An uneasy night for the Orioles' 'background guy'


May 25, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

A strange thing happened last night at Memorial Stadium when Johnny Oates was announced as the Orioles' new manager. No one cheered. No one booed. There was no reaction at all. None. Zero. Zip. It was as if Rex Barney were reading a promo for Hagerstown Night on the public address system. It was as if no one cared.

A manager gets fired and headlines get written and talk shows get crazy, and not a word is heard at baseball central. Strange. A wee round of applause did ensue when Oates brought his lineup card to the plate before the first pitch, but it was there and gone in a moment. The scene had all the emotional current of an "Andy Griffth Show" rerun. Not real hot.

Several conclusions can be drawn. One is that the fans thought Frank Robinson was still managing, but boy, he just looked real different than he does on television. Another is that the fans are numb. Another is they'd never heard of Johnny Oates. Another is that they were reserving judgment until the second inning to see if the Orioles were their usual six runs down. (Let's see, last night it was 4-0 in the fourth, so things must be looking up.)

The likeliest conclusion from the round of silence, however, is that the people just couldn't get worked up about Oates one way or the other. They weren't numb -- at least not until it was 7-0 in the seventh inning -- and they knew he wasn't Frank Robinson and they weren't reserving judgment. They just didn't know what to think.

That's only perfect, of course. That's the Orioles' new manager in sum. He is a background guy. At least he has been until now, for all of his sporting life. A bit player. A guy you neither cheer nor boo. A backup catcher. A first base coach. A minor-league manager. A vague presence somewhere in the picture. A face you see, but never notice. A voice you hear, but never file.

Just another guy with a Virginia twang and a mustache and light brown hair going gray at the temples, watching and listening. He comes and he goes and no one notices. He'd make a perfect spy. (Maybe he'd rather be one after last night.) The reaction he raised last night is probably the reaction he raised at every stop. Johnny Oates, huh? Yeah. Well. Johnny Oates, huh? So. Well. Hey, d'ya see the Pistons last night?

It's a funny thing about background guys, though. Some of them make terrific managers. The best. No one paid any attention to Whitey Herzog or Earl Weaver when they were playing. Tommy Lasorda was a rotten pitcher. Gene Mauch didn't make the bigs. They all just hung around watching and listening and watching and listening, and then, when they got their chance to talk, suddenly there was all this there there.

Johnny Oates was just humming along in the background and then one night in 1978 he was sitting on the Dodgers' bench and Lasorda made a move and Oates said, "I wonder why he did that?" The guy sitting next to him said, "That's why you're going to be a manager," and the notion struck Oates right in the noodle: I should be a manager. "I'd never thought about it until that night," he said.

That was 13 years ago, 13 years of sitting in the background watching and listening, and now the Orioles are hoping their new manager is a background guy whose time has come. A background guy ready for the foreground. The Orioles like to think he is. They have their evidence. Oates won 55 percent of his games in three seasons of minor-league managing. He was enthusiastic and smart. His players loved him. Robinson valued his opinion as a coach.

His new team will need to start playing better, of course, before anyone knows if he is indeed ready for the foreground. They were the same old Orioles last night in a 7-1 loss to the Yankees. Their starter, Jeff "They Reassigned the Wrong" Robinson, was gone by the fourth inning. They got no-hit into the seventh. Three wild pitches. Three errors. Same stuff. Not a manager in the world should be expected to make anything of it. Or be fired because of it.

But no matter one's agenda on the Robinson firing, it was hard not to feel for Oates. He worked 25 years for the chance, for this day, and the day blew up on him real good. It started out OK, with more than a hundred phone messages bearing good wishes, but then the game started and the score was 4-0 by the fourth inning and the crowd was erupting in boos, and then afterward his best pitcher went on the disabled list with a sore elbow.

Sheesh. How can you not feel for the guy? He is bright and eager and brings all the right intentions to the park, but his team is in such sorry shape that he's already scrambling. Asked if he'd seen anything positive, he said, "The attitude of the pregame workout was upbeat." Tough times, indeed.

But here is a fact: Johnny Oates was not feeling sorry for Johnny Oates. He had a smile on his face and some bounce in his step -- before and after the game. His life is about to change, and the change obviously thrills him. No more background guy. No more second-string. He's up front now, so everyone will listen to what he says and watch what he does. He may well be up to it, but we'll never know if his team doesn't give him a chance.

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