For Angelos, Oates blended into the crowd

September 29, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On the morning the Baltimore Orioles opened their brand-new ballpark at Camden Yards, Johnny Oates arrived and couldn't get into the place. A security guard said he needed identification. Those in search of a metaphor need look no further.

In Peter Angelos' eyes, Oates was a faceless man, a baseball manager interchangeable with a dozen or more others. For such money as he was spending -- $173 million for the ballclub, $40 million for free agents last year -- the principal owner of the Orioles figured he was entitled to the best man money could buy, and Oates was just an ordinary guy in a crowd.

The Oates knockers say he couldn't handle the pressure of running a pennant-contender, and his defenders say it wasn't the pennant race so much as the Angelos pressure. Probably both are true, though Angelos thinks Oates was a man tying himself in knots no matter who was running the show.

"I've heard those arguments," Angelos was saying Tuesday evening, when his firing of Oates was saturating the sports pages and the radio talk shows. "He was under a lot of pressure, but it was pressure that pre-dates me. He was in that state of mind.

"I wasn't walking around claiming we were going to win pennants. I gave Johnny a two-year contract. I felt it would show him we had confidence in him. I never sat with him and said, 'I'm expecting this and that.' I never called him into my office until . . ."

Until Chris Sabo and Leo Gomez. Sabo, the big free-agent catch, was playing third base like a man with a bad back, which is precisely what he was. Gomez, hitting well when given a shot, was languishing on the bench. Orders were given: Play Gomez. It was an infuriating and humiliating time for Oates, and maybe everyone should have known right there that the writing was on the wall.

It was certainly in the papers. Angelos was quoted in the Washington Post saying uncomplimentary things about his manager. The remarks were out of context, Angelos said, and he quickly sent a note of apology to Oates. And misspelled his manager's name. You didn't need Dr. Freud to note the symbolism.

A week ago, with Oates waiting out the strike and pondering his fate, it was reported that Angelos wanted to talk to Tony La Russa, manager of the Oakland A's. The story was true, and it effectively finished Oates.

"We wanted to talk to La Russa for some time," Angelos said, "but we didn't want it public. When it leaked out, it was embarrassing. We felt bad for Johnny. We said, we can't subject him to this, and that's why we had to act now. It was very difficult."

La Russa's contract runs out next week. He's widely regarded as one of baseball's best managers. Would such a man come here, having heard reports of an owner given to meddling?

"I've heard those comparisons," Angelos said, dismissing them perfunctorily. "That I'm another George Steinbrenner. Come on, I'm nothing like that. My policy is not to interfere with baseball. But that doesn't mean I abandon my responsibility to the best interests of the club, and not protect its overall well-being."

Longtime Orioles fans have a mixed history in these matters. When big money began to rule the game, and the Yankees' Steinbrenner first began buying up free agents, Baltimore doggedly called itself the best team money couldn't buy. It was working-class resentment from a town trying to sneer at the rich guys in the big cities.

Later, when Edward Bennett Williams spent wisely but not well, it seemed to confirm the folly of throwing money around. But, in the Eli Jacobs era, with money tight and the game giving itself increasingly to the power of money, the Orioles seemed to lose complete touch with their past. They weren't great, they weren't horrible, they were just mediocre.

Angelos arrived bearing money beyond counting. Better yet, he was happy to spend it. He remembered a departed football team called the Colts and wanted to buy a new club. He saw mediocre baseball players at Camden Yards and paid for the likes of Rafael Palmeiro. He looked in the dugout, and there was Johnny Oates, who was just Johnny Oates.

Not a bad manager, just an ordinary one. Not a bad guy, but an interchangeable one. For his kind of investment, Angelos wants something more: a guy who doesn't need an identity card to get into his own ballpark.

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