A man of faith, life of integrity

Ex-O's manager remembered for his grace in final years while facing brain cancer

`it is a great loss for baseball'

Johnny Oates : 1946-2004

December 25, 2004|By Peter Schmuck and Bill Free | Peter Schmuck and Bill Free,SUN STAFF

Former Orioles manager Johnny Oates wanted everyone to know it would be all right.

From the day doctors diagnosed an incurable form of brain cancer in 2001 until yesterday, when he died at age 58 at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center in Richmond, he used his illness as a platform to deliver a positive message about faith and grace.

"Just what he has gone through the last three years and the way he has gone about it tells you everything about him," said close friend and former Orioles coach Jerry Narron. "He was always upbeat ... always positive. I'm going to miss him. Baseball already has missed him for the last few years."

Oates, who came up through the Orioles' organization as a player, led the club to winning records in each of his three full seasons as manager (1992 to 1994) and went on to lead the Texas Rangers to three American League West titles before resigning early in the 2001 season.

He received a diagnosis of glioblastoma multiforme, a particularly aggressive brain tumor, in October 2001. The prognosis wasn't good -- there is no cure, and the disease can run its course in a matter of months -- but Oates viewed it as anything but a death sentence.

"When you look at it, it's a blessing," he said in a 2003 interview. "Really, there's only one day of the week that has any importance, and that's today. You can't do anything about yesterday, and you can't do anything about tomorrow. It's just today."

He leaned heavily on his Christian faith and used the milestones in his three children's lives as goals as he battled the disease, regarding each upcoming wedding and birth as a gift from God.

"Everybody on this Earth is going to die, and nobody knows when," Oates said in an interview in The Sun in 2002. "Whatever time I have left, whether it be four months, 14 months or four years, I want it to mean something."

Narron, who coached under Oates in Baltimore and succeeded him as manager of the Rangers, said he has no doubt Oates touched countless lives both during his baseball career and throughout his illness.

"This was a man of great integrity and great character," Narron said. "It is a great loss for baseball and everybody who knew him."

Oates replaced Frank Robinson during the 1991 season and went on to a 291-270 record as Orioles manager. He was replaced after the 1994 season, reportedly because owner Peter Angelos was not enamored of his managerial approach, but the two would come to like each other in later years.

"One of the regrets he had," Narron said, "he wanted to go back to Baltimore and show Peter Angelos he could win. He really wanted to do that."

He would have to settle for throwing out the ceremonial first ball on Opening Day in 2002, a heartwarming moment before a sellout crowd at Camden Yards that Oates would describe as one of the great thrills of his life.

"Johnny Oates was a true gentleman," Angelos said in a statement. "He faced this disease the way he lived his life, with class and with dignity. I know I speak for the entire Orioles organization and fans in expressing our deepest sympathies to his wife, Gloria, his family and friends. We will truly miss him."

True professional

After the cancer diagnosis, baseball commissioner Bud Selig said: "There is so much good in the game of baseball, and Johnny Oates symbolized that. He's just that kind of human being. He is a true baseball professional because he has always conducted himself with dignity and class."

Oates had a career managerial record of 797-746.

As a major league catcher, Oates played more than nine seasons for the Orioles, Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees. He had a career batting average of .250 in 593 games and hit 14 home runs.

Most of his major league action was with Atlanta in the 1973 and 1974, when he played in 193 games.

Oates, who shared American League Manager of the Year honors with Yankees manager Joe Torre in 1996, was inducted into the Rangers Hall of Fame in 2003. The manager's office at The Ballpark in Arlington is named in his honor.

"Gloria [Oates' wife] said one of their prayers was that he would be in heaven before Christmas," current Rangers manager Buck Showalter said yesterday. "I bet there will be a heck of a baseball game up there tomorrow ... no, the day after tomorrow. It will take John time to get organized."

The Rangers announced that they will retire Oates' No. 26.

Doug Melvin, general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers and a former executive with the Orioles and Rangers, recalled the kindness Oates showed him when Melvin was a 27-year-old batting practice pitcher for the Yankees.

Melvin was made to feel like an outsider by sometimes-callous major league players. But Oates walked up to Melvin and gave him a hug and a smile.

It was a warm gesture Melvin never forgot. Melvin would twice name Oates a manager -- with the Orioles' Triple-A Rochester team and the Rangers.

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