O.J. and the O's

September 28, 1994

This newspaper's sports department employs people with a heck of a lot more knowledge than we have to dissect the firing of Baltimore Orioles manager Johnny Oates. But we were struck by the juxtaposition on Tuesday's front page of the story of Mr. Oates' tortured relationship with Orioles owner Peter Angelos and the one about jury selection in the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

Two stories with sports at their core. Two stories that have captivated their audiences all summer. And two stories that share this: However many words are used, however much film is shot in the name of helping the public understand its public figures, we hardly know them.

When Mr. Simpson was charged with the murder of his ex-wife and Ronald Goldman last June, a nation sat stunned. How could this be? We know this guy. He was a football star. He ran through airports. He was funny in the movies. The ensuing stories about his violent relationship with Nicole Brown Simpson made us realize that the O.J. we thought we knew was made of cardboard.

We don't mean to be glib by putting the firing of a manager in the same context. The gravity of the stories isn't comparable: Because he's under contract, Mr. Oates will be paid $325,000 next year to go fishing if he desires and his credentials will no doubt earn him another top job in baseball.

But the Oates-Angelos clash is one all observers, from the media to Joe Fan, believe they understand completely: Mr. Oates was insecure. Mr. Angelos was domineering.

And yet a short story by The Evening Sun's Orioles beat writer Tom Keegan last summer reminded us that, like O.J., we know only the cartoon characters that the very public Messrs. Angelos and Oates have become. In that story, Mr. Oates was recalling his childhood in a rural North Carolina town in the 1950s, in a shack without plumbing or electricity.

"Sometimes, it makes me feel bad when I think of the money I make for signing autographs for one hour, then I think of how long it would take mom and dad to work for that money," he told the writer. "Mom would be out there in the fields cutting cabbage with dad 12 hours a day, toting 50-pound bags of cabbage, thinking nothing of it. Sometimes, I think about how I wish there was a way I could go back [in time] and give some of the money I make now to them so they didn't have to work so hard."

The passage made us question our conviction that we had known what made Johnny Oates tick.

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