Now it's Oates' turn to step up and swing

February 02, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

Johnny Oates, the inveterate lineup doodler, has finally met his match.

"There's not much doodling left to do," the Orioles' manager said yesterday.

The club's off-season shopping spree, baseball's biggest, has left Oates' lineup so firm and promising that he asked some members of the crowd to do his job the other night at an Orioles promotional event in Hanover, Pa. -- and they nailed it.

"I said, 'OK, guys, you tell me my lineup for Opening Day,' " Oates said. "They came up with this: Anderson, Devereaux, Palmeiro, Baines, Ripken, Hoiles, Sabo, Hammonds, McLemore. TC had a hard time arguing with that. But then it's not like we're talking about any big secrets here."

No, there aren't many mysteries now that Peter Angelos is in charge. Holes don't go uncovered, as they did when Eli Jacobs was guarding the till so tightly. The manager's wishes are taken a lot more seriously.

"[Under Jacobs] they would come to me and ask not 'What do you need?' but 'Can you use this guy?' " Oates said. "Sometimes I said yes, sometimes no. A lot of times, by the time they got to me it was impossible to make the move, usually for financial reasons. Mr. Angelos and his group operate differently. Several times this winter Peter has called me and asked, 'John, what do you need?' When I tell him, he says, 'OK, we'll try to fill that need.' "

It was a new experience. And a warm one. Oates had the best off-season of any manager in the bigs. He got a first baseman and a third baseman who combined for 187 RBIs last season. He got a No. 3 starter and a closer with superb credentials. He even got a new two-year contract himself.

Of course, a manager's wish list is never entirely filled.

"I'd like to have more," Oates said. "We need our depth to be more experienced, for instance. I know we're not through talking yet. I don't know if we'll get anything more, but we're not done talking."

Even as he presses for more, though, he has to admit what is obvious to the Blue Jays, Yankees and the rest of baseball: The Orioles are much improved.

"Our projected everyday lineup," he said, "is a pretty good lineup."

Only one of the best in baseball. To go along with a pitching staff led by two of the game's better young arms.

All of which means that the Orioles have entered a new realm. No longer are they the scrappy, slightly undermanned overachievers. They're the big dogs.

Whether they or the Jays are the biggest in the AL East is debatable, but just that it's debatable speaks volumes, considering that the Jays have only won the past two World Series.

It means that the fans, front office, players and coaches no longer are just hoping for a winning team. They're expecting a winning team. And the brunt of that pressure falls squarely on, yes, the manager.

Call it the dark side of Oates' answered checklist: Now he has to win. Immediately. This year. No more of this "We've contended for three of the last five years and that's not bad" stuff that you heard when Jacobs and Larry Lucchino were in charge.

Now, as Magic Johnson always liked to say, it's winnin' time.

Maybe Oates doesn't have precisely the team he wanted (what he wanted most was two starting pitchers), but when your owner spends $40-some million to eradicate the old excuses, the message is clear: If you don't win, things could get ugly.

Oates is all too aware of this, of course. "Listen," he said, "I know there are a lot of expectations out there. That's fine. That's as it should be. I'm going to be very disappointed myself if we don't do well. But I think we're going to do well. We're fortunate. We've been selective in the type of player we've brought in. We have a nice team on paper, and no bad apples."

In his two-plus years Oates has established himself as a solid tactician who has the respect of his peers. His only shortcoming was his tendency to allow his moods to rise and fall with wins and losses. He underwent a palpable change after recognizing the problem in August and was almost serene as the Orioles fell out of contention in September. Whether he can maintain that approach in this atmosphere is critical to the Orioles' chances.

"As I see it, part of my job is to shoulder the responsibility and keep the players from feeling the pressure," he said. "The way I see it, McDonald, Hoiles, Rip, Mussina, they should be feeling less pressure now, not more. They've got more help now."

Of course, it's one thing to promise to stay cool in February and another thing to keep that promise in July. Oates insists that he is ready.

"As long as they don't make it so that they get to execute you at dawn after you lose, I'm not going to worry," he said. "Anything other than that, I can handle."

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