Family couldn't wait for baseball this time

April 21, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- It came in one of those pre-game sessions with the media at Camden Yards, the ones Johnny Oates came to despise when he managed the Orioles. He told a sad story on himself, a story about the impossible dream of being a baseball man and still finding a way to spend enough time with your family.

That night, idling away the hours before a game, Oates said he had recently turned to his wife of 20-plus years, Gloria, and said, "You know, I don't even know you. I don't know what makes you tick, or what you care deeply about."

The story may have been slightly apocryphal -- Oates and his wife are close -- but he was telling it to demonstrate how completely his career and concerns had overshadowed hers and those of their three children over the years, and how unfair that was.

It was a cautionary tale that spoke volumes about baseball -- the part of the game Ken Burns would never choose to document.

"It's sad, really, what some of us give up because we love this game so much," Texas Rangers general manager Doug Melvin said yesterday after announcing that Oates, now manager of the Rangers, was taking a two-week leave of absence to care for his wife, who is hospitalized in Virginia for what Oates said in a statement was "complete mental and physical exhaustion."

As openly devoted as Oates has always been to his wife and children, he has always put baseball before them. Not in his heart, maybe, but in the way he arranged his life. That is true for most people in a sport that demands ownership of your soul, not to mention eight months of your time every year.

"He was telling people on the banquet circuit last winter that the strike gave him a chance to see his son play baseball for the first time," Melvin said. "A lot of us have stories like that. My mother lives in Canada, so I seldom see her. One day she asked me if, when she passed away, I would be able to take a day off, miss a game and come to her funeral. She was trying to make a point. And she sure did."

Not that the point caused Melvin to change his priorities. So it goes with most baseball people, who are as addicted to the game as an alcoholic to drink.

There are occasional times when priorities simply must be changed, however. Such was the case with Oates this time.

For the first time in his life, his family was unable to step aside, to play the good soldier, to settle for showing support on the sidelines.

For the first time in his life, he had to make a choice. Opening Day, his first in Texas, is next week. But his wife is seriously ill.

"He had to choose between the two loves of his life, baseball and his family," Melvin said. "He made the right choice."

Would the majority of people in baseball have made the same choice? Who knows? We're better off not asking that question.

"What he is doing is certainly a rare situation in this game," Melvin said. "But one of my owners said, 'Hey, this is no different than if a family member was in a car wreck and you had to be with them.' "

Indeed, the Rangers were helpful, granting Oates the leave for which he asked. But in the larger framework of baseball's macho mentality, the remarkable part of the story is that Oates even asked at all.

"A lot of times the wives and families get the short end of the stick in this game," Melvin said. "To be honest, I'm surprised that what has happened to Gloria doesn't happen to more wives of people who take these high-stress managerial and general manager's jobs. Because they're left at home carrying a huge burden. Raising the kids by themselves, basically. Being both parents at once."

Melvin speaks wistfully and from experience. He has two young children at home and doesn't see them nearly enough to suit him.

"My son has played four baseball games this spring and I haven't been there to see one," he said. "He looks up in the stands and sees that all the other fathers are there, and I'm not. Your kids are growing up and you're not there."

He shook his head.

Yet he has waited his whole life for the chance to run a ballclub, and now he's doing it. He can't stop. He's every bit as trapped as Oates has been all these years.

"Baseball families understand the situation," Melvin said. "But they give up so much because we love the game. I know I tend to come home, say hello to the kids and turn on ESPN to watch a ballgame. Maybe there's a lesson for all of us in Johnny's situation."

The lesson is that the families suffer too much, that the kids miss their fathers terribly, that the baseball life does not in any way make for a normal family existence, not even close. The money and fame are great, but the cost at home is enormously high.

Incidentally, Oates will be back on the job in less than two weeks if everything works out, the club said.

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