Set lineup means Oates manages less, enjoys more

April 20, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

Eating lunch at home yesterday, shortly before leaving for the ballpark, Johnny Oates suddenly had a revelation.

"I'm paying attention to you," the Orioles' manager said to his wife, his amazement dripping from every word.

No distracting lineup permutations to mull. No pitcher-hitter matchup calculations racketing through his head. No "What was that, honey?"

At mid-afternoon, third-base coach Jerry Narron stood at the door of Oates' office at Camden Yards, preparing to fill out the lineup card.

"You gonna try the same one again?" Narron asked, knowing the answer before he asked.

"Of course," Oates said.

No changes to doodle and ponder. No changes even to consider.

As the first pitch approached in the early evening, Oates stood on the field during batting practice, surrounded by a circle of reporters.

"I know what my lineup is going to be tonight, I know what my lineup is going to be tomorrow night, I know what my lineup is going to be the next night," he said.

All the same names in all the same places, night after night after night.

The Orioles' Iron Lineup.

It's funny, if you think about it. Just as the Orioles' off-season spending spree has intensified the study of Oates' managing, it has given him less to do.

Just as the pressure on him to win ballgames has increased, his impact on the club's fortunes has decreased.

"Am I doing less managing? I would say so," he said. "We're going to pick our spots to move runners and things like that. But I'm not going to pinch hit for anyone. I'm not going to change the lineup around, provided there are no injuries. When you have talent, as [Twins manager] Tom Kelly said, you just repeat it."

Until there was Rafael Palmeiro at first base and Chris Sabo at third, until Mark McLemore came into his own and Jeffrey Hammonds' potential became too obvious to nurture slowly, Oates had all sorts of decisions to make every day. Leo Gomez or Tim Hulett at third? David Segui or someone else at first? Who played right if McLemore played second instead of Harold Reynolds?

Now, with his Iron Lineup, Oates just mimeographs the names from the night before. His biggest problem is making sure that Jack Voigt, Lonnie Smith and the rest of his reserves get to play at least occasionally to keep from becoming creaking Tin Men.

It constitutes a full-scale lifestyle overhaul for Oates, an inveterate lineup tinkerer from way back. In his former life, he was forever grabbing napkins and scouring the front seat for pieces of paper while driving along, desperate to get his latest idea on record before he forgot it.

"I don't know if this is more fun," he said, "but it sure is easier."

Cal Ripken will play every game. Palmeiro will play just about every game. (He played 160 last year, sitting out two against Seattle's Randy Johnson, against whom he is 1-for-17 lifetime.) Brady Anderson and Mike Devereaux won't miss many if they're not injured or sick. Neither will Chris Sabo nor Hammonds.

"I can see [Harold] Baines playing 120 games, Chris Hoiles playing 120 games, and the other seven playing 145-plus," Oates said.

And it's not just the paralyzing Iron Lineup that limits his options. In their prior incarnation as scrappy overachievers, the Orioles had to manufacture runs with plays, pinch hitters and lefty-right percentages. This year, with more talent, they'll use a whole lot less funky stuff.

"You can overmanage a club like this, a good club," Oates said. "You can hit and run and sacrifice, but if you've got nine good hitters, you just let them hit. The other night in Texas we started out playing for one run [in one inning] and got four. There's a lesson right there."

Of course, as Cito Gaston's example demonstrates, you can still catch heat by managing a great team passively, by just letting your All-Stars play. The romantic ideal of a mystical genius manager is more appealing. But it's just that -- a romantic ideal.

"The job of a manager of a good ballclub is to just stay out of the way," Oates said.

Not that there aren't still decisions for him to make. After last night's 4-3 win over the Angels, the Orioles' fifth win in seven games, he said he was considering a couple of changes for tonight. Would it be a good night to rest Hoiles, who is struggling? Would it be a good night to rest Mark McLemore? A good night to rest Baines?

"I've been thinking about these things for four days," he said.

Still, compared to the multitude of questions that used to weigh him down, that used to ruin his lunches with his wife, he is blessed with a distinctly uncluttered mind this year.

On the hot seat -- but off it, too.

"Last year I not only had to worry about whether I had the right personnel in the order, but whether I had them in the right places," Oates said. "This year, I'm convinced that it's just a matter of keeping this lineup healthy and together. If we do, we're going to be fine."

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