conversations they shared.

On the field will be Oates' widow, Gloria; their three children; their seven grandchildren; and a handful of other family members. Johnny Oates played for the Orioles for two seasons and managed them for four.

"Not to get to overly dramatic, but things happen for a reason," said Showalter, who wasn't aware about Oates' forthcoming Hall of Fame induction when he called Gloria last Saturday to ask for permission to wear No.26 with the Orioles. Showalter was introduced as the team's new manager two days later. "When I think about that number, I always think about Johnny, and I still will."

Gloria Oates, who lives in Virginia, was spending time with her grandchildren Tuesday night when she turned on the television and saw Showalter's Orioles managerial debut, a victory over the Los Angeles Angels. She said seeing Showalter wearing No.26 nearly brought her to tears.

Andy Oates, 31 and the oldest of her three kids, also watched that game, the first Orioles game he has viewed in its entirety in 16years.

"The game opened up and Buck was sitting in the dugout and they panned down to him," Andy Oates said. "The bar on the dugout was across his face and all I could see was the Oriole hat and the Oriole uniform with No.26. It brought back memories. Just for a second, I was like, 'No, that's not him.' It's meant a lot to us, to bring the message of who my dad was. He didn't have to do it, and he's done it and we can't thank him enough."

Showalter played for the first team that Oates managed, the 1982 Nashville Sounds, the New York Yankees' Double-A affiliate, and the following season, both moved up to Triple-A.

The friends turned competitors when Showalter was managing the Yankees (1992-1995) and Oates was guiding the Orioles (1991-1994). Then about a decade later, Showalter would follow in his mentor's footsteps as manager of the Texas Rangers, a job that Oates performed with much success from 1995 to 2001.

After his resignation from the Rangers in 2001, Oates was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor and told he had only about a year to live. The former big league catcher survived for more than three years before he died on Christmas Eve 2004. Showalter, manager of the Rangers at the time, dedicated a plaque outside his office to Oates.

"He was pretty special," Showalter said. "He got it, and there was a real connection between he and I. I think about Johnny every day."

Gloria Oates remembers her husband returning from the ballpark and talking about this first baseman who quickly emerged as one of his team's leaders.

"I do remember him saying, 'There's lots of potential here,'" Gloria Oates said.

Showalter not only was a key player for Nashville in 1982, but he also became a sounding board for the manager. With the team off to a bad start and most of the players privately grumbling that they were still in Double-A, a fed-up Oates summoned Showalter to his hotel room in Orlando, Fla., to vent about the club. Showalter encouraged him to air those concerns to the team.

When Showalter arrived at Tinker Field the next day hours before the game, Oates was already pacing up and down the locker room and reciting some of the words he planned to deliver.

"I got him really riled up, so by the time the door opened and the bus was there, he was ready to eat raw meat," Showalter said. "I don't think I've seen anybody sincerely get in somebody's shorts like John did. We took off and won the Southern League championship that year, and I used to kid John about that. There was nothing theatrical about it.

"John had the best meetings. The thing that I remember was the sincerity. It was beautiful. He had this demeanor where he would only take so much and people would underestimate the fire burning below, and they would get singed. John didn't tolerate people who didn't care."

Showalter also admired how much compassion Oates showed for his players, especially during difficult times. It's a quality that Showalter, who is managing his fourth bigleague club, tries to emulate every day.

"John would always get up, shave and clean up. It would be the morning of spring training when he was cutting somebody or releasing somebody, and he wanted the guy to look across the desk and know that he had clear eyes and a clear head," Showalter said. "He took that responsibility very seriously because John and I both have been in those shoes. We've been the 26th man on a club many times. Whether they agreed with you or whatever, you want them to walk out of there and know that this wasn't some guy that did this haphazardly. This was something he took very personal, just like I do. You're dealing with human beings' lives every day."

Gloria Oates acknowledged that it will be an emotional weekend for her family. She still remembers the reception that her husband, dismissed by Orioles owner Peter Angelos after the strike-shortened 1994 season, got when he returned to Camden Yards to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day 2002 less than a year after his diagnosis.

"We were invited to sit in Mr. Angelos' suite that day and when Johnny went up to do an interview with Jim Palmer, Mr. Angelos gave me a great big hug and said to me, 'I wish I never let him go,'" Gloria Oates said. "I was able to share that with Johnny. In life, you really never get closure in a lot of things. But for us, that was such a healing statement. It meant a great deal to Johnny and the family. To come back and have this honor, it's just this whole thing coming back at full circle."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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