O's woes won't go if Oates does

May 25, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

There is a lot of talk about whether Johnny Oates should be fired, which is hardly surprising. One of the advantages of spending $173 million to buy a baseball team, as Peter Angelos and his group did, is that you get to pick the manager you want.

Spending that much money means you have every right not to have to live with your predecessor's version of a good idea.

But spending that much money doesn't necessarily mean you know what's right. It doesn't mean you know how to fix what ails your ballclub. It just means you've got a lot of money, same as countless other owners who haven't won diddly.

Having said that, it is probably only a matter of time before Angelos moves on Oates. He denied a recent report that a change could be imminent, but rest assured that the story will keep popping up, particularly if the ballclub keeps puttering along as it has lately, on a pace to win 95 games, the most since 1983. Last week was bad, and Angelos is getting itchy.

But when he begins to mull making the change, if he hasn't already, there is one essential question he needs to ask himself: Can I get someone better?

The answer is no.

Angelos is a terrific guy and a local guy, and we should be grateful he came along and improved the ballclub. But he needs to understand that, at this early stage of the season, doing anything other than firmly shooting down the possibility of a managerial change is a sign of panic.

He needs to understand that, in the vast majority of cases, the person writing out the names in the lineup is a lot less relevant to winning and losing than the people whose names are in the lineup.

Turn down the talk shows, Mr. Owner. It is true that the Orioles have some problems, but Oates is not among them.

A major-league manager is a detriment only if he is overwhelmed by the job, as were Buddy Harrelson, Maury Wills and others. Oates has his shortcomings, but he is certainly not in that fraternity. He is competent, a professional.

Understand, managers are basically interchangeable. They all have their good points and bad points. They all have their good days and bad days. They win more games in some years because their hitters hit better and their pitchers pitch better, not because they got smarter for a while.

Tony La Russa was a genius a few years back, but what he was mostly was the manager of Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Dave Stewart and Dennis Eckersley in their primes. He isn't quite as smart now that his team has a collective 6.27 ERA.

Oates' peers voted him Manager of the Year in 1993. Did he get stupid over the winter?

Sure, there is no denying that Oates is uptight these days and that the club would be better off if he weren't so. But he has every right to be uptight, considering his job security. And, anyway, compared with the Orioles' real problems, Oates' manner is about as important as the price of popcorn on Eutaw Street.

To see the Orioles' real problems, look on the field -- and in the training room.

Look at Brady Anderson, who hasn't been the same since the first half of '92, yet signed a big contract in the off-season. Is it possible the club has overestimated his talent?

Look at Jeffrey Hammonds, who can't seem to stay healthy. Is it possible his fragile body will turn him into an underachiever?

Look at Mike Devereaux, so lost at the plate. Is he turning into a lost cause? Look at Chris Hoiles, who still isn't hitting almost two months into the season. Look at the ineffectiveness of Jamie Moyer and Alan Mills. Look at Chris Sabo's aching back.

Those are the "problems" of a team with one of the best records in baseball.

Johnny Oates isn't.

No, he isn't a recreation of Billy Martin or Earl Weaver. Yes, maybe Angelos could find someone else to do the job about as well. If that's the owner's wish, so be it. (Personally, I'd be a little frightened to see Angelos' short list. This is a man who, however well-intentioned, wants to recreate 1979. He'd probably want to make Jim Palmer the manager.)

But chances are overwhelming that firing Oates would be pointless at best, a mistake at worst. In Oates, Angelos has in place a solid tactical manager who is going to think things through and basically do things right. How do we know that the next guy wouldn't turn out to be the next Maury Wills?

See, the owner really has no business picking the manager, at least not in an intelligently run organization. It shouldn't matter how much he paid for the team. His wallet and business success don't make him a baseball expert. Consider the example of Edward Bennett Williams.

Baseball people pick the manager. Good baseball people understand that patience is the first law of the game, that patient organizations invariably win, that swapping one decent manager for another is an exercise in wheel-spinning.

So, really, as Oates hangs there precariously, the important question to ask is this: Are the Orioles of Peter Angelos an intelligently run organization?

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