Oates, uptight as player, had faith to make change

April 26, 1993|By John Feinstein

When Baltimore Orioles manager Johnny Oates arrived in his office at Camden Yards on the morning of Aug. 9, he was not in a good mood. Two nights earlier, with a chance to move to within two games of the Toronto Blue Jays, his team had squandered a ninth-inning lead and lost to the Cleveland Indians in 13 innings. Twenty-four hours later, only a Glenn Davis infield hit prevented Charles Nagy from pitching a no-hitter for the Tribe.

"This is exactly what I was concerned about coming into this weekend." Oates glanced pensively at a lineup card he had yet to fill out. "All the talk around here about the series

in Toronto and the guys don't have their minds right here to play Cleveland. Last night, the way Nagy pitched, probably it would have made no difference. But, Friday night, we made mental mistakes that cost us the game. That frustrates me."

When Johnny Oates talks about being frustrated, he does so in a tone that is little different from his "happy" tone. He is as competitive as any man in baseball, but he has learned to enjoy the game, something he says he never did as a player.

"I was uptight my entire playing career, every single day," he said. "All I did was worry: Am I going to get cut, traded, released? Why don't I play more? Why am I not in the lineup today? What does it mean? Has the manager given up on me? I lived that way for 10 years."

His attitude changed, Oates says, when he became a Christian. "I was missing something in my life, and it turned out what I was missing was God. That isn't something I talk about a lot, because I know a lot of people's eyes glaze over when you bring it up. I don't want to bore people with it or sound like I know something they don't. I'm bothered by people who do that. But the truth is, being a Christian did change my life."

It didn't change his competitiveness. Oates isn't a screamer, and he isn't likely to kick things too often. But he does get snappish sometimes after losses, especially, he says, "if I know I screwed up. That will usually stay with me until I come to the ballpark the next day. Then I know I have to get rid of that feeling and start over again."

Oates and the Orioles had been one of baseball's most pleasant stories during the first half of the season. Their new ballpark was the talk of the game and sellouts had become the norm every night. The team was fun to watch because it knew how to play. The Orioles rarely made fundamental mistakes, and they played excellent defense to back up pitching that, while greatly improved over 1991, still wasn't overwhelming. They were 49-38 at the break, four games behind the Blue Jays.

They began the second half on the road, winning three of four games in Texas. From there, they went to Chicago, where they won the opener, but blew a 7-2, eighth-inning lead in the second game. That was aggravating. The last game in Chicago was an afternoon game. The Orioles would charter home afterward and open a homestand the next night against the Rangers.

Midway through the game, Orioles public relations assistant Bob Miller received a phone call in the press box. There had been an accident involving Tim Hulett's 6-year-old son, Sam. He had been taken to the emergency room at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Miller immediately got word to Hulett, the Orioles utility man in the infield, to call his wife Linda at the hospital.

A few minutes later, traveling secretary Phil Itzoe went down to the clubhouse to find out what was going on. Hulett was on the phone being switched maddeningly from one department of the hospital to another. When he found Linda, the news wasn't good. Sam had run in front of a car. His condition was critical.

Itzoe immediately made arrangements to get Hulett on a flight home. His parents, who had driven up from Springfield for the game, went to the airport with him. By the time the game -- another aggravating come-from-ahead loss -- was over, everyone the team had heard about Sam Hulett.

Tim Hulett is the kind of person every baseball team needs. At 32, he was in his sixth year in the majors. His salary was a relatively modest $380,000, but he was invaluable to the team because he would play anywhere, any time, and never complained about not playing. He is one of those rare baseball people whom everyone likes.

Sam Hulett was in a coma by the time his father reached the hospital that night. Early the next morning, the boy died.

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