Right move for wrong reasons

September 28, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

Firing Johnny Oates was unfair. An exercise in cheap scapegoating.

But it may have been the right thing for Peter Angelos to do.

Oates was competent and professional, every bit as capable as most of the managers who have jobs today.

He was fired not because of his performance, which, as anyone who knows baseball can tell you, was fine. He was fired because a) his pitchers weren't as consistent as they were supposed to be this season, and b) Angelos didn't like his style. Not necessarily in that order.

Unfair? Certainly. But who said life was fair? The fact is that Angelos paid $173 million for the team, which means he has a right to have a manager he wants instead of one he inherited.

It's a bad break for Oates, but don't worry about him. He'll be managing another major-league club one of these days. He is held in high regard by many in the game.

And even though Angelos' reasoning for firing Oates was ill-conceived, a managerial change might help the Orioles.

Might.

Oates wasn't the Orioles' problem. But another manager might be the solution.

Might.

(We'll explain in a minute.)

Oates should be proud of what the club accomplished in his 561-game tenure. The Orioles were foundering when he took over, on their way to their fifth losing season in the past six. Oates put a winner on the field, and did it despite being hamstrung by a cheap owner in Eli Jacobs, who consistently cut personnel corners.

His reward for a job well-done was being badgered and criticized this season by Angelos, who should be embarrassed, but isn't.

(My favorite was when Angelos blamed Oates for being "an insecure man." Angelos blaming Oates for being insecure is like Angelos shooting Oates and blaming him for bleeding. Angelos made Oates insecure with constant sniping, then blamed him for it. Beautiful.)

Angelos' oafish bullying made Oates palpably tense during the season, which bothered a few players, but the club was still on a 91-win pace when the strike began. The Yankees were better, so Angelos wasn't satisfied, but the blame for any unfulfilled potential goes to Sid Fernandez, an overweight bust; to the bullpen, which was inconsistent; to Mike Devereaux, who was a washout . . .

The blame goes to the players. Where it always should go.

Yet in 1994, as well as in the two prior years, there was something missing from the club that might, just might, trace its roots to the manager.

The missing ingredient was a confident, aggressive attitude. A killer instinct. A swagger. Oates' Orioles won a lot of games, but they were accepting of defeat and disappointment. They had shortcomings that were the traditional markings of a team in a second-place rut. They didn't play well at home. They often failed in big games and big series.

Repeatedly, they would rally in the standings to the brink of first place, then lose and fall back. They were the perfect pennant-race opponent, easily vanquished.

It's possible that they didn't belong in first place, that they were merely sinking to their appropriate level. But it's also possible that their absence of heart was helping facilitate their fall.

Oates was unable to instill in the Orioles the self-confidence that championship teams possess. Too often, his team played scared. Perhaps the players were to blame for that, too. But there is something to be said for leadership in such cases. Perhaps Oates didn't have the right personality for these players. Perhaps he didn't push them enough.

You can't blame Oates even if it is true, of course. He is who he is, a low-key pro. The man just is not a screamer.

But maybe another manager will provide the push, the motivation, the confidence that the Orioles need to get out of their rut.

Considering that the tension between Angelos and Oates was poisoning the atmosphere anyway, it's worth taking a chance and trying another manager. Oates was not such a tactical genius that he's irreplaceable. He won't be missed. Most major-league managers are interchangeably competent.

Of course, the problem is that no accomplished manager will want to come here and work for Angelos. Forget Tony La Russa. Who would want to work for a guy who happily admits he'll interfere in lineup decisions? That means the Orioles could get stuck with a shot in the dark such as Rick Dempsey or Davey Lopes. A backward step.

Angelos might get lucky, however, because Davey Johnson's contract is about to expire in Cincinnati. A manager who has worked for Marge Schott is probably the only person who would view working for Angelos as an attractive assignment.

Johnson is the best choice out there, a solid, tactical pro who has managed a World Series winner and might be able to get the Orioles to stop accepting second place.

Might.

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