Orioles' new manager has spent a career watching and waiting


June 02, 1991|By Peter Schmuck

John Oates is not clear on the details, but he is far too organized to believe in something as capricious as fate and far too unassuming to think that his reputation might have preceded him.

He remembers the day he was fired by the Chicago Cubs afte four years on the major-league coaching staff -- and the day after, when the phone rang with a minor-league managerial offer from the Baltimore Orioles.

"I don't know why they called, but I've got a feeling that [Cubs general manager] Jim Frey had something to do with it," Oates said. "He called and told me I wasn't going to be back. It wasn't a day later that Doug Melvin called me."

Frey had nothing to do with it, other than to set up what would be the pivotal moment of Oates' professional career by turning ++ him out into the cold in late 1987. Oates had everything to do with it, and yet he was ready to give credit where credit was not due. Perhaps that reveals something about the man.

Melvin, the Baltimore Orioles' director of player personnel and minor-league operations at the time, did not need references: He had been in the New York Yankees organization when Oates was managing the Class AA Nashville Sounds and the Class AAA Columbus Clippers. Oates, 45, had spent the formative years of his playing career in the Orioles' minor-league system before embarking on a 10-year playing career that included jobs with five major-league teams (including the Orioles). He was a known quantity. The only thing Melvin didn't know was whether Oates would take the job.

"It was a matter of whether he was willing to take a step back for the opportunity to take a few steps forward in the future," Melvin said.

Another defining moment. Baseball is a game of egos. Major-league coaches don't like to become minor-league managers -- it is supposed to happen the other way around. But Oates took the job and took the Rochester Red Wings to the 1988 International League championship in his only year with the Class AAA team.

"It was evident to me in 1988 that John Oates would be a major-league manager someday," said Orioles general manager Roland Hemond at the news conference to announce that "someday" had come.

Melvin wasn't looking that far ahead. He was trying to re-instill confidence in the minor-league system at a time when the major-league club was coming off its worst season (67-95 in 1987) since 1955. Things would get worse -- a lot worse -- for the Orioles before they got better, but Oates turned the Red Wings into a championship team in no time.

"I was very confident that he was the right guy at a time when the organization was struggling," Melvin said. "He brought a winning attitude to the club.

"Greg Biagini was the double-A manager at the time, and I was going to promote Greg, but when the opportunity arose to get someone of Johnny's caliber, Greg understood. He knew his time would come."

Biagini's time came a year later, when Oates joined Frank Robinson's coaching staff and quickly became the Orioles' manager-in-waiting. The waiting ended for Oates 10 days ago, when he was named manager.

No, Jim Frey didn't call the Orioles the day he fired Oates in 1987 -- at least not the way Melvin remembers it -- but he did send a congratulatory telegram the day after Oates realized a career-long dream. No hard feelings. Never were.

The player

To understand Oates the manager, it probably would help to understand Oates the player. He spent five years in the minor leagues and 10 years in the majors, never acquiring marquee status and never expecting it.

"I don't think I ever thought I was going to be a star," Oates said. "I knew I needed to get an education. I never knew how good I was. I just knew I loved to play."

He got his degree in health and physical education from Virginia Tech the year after the Orioles made him their first choice in the January 1967 free-agent draft. He never dreamed he'd still be in the game 24 years later, much less the manager of the closest major-league team to his boyhood home in Prince George, Va.

But Oates learned early on that ability is not everything, that the mental part of the game is as important as the physical. This was fortuitous, since he was not a gifted athlete.

"He took a very sensible approach to the game," said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, who was 10-0 with Oates behind the plate in 1972. "There are guys like Roger Clemens who have an abundance of ability. But a guy like Johnny Oates, he wasn't in the major leagues on ability. He was there on ability plus preparation."

Oates batted .250 during his major-league career. He hit 14 career home runs and never had more than 27 RBI in any major-league season. If Robinson couldn't relate to players without Hall of Fame talent -- one of the criticisms leveled at him at the time of his firing -- Oates should relate to them all too well.

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