The low point of John Oates's managerial career came during a game against the New York Yankees on May 22. "It seemed like everything was caving in," says Oates, whose Baltimore Orioles had lost seven of their previous eight games. "I was all wrapped up in keeping my job—that was my goal. I was going to squeeze it until I lost it." In the fifth inning of that game at Yankee Stadium, he argued a call on a play at the plate and was ejected. After leaving the field he sat alone in the tunnel that leads from the third base dugout to the visitors' clubhouse. Angry, depressed and confused, Oates bowed his head and said softly, "Lord, I give up. Help me, please."
Of course Oates, 48, wasn't the first major league manager to sit in the dark fearing for his job. But there's no doubt that additional pressures placed on big league skippers in the last few years have made what was already one of the most stressful occupations in professional sports even more so. Twenty-nine managers have been fired so far in the 1990s, including, most recently, the California Angels' Buck Rodgers, on May 17. And until the Orioles won six of seven games last week, it looked as if Oates was going to be the next. The trick for any manager is to leave with all his marbles.
"See this?" says Detroit Tiger manager Sparky Anderson, lifting a cup of coffee from his desk. He makes sure the cup is never more than half full, because it shakes so when he picks it up. "This is from 25 years of managing. Two weeks after every season, the shaking stops. When the season starts, it starts."
Managing has always been a precarious business, but here are some of the reasons why the skipper's chair in the '90s is more of a hot scat than ever.
•There's a new breed of owner who knows little about baseball and demands an instant return on his huge investment.
•A new generation of general managers is filtering in—thirtysomething and eager to make a mark.
•The players, whose salaries average $1.2 million and whose contractual rights astound, are more powerful than ever. Yet many of them arrive in the majors less skilled than their predecessors, and it's up to the managers to teach them the game.
•With the expansion of TV coverage on sports cable networks and the proliferation of all-sports radio, the media have become more intrusive and influential.
•New ballparks—four have opened this decade, with two more on the way—generate tremendous fan interest but unreasonable expectations for the home team.
•Divisional realignment created two additional postseason spots in each league and an extra playoff round, giving teams more opportunities to make the playoffs—but more pressure to do so.
•Expansion—and two more teams are likely on the way—has watered down the talent, the pitching in particular.
"The rules have changed—adapt or you're fired," says Kansas City Royal manager Hal McRae.
Drayton McLane Jr., one of the eight new owners of the '90s, had watched only a handful of major league games before he bought the Houston Astros for $115 million in November 1992. As the head of a giant grocery-distribution firm, he had made a fortune emphasizing hard work, goal orientation and leadership. In hopes of promoting those virtues within his ball club, McLane last season gave then Astro manager Art Howe motivational tapes of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. Howe apparently didn't get the message, and he was fired at season's end.
Then in March, McLane told Howe's successor, Terry Collins, to watch Twelve O'Clock High for a lesson in leadership. In that film Gregory Peck takes over a lackadaisical fighter squadron and whips it into shape. A gung ho type himself, Collins didn't resent having to fulfill such an odd request; but he couldn't resist telling McLane, "Do you know what happens at the end? Gregory Peck cracks. He couldn't get in the plane."
"Are you going to crack?" McLane asked Collins.
"No," the manager replied.
Will Oates? He seemingly has every element of modern managerial stress coming down on his graying head. For starters the Orioles' new principal owner, attorney Peter Angelos, is an impatient, fiercely competitive man who wants a champion. His ownership group took control of the team last October after purchasing the franchise for $173 million, then shelled out $42.85 million during the off-season to sign four high-profile free agents—one of the largest winter spending sprees in baseball history. Before the Orioles swept three games from the Red Sox in Boston last weekend, Angelos was not satisfied with his team's 31-25 record and third-place standing in the American League East. In fact, if the front-running Yankees hadn't hit the skids recently, losing 11 of 14 games from May 29 through Sunday to offset the Orioles' own 4-8 slump (May 29-June 7), Angelos might have already eaten the remainder of Oates's contract, which runs through 1995. "You can't zero in on the manager," says Angelos. "But as an observer, when the manager makes some moves that make you ponder why that happened, it makes you wonder."
