Oates will throw out first pitch in opener

Despite brain tumor, former O's manager accepts Angelos' offer

March 22, 2002|By Roch Kubatko and Peter Schmuck | Roch Kubatko and Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Removed from his position as Orioles manager eight years ago, Johnny Oates will be given the ball on Opening Day.

Oates has accepted an invitation from majority owner Peter Angelos to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the April 1 game against the New York Yankees. The idea was presented to Angelos last month as part of the team's 10-year celebration of its move to Camden Yards.

"We've been looking at this since the beginning of spring training," said club spokesman Bill Stetka, who confirmed Oates' involvement in the pre-game agenda. "We had learned where Johnny's heart was with the Orioles, and that's what helped drive the whole thing."

Emotions are certain to run deep. Oates broke into the majors with the Orioles in 1970 and also served as a coach before being hired as the franchise's 10th manager in 1991. Angelos dismissed him after the 1994 season, leaving Oates as the fourth-winningest manager in club history with a 291-270 record.

In October, Oates was diagnosed with a stage four brain tumor, regarded as the most severe. He underwent surgery the next month at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and his prognosis is uncertain. A tumor of this sort almost always returns.

Oates said the call he received from Julie Wagner, Orioles community relations director, who phoned on Angelos' behalf, caught him by surprise. "I never thought something like that would happen," he said.

"I still dream that someday I'll work for the Orioles again. This might be the closest I can get."

Before plans could be finalized, the Orioles had to receive confirmation from the White House that President Bush wouldn't attend the game. Official word came this week.

"The first thing I thought of was, `This is what a president does. This is what Cal Ripken Jr. would do.' It brought tears to my eyes," Oates said. "The whole family is excited about it."

"He was so nice," Wagner said. "He talked about how, once an Oriole, always an Oriole. And he remembered the first time he signed his contract with the Orioles and having been a player, coach and manager. I could tell it meant something to him, and that made it all the more special to us to be able to extend the invitation.

"It's our 10th anniversary, and we were thinking of that originally and thinking of Johnny and his circumstances. It all seemed to come together and made so much sense. We went to ownership and talked to them about it and they thought it was a very good idea. They were very supportive."

Oates was scheduled to be in Baltimore this week for his second two-month checkup since the surgery. The first examination in February didn't show a recurrence of the tumor.

"I think it was emotional for him when I asked him," Wagner said. "He took a moment and then responded. His faith is really strong, and he has such grace in the way he accepts everything, which I think is a real gift. He's so upbeat. I got off the phone, and I was just very inspired."

The feeling should intensify in a few weeks, especially for the people who played and coached for him. Oates was David Segui's manager in Baltimore and Texas. And he sat in the home dugout for the final game at Memorial Stadium as Mike Flanagan became the last Oriole to throw a pitch on 33rd Street.

"I would imagine that this will be a big-time emotional moment," said Flanagan, who returns to the broadcast booth. "I'm sure his memories with the Orioles will come flooding back. He's probably honored and humbled at the same time. We'll all be running the gamut of emotions."

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