Oates proves he's his own man as Orioles manager


May 24, 1992|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

The biggest book on Johnny Oates' desk has nothing to do with the tendencies of certain opposing pitchers. It's not about the life and times of Casey Stengel. In this enlightened age when most managers hang around the office in more than their underwear, "The Man in the Mirror" hasn't yet gone to No. 1 on the list of must-reads in the clubhouse.

It was given to Oates last week by Glenn Davis, which might seem appropriate, or perhaps odd, considering the way life has gone for the oft-injured first baseman since he joined the team. Maybe Oates wanted a better handle on the perplexing Davis, or maybe he just wanted to better understand himself.

"It says the way I prioritize my time is to decide who will cry at my funeral," said Oates, sitting in his office at Camden Yards last week.

Before he became manager of the Orioles a year ago yesterday, Oates' life wasn't nearly as complex, nor the demands on his time as great, as now. But since replacing Frank Robinson, Oates, 46, has watched his life change dramatically and, despite the team's success this season, not always for the best.

"I think the first thing that comes to mind is that I'm not as nice as I was a year ago," said Oates, his relaxed, down-home manner belying that opinion. "When I took the job, I tried to please everybody -- my family, the players, the front office, the fans, the press. I lost 16 pounds, some hair and a lot of sleep."

Not to mention his first four games. He took those defeats hard, much harder than a man who had spent nearly all of his adult life in baseball probably should. He was worrying about everything, thinking about what he could do differently, who he should be playing, whether or not he was cut out for the job.

Most have forgotten those first few days after Oates took over, the memories of quick three-run deficits and subsequent defeats vanished amid the hysteria that has overtaken Baltimore this season. But Oates can remember it clearly.

"I took the job naively, thinking I could do it all," he said.

He couldn't, and the team lost 71 of 125 games Oates managed.

So he did what any smart manager with a new two-year contract would: He got himself a better team, surrounded himself with coaches whose opinions he respected and seemingly made all the right moves. Or at least enough of them to make the Orioles the biggest surprise of the 1992 season, last week's losing streak notwithstanding.

He got free agent Rick Sutcliffe, a former Cy Young Award winner, to stabilize a pitching staff filled with awesome promise and brought in Dick Bosman from the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings as his pitching coach. He gave Brady Anderson a chance to be an everyday leadoff hitter. He chose Mark McLemore over Juan Bell. He used his bench and juggled his lineup.

"He came in with a good idea," said Cal Ripken, who has struggled after his MVP season in 1991. "It's obvious that he's in complete control. He's confident about what he has to do. He's put the players in a position to be successful, by using certain people in certain situations. It's a long season, and to be successful, you need 25 guys."

Said Oates: "I haven't done all of these things by myself. As far as impact on the ballclub, the players are the one who do the job. I honestly believe that my role as manager of this ballclub [is minimal]. But there's been a lot of self-satisfaction. Since the first day of spring training, these players have dedicated themselves to having a great season. I've just sat back and watched. I've had to make some decisions, but the success of this ballclub is the responsibility of the players."

This isn't exactly a revelation. Oates is doing what Earl Weaver did for most of his remarkable career as Orioles manager, though a lot less gruffly. He is doing what Tom Lasorda has done `D throughout a sure-to-be Hall-of-Fame career with the Los Angeles Dodgers, though a lot less demonstratively. He doesn't need to holler, or hug, to get his point across, though he's not afraid to do either.

"He manages like Earl, but not to the extreme of Earl," said veteran pitcher Mike Flanagan, who, aside from Ripken and Storm Davis, is the only player left from Weaver's first 14-year tenure. "He manages like Tommy, but not to the extreme of Tommy."

Influenced by both, Oates' style is reminiscent of neither. Sure he tries to use all 25 players on the roster, but he doesn't burn them out or send them to the doghouse as Weaver was wont to do. And he tries to stress the importance of a family atmosphere like Lasorda's Dodgers, but he admits that he doesn't know all the names of his players' kids.

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