A nice guy like Oates can't always be nice Pennington move leaves manager with empty feeling

BASEBALL

April 04, 1993|By JIM HENNEMAN

It was Leo Durocher who supposedly coined the phrase, "Nice guys finish last." Most likely he did so because he managed teams that won a lot of games -- and nobody ever accused him of being nice.

Durocher's remark has long since been disproved, but there are times when there is evidence to support the meaning behind the theory. It struck home again four days ago, when the Orioles sent Brad Pennington back to the minor leagues.

The move greatly disappointed the 23-year-old left-handed reliever, who did not allow a run all spring, but it devastated Johnny Oates. In discussing the team's decision later, there were times when the Orioles manager could not speak for fear of losing control of his emotions.

Oates said there were specific, but unrevealed, reasons why he considered Pennington a special case. And the agonized look on his face made it obvious that the situation was particularly distasteful.

All of which brought to mind Durocher's line. Because he is human, Oates will admit he's not always nice. But he is a genuinely good person -- so good, in fact, it's not hard to wonder if he can be successful for a long period of time in his chosen profession.

Sending players to the minor leagues, sometimes indirectly affecting their careers, is one of the fundamental responsibilities of a big-league manager. You might not like it, but you have to do it.

The night before Oates informed Pennington he was being optioned to Triple-A Rochester, Detroit manager Sparky Anderson looked across the field at Oates, who was engrossed in thought while sitting in the dugout.

"Look at him over there," said Anderson, who has publicly and privately given Oates a lot of praise, support and advice.

"He's got to learn to relax more," said Anderson, who jumped to his feet and yelled to Oates. Anderson screamed three times before Oates heard him. The two relayed messages by using hand signals, and a few minutes later, Oates came over for a brief visit.

When Anderson chided him for being so uptight, Oates explained.

"I've got to make some cuts tomorrow, and I don't like it," said Oates. "Does it still bother you?"

"I hate it," said Anderson, who has been managing 24 years. "And I hope I always hate it. When the day comes that it doesn't bother me, I'll know it's time to get out."

Anderson's comments were reassuring to Oates but didn't make him feel any better. At least twice the next day, he uncharacteristically lost his cool. He snapped once during a discussion with members of the media and again later in the privacy of his clubhouse office.

It was obvious to those around him that something was bothering Oates. He said later that the decision on Pennington had been bothering him for a few days.

"I don't expect you guys to understand my mood," Oates said to a group of writers later that afternoon. It was his way of apologizing for his disposition -- but not his feelings. He could not hide the fact that what had taken place that day was bothersome.

Like most successful managers, Oates keeps his distance from the players. But perhaps more than most, he doesn't hide the fact that he has feelings for them.

When those feelings are ruffled, as they were last week, it affects him. Not as a manager, but as a person.

There are times when Oates has difficulty separating the two. And his nature is not going to allow that to change.

Anderson will be the first to tell you that Oates has the ability to manage for a long time. But he would also be the first to advise the Orioles manager that the job is tough enough without letting personal feelings tear you apart.

Oates is a good manager and a good person. What he's finding out is that he's in a profession where it's often impossible to be both.

And, if he hasn't learned it already, he will find out that's not going to change.

What antitrust?

Do you sometimes wonder what those Senate subcommittees would do if they couldn't have hearings investigating baseball's antitrust exemption?

Or, what does baseball have left to preserve, anyhow?

Milwaukee owner Bud Selig, the spokesman for baseball's Executive Council, was among those grilled on Capitol Hill last week. He spent a lot of time explaining why Fay Vincent was forced out as commissioner. What does that have to do with antitrust?

It used to be that the owners were concerned about their exemption because it protected their reserve system, which bound players to the same team for life. They lost that 17 years ago, so what's the big deal?

Big-ticket bench

Give the Chicago White Sox credit for making the tough decision to bench second baseman Steve Sax. They would like to unload Sax and his $3.5 million salary that is guaranteed through 1995, and it's hard to make a deal when a player of that stature is sitting on the bench.

The White Sox gave up pitchers Melido Perez and Bob Wickman a couple of years ago, thinking Sax would help them win their division. Now they could use the pitching.

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