Oates needs to grow, O's need to let him

KEN ROSENTHAL

October 03, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Johnny Oates still thinks he's a backup catcher on the verge of getting released. That's why the Orioles should give him TC long-term contract. To let Johnny be Johnny. To ensure he becomes all that he can be.

Those plaudits Oates keeps getting from rival managers aren't simply a case of a fraternity protecting one of its own. Oates indeed has one of the game's brightest minds. But without job security, it might go to waste.

Oates, 47, was a basket case for much of this season, fearing the Orioles wouldn't pick up his option for 1994. It was an overreaction for someone whose team has contended each of the past two seasons -- but maybe not for someone who played for five teams in his 11-year career.

Too often, Oates the worrier prevails over Oates the manager. The man obviously is gifted -- Brady Anderson and Mark McLemore were zeros before he took over. Unfortunately, his aura diminishes when his insecurity reaches every corner of the clubhouse.

If Oates were over his head, you'd just fire him and be done with it. But managing is his calling. He kept his club together this season despite a startling number of injuries. The Orioles might have won the AL East if they had stayed healthy. They might win it next season with better players.

Still, it's imperative Oates lightens up, and it won't happen if he gets a one-year deal. Last season, he played Anderson and Mike Devereaux to exhaustion; this season, it was McLemore and David Segui. He rarely changes his lineup. It's pedal to the metal, almost as if he's managing scared.

How else do you explain the slumping McLemore and Devereaux hitting back-to-back through most of September? Or McLemore, Hoiles and Harold Baines playing Monday with nagging injuries after the Orioles were already eliminated?

Last season, Oates confronted Gregg Olson's annual slump by saying he would no longer use the closer automatically in save situations. This season, he went one step further, flatly removing Olson from late-inning situations when the entire club was struggling in April.

The distinction was subtle, but it drove Olson to tears. Privately, the Orioles' relievers sympathized with their closer. It was all so unnecessary, but Oates was desperate to jump-start his club. Pedal to the metal, full speed ahead.

All right, enough nitpicking. You can judge Oates by this decision or that, but more than anything, he just needs to grow into his job. If he were running for office, you'd say he needs to act more presidential.

It's not just arguing with umpires -- an unfair litmus test for any Orioles manager in the post-Weaver era. It's dictating your roster. Maintaining your composure. Commanding the clubhouse -- especially when the players are so laid-back.

These things come in time. The longer Oates remains manager, the more comfortable he will be staring down the front office on roster decisions, whether it's demanding to keep Jack Voigt over Luis Mercedes in spring training, or the immediate release of Glenn Davis.

You can't ask a man to be something he's not -- Oates apparently looked ridiculous when he tried to turn over the clubhouse spread in Texas last April, even more ridiculous when he screamed for Rick Sutcliffe to help him remove Davis from the clubhouse earlier this month.

The Davis incident occurred after Oates claimed to be The New Johnny, Mr. Calm, Cool and Collected. Much as Davis was disliked, many players didn't approve of Oates' clubhouse tirade, coming as it did in the middle of a pennant race.

Yet, who could fault Oates? Major-league managers face extraordinary pressure. If not from the media, then the front office. If not on the field, then in a clubhouse full of pampered millionaires. It matters little that Oates was a successful minor-league manager. At times, the jobs barely resemble each other.

Oates has been at this slightly more than 2 1/2 years. His peers already view him as one of the best in the game. He doesn't need to learn how to handle a pitching staff. He just needs to grow in stature.

It will happen, if the new ownership gives him the chance. Peter Angelos no doubt is tempted to stamp his identity on the club. But where is he going to find a better manager? Not in his own organization. And probably not outside of it, either.

The Orioles owe Oates long-term security. And Oates owes it to himself to stop worrying and start trusting his ability. Stop acting like a backup catcher and start fulfilling his destiny as a manager.

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