The date is burned into his memory. How could it not be? It was Aug. 12, and John Oates had a lunch date with the woman of his dreams.
Gloria Oates has been that woman for 24 years, but on the afternoon of their wedding anniversary, her husband was somewhere else. He was sitting on the other side of the table, but he was definitely somewhere else.
"That was the day it hit rock bottom," Oates recalls. "I was going to set aside one whole hour to be just with her, and, a half-hour into it, I was thinking about that night's lineup."
That was the day Oates realized that he was about to be swallowed up by the job of his dreams. He had been manager of the struggling Orioles for about 2 1/2 months, and he was spending almost every waking hour trying to find a way to make a silk purse out of a sour year.
Gloria, the kids, everybody could see it happening. He had retreated entirely into his work. And the worst thing about it was, he was enjoying every minute of it.
Try to put yourself in his shoes. You've spent 25 years in professional baseball, but you've always been on the outside looking in. You were a backup catcher for 10 years, a minor-league manager, a first-base coach. Always a bridesmaid, and then suddenly the spotlight hits you and you don't even have time for your bride. It took awhile to get everything back into perspective.
"We had a rough winter this year," Oates said. "We had a lot of time to talk this winter about how I failed as a husband and father last summer. She wants me to spend time at my job. My kids want me to spend time with my job. They are my biggest supporters. But they had a rough summer.
"Sparky Anderson, a man who I respect very much, took me aside. He said, 'John, there are going to be times when you have to say no. There are times you're going to have to turn it off and stop thinking about tomorrow's lineup, or your hair is going to be as white as mine is.' He told me the job could kill you if you let it. Now, there are nights when we talk baseball at dinner, but there is also time to talk about how our son Andy is doing in baseball."
The lunch-date story tells a lot about Oates, who has done a pretty good job of balancing his career with his family life -- at 21, he took time out of his first professional season to get married. But he never had been faced with the kind of responsibility that landed on him when he replaced Frank Robinson as Orioles manager May 23.
He went from having a wife and three kids to having a wife and 28 kids. He went from having a job in which nobody knows your name to having a job in which nobody knows when to leave you alone. He went with the flow for a while, but he found out why
they say that nice guys finish last. By the time he got everything finished, it was time to start over the next day.
"When I took the job, I was trying to properly return every phone call, every letter, do every interview and every radio show," he said. "I thought at the time that my preparation and my family life suffered. I became totally wrapped up in the job. The first few weeks, I was spending 20 hours a day on baseball.
"It's a tough job, but I've also got responsibilities outside my job. I think I'm able to separate those things now. I thank God for a family that was supportive enough to put up with me."
Then there was the celebrity thing. Twenty-five years in the background didn't exactly prepare him for the crush of interview and autograph requests, or the banquet circuit, or the warm glow that comes with knowing you've made it to the top of your profession. It's nice to have friends, but it's a big adjustment when you suddenly have thousands of them.
"That's flattering," Oates said, "especially for a guy who was a fringe player all his life -- for a guy who changed his autograph to make it more legible because people used to ask me who I was after I signed it.
"You have to be careful. I lost perspective for a while. I thought for a few months that I was pretty cool. I liked walking into restaurants and having people recognize me. My family noticed that first. But I don't want to be that way. Maybe it went to my head. Hopefully, I've landed back on my feet."
It didn't really show, but that's because the guy is Mr. Low Key even when he's feeling his -- well, let's just jump right ahead to the next cliche.
The Orioles didn't let him get too full of himself last year. The club was losing when he took over in May, and it still was losing in October. Oates tried to instill a more positive attitude in the clubhouse, and he succeeded to some degree, but the Orioles had no chance to recover from the collapse of the starting rotation.