It didn't come as a shock.
It never does.
When a team struggles to a 13-24 record the manager is either already gone or afraid to answer the phone.
Still, when Frank Robinson was "reassigned" to the front office and replaced by Johnny Oates yesterday, there was at least an element of surprise. The Orioles had just completed an informal workout at Memorial Stadium, when trainer Richie Bancells informed Robinson that general manager Roland Hemond wanted to see him.
An off day. The team returning home from yet another losing road trip. The timing was certainly ripe, if not right.
By the time Hemond was finished talking with Robinson and trying to locate his soon-to-be successor, Oates was getting ready to sit down for a haircut. Within three hours the deal was done, an announcement made and shortly thereafter it was obvious that the new man on the scene had been preparing himself for this situation for 10 years.
The Orioles can only hope that Oates has as much success as the last former first base coach they hired as manager. Earl Weaver got his chance under much the same circumstances -- because an unsettled and unhealthy pitching staff and an injury to a key player (who happened to be Frank Robinson) had sabotaged his predecessor, Hank Bauer.
Like Weaver, for whom he played in 1970 and 1972, Oates comes in without any guarantees beyond this year. And like his former manager, he's also coming in with ideas, which cannot be construed as solutions.
"The only thing I know is that I'm here tomorrow," said Oates, when questioned about the importance of the length of his contract. "There's no 'interim' in front of the title. That gives me enough stability.
"I don't have any problems with that. I have a lot of confidence in myself."
Enough confidence to seek out Robinson as his first official act as manager and talk for almost an hour -- about what had just taken place, and the general state of the club he had just inherited. Enough confidence to speak to each of the other five coaches, four of them in person, and remove any naturally awkward feelings.
"The only change will be that Curt Motton [who had been charting the Orioles' hitters and defense from the stands during games] will take my place at first base," said Oates. "I just told them that I want them to continue doing what they've been doing, that I can't guarantee anything beyond that and we'll evaluate things at the end of the season -- because that's when I'll be evaluated."
Short-term security doesn't bother Oates, and neither does the fact that he once played for one of his coaches, Cal Ripken Sr., who also happens to be a former manager of the Orioles. Ripken is the only coach Oates didn't see in person after yesterday's changeover. "He had some tomato plants he was taking care of," quipped the new manager.
"Cal and I have a unique relationship," Oates said of the Orioles' third base coach. "He is the most influential person in my career. He taught me 99 percent of what I know about catching [his former position] and a great deal about coaching.
"I'm going to depend on Cal a great deal. I'm not going to have a dugout coach right now, but Cal will be my dugout coach from the third base coaching box."
Before making his first public appearance as manager of the Orioles, Oates informed Hemond of the first change he would like to make. "The way the pitching has been," he said, "I'd prefer to go with 11 pitchers right now.
"Our starters are set for the next four days, which gives me four days to come up with a fifth starter. That could be somebody on the club now, or it could be somebody else.
"I'd like to have six guys in the bullpen and maybe pitch them more often, but not as long."
Oates said he thought the pitcher who could help the Orioles the most in their present position was Roy Smith, the veteran righthander who was in training camp and is pitching with Rochester. He also said he thought Bob Milacki, who pitched for him at Rochester in 1988, could be a factor.
With or without Glenn Davis, the injured first baseman whose absence has played a role in the Orioles' fate this year, Oates indicated that Randy Milligan's days in the outfield are over. "I was one of the people who wasn't excited about Randy going to leftfield," he said. "At the major-league level I hate to play a guy out of position. I'd rather put him in a position where he has a chance to excel, rather than a position where he's going to struggle.
"Randy is a very, very important part of our club and I feel we can get him enough at-bats, either at first base or as the designated hitter."
Oates has been preparing for this opportunity since his playing career ended 10 years ago, when he was released by the New York Yankees. "If you stay in this game after playing, this is what you aspire to," he said, explaining that he has been silently
managing games for a long time.