Oates deserves a few good men and a new deal

.MIKE LITTWIN

June 21, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

The Orioles left town Wednesday in last place, dispirited and dismayed. Gregg Olson, their ace in the bullpen, had let them down, and some of the fans actually booed him, although it was like booing an earthquake. The world exploded for Olson, who lost at Memorial Stadium for the first time ever. You boo a guy you've seen lose once in three years?

It was ugly and sad, and the booing can be explained only in the frustration of another lost day and the fact that the Orioles' 10-22 start at home is their worst ever, including the black hole known as 1988.

"That's why it's good to have a nickname like Moose," said Randy Milligan, who has a nickname exactly like Moose. "No matter how bad it gets, you can always tell yourself they're saying, 'Mo-o-o-o-se.' "

Maybe the Orioles should change their name (the Bo-o-o-ogies?), but in the meantime, there's something else they could do.

No, not fire the manager. They've tried that. What they should do is just the opposite. The Orioles should extend the new manager's contract a year.

The Orioles have already made a grievous mistake in firing the previous manager, Frank Robinson. But now that they've done it, there's little point in compounding the error. They need to tell John Oates in the most direct way that they don't expect -- can't expect -- the team to turn around in anything like a hurry.

That's lesson No. 1, which everyone should have learned by now. It wasn't the shoes. It wasn't the manager.

It was the starting pitching. It was the offense, the one that still requires some jump-starting.

If you want a scary statistic, this is one that'll keep you until to Halloween: In seven of the past 10 games, the Orioles have fallen behind by at least three runs by at least the fourth inning. In fact, the average start for those seven games, rounding off, was 5-0 in the third inning. In other words, these games most closely resembled a Mike Tyson fight.

What kind of team is that? It's a team, right now, without a reliable starting rotation or even a single reliable starter. Roy Smith and Jeff Robinson are castoffs. Jose Mesa is a prospect now struggling. Jeff Ballard and Bob Milacki are still trying to find themselves. Ben McDonald and Dave Johnson remain on the disabled list.

The offense is a problem, too, but one that can be fixed. Glenn Davis can come back. That would help. Randy Milligan is starting to hit again, and that will help, too. The Orioles remain short an outfielder, but that's a commodity that can be located without a treasure map.

But to fix the pitching, you need patience and time and a management group committed to the future.

And yet, Oates has no assurances of anything. Oates knows that he will ultimately be judged by wins and losses. But let's not turn ultimately into immediately, and let's not force Oates to turn all his thoughts to winning now. The future is not now. The future is later, like sometime after the Orioles are sold. And, if all works out well, meaning the Orioles are sold to an owner who is willing to spend money improving the team, that future might even be bright.

An extension of Oates' contract would allow him to believe he is part of that tomorrow and to manage accordingly. As of now, when you ask Oates about next year, he says, understandably, that he doesn't know if he'll be around.

If you're wondering whether it's too soon to judge Oates, you're probably right. We don't know much about him except that he's quiet and studious and quietly, studiously enthusiastic. But, despite what you may have read from the bow-tied poets, it doesn't take a genius to manage. There's that book they're always talking about that outlines the strategy, and the rest is evaluating talent and getting people to perform for you.

If the Orioles finish strong in the second half, it won't mean that Oates is a good manager. It will probably mean that Davis came back or that McDonald got well or both.

And if the Orioles falter in the second half, that won't mean much either.

The Orioles have already extended Roland Hemond's contract for two years, presumably in the name of continuity. It couldn't have been for the job he has done, not if you judge him by won-lost records. When the Orioles fired Robinson, they figured they had a ready replacement in Oates. In fact, it was being talked around that one reason they made the move was they were worried somebody else would grab Oates.

If they liked him so much then, enough to take the job from a loyal employee who had all but rescued the franchise, there's no reason they shouldn't like him now.

But, of course, the Orioles are a cautious lot. And now, with the team's status up in the air, everyone is going to be even more cautious. Extending Oates' contract would show some boldness, which, if history is a guide, may be a little more than we can reasonably expect.

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