Oates calm amid baseball storm

September 26, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

This was the baseball season that didn't end, just went away.

"It was like taking a test in school and never knowing what grade you got," Johnny Oates said.

Weird? Of course. But particularly weird for a guy such as Oates, a neat freak, a guy who can't stand it if his desk isn't spotless in the morning, if his things aren't organized, if all the loose ends aren't tied up.

"It goes without saying that I would like to have known how things turned out," he said.

Oates isn't meant for a disordered world. And his world is nothing if not disordered right now. His sport is in disarray. His future with the Orioles is very much in doubt.

But guess what? Oates is making out all right.

"I'm not losing sleep over anything," he said. "I'm doing fine."

NB Whether Oates will remain with the Orioles was Topic A in town

until the strike. Peter Angelos postponed personnel moves while the players and owners debated a labor contract and ultimately killed the season. Now, Angelos is getting back to the business ** NTC of the ballclub. His desire to speak to Tony La Russa, reported in The Sun yesterday, certainly isn't good news for Oates. Even if La Russa winds up managing elsewhere, Angelos is hunting.

During the season, when Oates plainly was agitated by the speculation and uncertainty surrounding his job, such news might have caused him to bust his eyeballs. He is calmer now. He seems to understand now that the cause of his firing wouldn't be his performance so much as Angelos' inflated expectations and preference for a high-profile leader such as La Russa. How else to explain the firing of a manager on a 91-win pace?

"I've come to grips with the fact that I'm OK," said Oates, who has a year left on his contract. "I know what I've done, who I am and what the ballclub has done. I have nothing to be ashamed of. Whether or not I'm back in Baltimore, I know what I've done and what I'm going to do."

It's always easier to make such pronouncements after the heat of the season had dissipated, of course. For Oates, 1994 was particularly rough. There was always this vague (and sometimes not-so-vague) sense that Angelos was displeased with him. His future was forever being discussed. He was often tense. How will he remember the year?

"The best year of my life," Oates said.

Come on.

"No, really," he said. "Sometimes the best years are the ones where you're really tested. This was a growing year for me, no doubt about it. I learned about handling criticism. That's made me a better person."

His assessment of his team's season?

"I think we got carried away and thought we'd win 135 games, forgetting there were other teams that would be trying to beat us," he said. "We didn't accomplish what we set out to do, but we've made a lot of strides in three years, done things we can be proud of. It was great to see [Mike] Mussina bounce back and [Jeffrey] Hammonds play well when he was healthy. Great to see Cal [Ripken] Jr. continue to be so consistent, great to see Lee Smith accomplish so much. We have a good team."

Talking about teams and standings and pitching rotations seems pointless right now with the game in such horrid disrepair, but Oates does it easily. To hear him tell it, he never stopped.

"Baseball is a 365-day conversation piece in this family," he said. "No matter what is going on, it never stops. What we buy, what time we eat, just about everything revolves around baseball. It's almost ridiculous now that I'm sitting here thinking about it."

Oates is a baseball lifer, for sure. But it's funny: Unlike many of his lifer brothers, he doesn't seem particularly devastated by what is happening to his game.

"I hate seeing it, sure," he said, "but No. 1, there's nothing I can do about it, and No. 2, I know that baseball is going to go on. Whether it be through the courts, labor negotiations or whatever, the game will continue. It may not be the same, and it's in a bad slump right now, but at some point it will go on and ultimately be fine."

During the strike, he has taken a second honeymoon with his wife, gotten his son set up at college and seen one of his daughters on her first day at work. And -- shhhh -- he has kind of enjoyed himself. Maybe that's his own way of rebelling at the odious labor dispute.

"Baseball is a wonderful game, but I have other things in my life," he said. "I have a beautiful wife, three kids, a dog who hasn't bit me yet. I miss the game, sure. But the bottom line is I feel very

good about who I am and what I've done. I feel very confident, very positive."

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