Frank Robinson nearly took the Baltimore Orioles from last place to first during a magical 1989 season, but that miracle was just a memory when he was fired as manager yesterday and replaced by first-base coach Johnny Oates.
The Orioles, who became the third major-league team in three days to change managers, had been expected to contend for the American League East title this year. But a combination of injuries and underachievement had dropped them into last place, 10 games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox. The fans were getting restless, and the club apparently felt it needed to do something decisive.
The Chicago Cubs fired Don Zimmer on Tuesday. The Kansas City Royals fired John Wathan on Wednesday. The Orioles added Robinson to that list but kept the rest of the coaching staff intact.
"That's the unfortunate price you pay for being manager," General Manager Roland Hemond said. "Frank did a great job. The managerjust pays the price.
"This has been my decision. I've been watching the situation closely as it evolved. We have to play better, more entertaining baseball. We haven't given our fans the baseball they deserve."
Hemond announced that Robinson had been reassigned to the front office in keeping with the contract he signed in 1988, but no specific front-office job description was included in yesterday's announcement.
"I wasn't reassigned, I was fired," Robinson, 55, said. "I'm in limbo. They have talked to me about a possible position in the front office, but, at the time, the duties and responsibilities were not spelled out. Until they are, and there's discussion on exactly what my responsibilities would be, I have no position with the organization."
Robinson, however, apparently will represent the club at a meeting Tuesday with the Maryland Stadium Authority. He has been very involved in the design of the new Camden Yards ballpark and has agreed to continue as a consultant.
But Robinson did not attend the news conference and spoke only briefly with reporters. He said he would have more to say in the next few days.
Robinson became the first black manager in major-league history on Oct. 4, 1974, when he was named player-manager by the Cleveland Indians. He managed in Cleveland for 2 1/2 seasons before being fired on June 19, 1977.
Robinson then returned to the Orioles organization until Jan. 14, 1981, when he was named manager of the San Francisco Giants. He was fired from that job on Aug. 4, 1984.
He again returned to the Orioles as a coach. In 1987 Robinson was named a special assistant to the late Edward Bennett
Williams, then owner of the Orioles. On April 12, 1988, after the Orioles had lost their first six games of the season, Robinson was named manager, replacing Cal Ripken Sr. The Orioles went on to lose 15 more in a row and finished 1988 with a record of 54-107, the worst season in club history.
Oates, who managed the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings to the International League championship in 1988, has been Robinson's right-hand man since he joined the major-league coaching staff in 1989. He coached first base and filled out the lineup card. It generally has been assumed that he would someday succeed Robinson, but it also was thought that Robinson would have a say in the timing of that promotion.
"It was evident to me in 1988 that John Oates would become a major-league manager," Hemond said. "I think it's fitting that he becomes one for the Baltimore Orioles."
Oates, 45, spent much of his minor-league playing career in the Baltimore organization. He played a half-season with the Orioles in 1972 and spent the rest of his 10-year major-league career with the Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees.
His managerial record in the minor leagues also includes winning seasons with the Class AA Nashville Sounds in 1982 and Class AAA Columbus Clippers in 1983. He spent the next four years in various coaching positions with the Chicago Cubs.
"I thought this day would be a totally exciting and exhilarating day for me," Oates said, "but I've had mixed emotions all afternoon, because I thank the Orioles organization for giving me the opportunity to come here and coach and thank Frank Robinson for all the guidance he has shown me in the past three years.
"I had a chance to sit for a while and talk with Frank. We had a nice conversation. It was nice. It reinforced what Frank thought of me and the coaching staff."
There will be one change in the coaching staff. Outfield coach Curt Motton will take Oates' place at first base. Pitching coach Al Jackson and hitting coach Tom McCraw, who had come under fire along with Robinson, will continue their duties.