Johnny Oates has worked the past 10 years for a chance to manage at the major-league level, but when the call finally came yesterday afternoon, the feeling was not quite what he expected.
"I thought this day would be a totally exciting and exhilarating day for me," Oates said, "but I've had mixed emotions all afternoon."
Who could blame him? He had been Frank Robinson's right-hand man for the past three seasons. He has been groomed for this moment since he arrived in the Baltimore Orioles organization in 1988, but it wasn't supposed to arrive quite so soon.
Robinson was supposed to step aside voluntarily after the Orioles' first season in the new Camden Yards ballpark. Instead, he was fired after the club slipped 10 games out of first place in the American League East, and Oates was hired to pick up the pieces.
"I never wanted it to come at someone else's expense, but I've always had the desire to manage," Oates said. "It's been almost 10 years to the day since I was released from the last team I played for. I'm very excited about it. I hope it'll be a long and successful association."
Oates, 45, already has had some managerial success in the Orioles organization. He was the International League Manager of the Year in 1988 after leading the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings to a championship. He also had winning seasons with the Class AA Nashville Sounds and the Class AAA Columbus Clippers of the New York Yankees organization in the early 1980s.
"Once your playing days are over, if you want to stay in the game and stay on the field, you only have one goal and that's to manage in the major leagues," Oates said.
"It's not going to be an easy job. It never is. We've got a lot of work to do. We can't get back to a .500-level team in one inning or one game. It's a day-by-day thing."
He inherits a team in crisis. The Orioles are 13-24 and have lost 12 of their last 17 games. The club is riddled with injuries, and the pitching staff is a shambles. The 10-game divisional deficit was the largest in the major leagues when he accepted the job.
Oates indicated that he would stay with the pitching plan of Robinson and pitching coach Al Jackson for the next four days but might add a fifth starter to the rotation next week and go with 11 pitchers.
He also said he probably will not send first baseman Randy Milligan back to the outfield when Glenn Davis returns from the disabled list, but he withheld further judgments until he has had a chance to evaluate the team from a managerial perspective.
"Our first priority is to get some guys healthy," he said. "We need to get Davis back. We need to get [Mike] Devereaux healthy. We need Dwight Evans back. I think the thing to do is get all the guys healthy, and then we'll look at the bigger picture."
It has not been a pretty picture. The club ERA is just a shade under 5.00, which is the pitching equivalent of meltdown. The bullpen has one victory and three saves over the past four weeks. The starting lineup consisted largely of part-time players for the final two games in Detroit this week.
Robinson cannot be held responsible for many of the problems that have befallen the club over the past six weeks, but Oates will be expected to correct them. His predecessor thinks he is equal to the job.
"I think Johnny Oates has a chance to be a good manager," Robinson said, "but don't expect him to be a good manager if the talent doesn't perform on the field.
"He is a good baseball man. He knows the game. But he's not a miracle worker. He's not going to perform miracles, but I wish him well."
Oates has been with the Orioles throughout one of the worst starts in club history, but he would not second-guess the way Robinson handled the club.
"Of course, there were numerous times I would have done things differently," he said, "but everybody is a manager in this game. There has to be one chief out there. There has to be one guy who makes the decisions and answers the questions afterward. Now, I'm going to make those decisions, and I'm going to have to answer those questions."
The only major-league managerial experience that Oates can fall back on is the three games he managed last year when Robinson was suspended for publicly criticizing umpire Drew Coble.
Based on Oates' performance in those games -- two of which the Orioles won -- the Orioles players are not concerned about making a dramatic adjustment to conform to his leadership style.
"Johnny Oates will let us know right away how he intends to handle things," Orioles pitcher and player representative Jeff Ballard said. "He's been around for a few years, and he took over for Frank for three days when Frank was suspended, so we got an idea of Johnny's philosophy back then."
General manager Roland Hemond, who announced the managerial change yesterday afternoon, said Oates has been the club's manager-in-waiting since he proved his managerial ability in Rochester.