The scrutiny of Oates is heightened by the fact that Baltimore is no longer the three-sport city that couldn't sell out American League playoff games at Memorial Stadium in the early 1970s. The Orioles have been the only game in town since '84, and a full house of 47,000 fans show up every home date at spectacular Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which opened in '92. The Colts and the Bullets aren't around to vie for the fans' and the media's attention, which these days is focused entirely on the O's. And Oates blames the media for most of his stress. It has been almost 11 years since Baltimore last went to the World Series, and like Angelos, many members of the local press corps believe this is the year for the drought to end.
It also doesn't help Oates to have assistant general manager Frank Robinson, one of the franchise's greatest stars and a former Oriole manager, looking over his shoulder. Robinson, who managed the Orioles from 1988 to '91, says he would be interested in taking over the reins again under the right circumstances. In the meantime he says he isn't doing anything to undermine Oates. "John isn't worried about me," says Robinson. "He told me, 'I know you're not backstabbing me.' " Still, Angelos has expressed a liking for high-profile managers, and none appear to be available or interested in managing except Robinson.
With the weight of a hoped-for World Series appearance on his shoulders, Oates is wound tighter than a 1994 baseball. "I don't handle stress well," he says. "My family says I handle it terribly." He has always been intense, but never before to the point where he would snap at writers, as he often has this season. These days he even has trouble getting over a win, as he did when Baltimore's Mike Mussina outdueled Boston's Roger Clemens 3-2 on May 17. After the game, Oates says, "you couldn't have put a needle in my stomach, that's how tight I was." The tension Oates complains about may be contagious: After that same win over the Red Sox, Oriole pitching coach Dick Bosnian hit golf balls into the baiting cage because he knew he couldn't sleep with the knot he had in his stomach.
Oates has talked with other managers about how to deal with the demands of his job. "When you don't enjoy winning, you're in bad shape," he says. A source close to Oates says Oates has considered quitting after this season because of the strain. Oates denies that but says, "There are days that I look forward to retiring. There are nights when I want to take off the uniform, go up to the upper deck, get a box of popcorn and enjoy the game like the fans. You can't do it from the dugout."
Oates wasn't this tense when he managed the Rochester Red Wings, the Orioles' Triple A affiliate, in 1988, or when he piloted the Orioles for three games in '90 while Robinson was serving a suspension; during that three-game stint Oriole players raved about his communication skills and his attention to detail, and some even expressed the wish that he was the full-time manager. Nor was Oates this uptight after replacing Robinson in May '91, even though he did drop 16 pounds while losing his first four games.
Oates began exhibiting more serious effects of managerial pressure in September 1992, when his overachieving club started to collapse in the thick of a pennant race. He wasn't his usual outwardly calm self, and it showed in his managing: He overworked his bullpen and didn't bother to rest tiring every-day players. But those symptoms of distress were a mere prelude to this season's. The pressure built between late November and late January as the four free agents were being signed; it mounted on Jan. 31 when Oates's friend and confidant, free-agent pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals; and it reached a climax in the tunnel at Yankee Stadium. The next day The Washington Post cited team sources as saying Oates's job was in jeopardy. Shortly thereafter Oates spoke with Angelos, who told him that he didn't have a problem with his managing. Said Angelos last week, "Sure he's under scrutiny when the team isn't doing well, but we're supporting him. He's not in danger of losing his position."
To relieve some of the tension, Oates stopped reading the newspapers. But then, he is his own worst critic. He says that all the money the club spent in off-season acquisitions doesn't mean a thing if he doesn't make the right decision in the eighth inning. "After a hard loss, some goofy things go through your head," he says. "I go back to my room, I lie in bed, and cruel things go through my mind. It's like, Why, why, why?"
Oates spends most of his free time—what little there is considering that he's usually at the ballpark—alone in his condo in Baltimore or in his hotel room on the road. He rarely socializes with his coaching staff. His wife, Gloria, and three children are home in Colonial Heights, Va. "I have times where I become so down," he says. "I need quiet, I need time to think, to pray, to be by myself." He often replays the games in his head, only to realize that he could have done everything right "and still ended up a loser."
His players see the strain; everyone in the organization does. "I hadn't seen it until this year, but I see it in his face," says Robinson. "That's not good." Robinson says managers must have an outlet. "He better get one," Robinson advises. "If you don't let stress out, it will get to you. My first year managing in Cleveland , clumps of my hair fell out. No job is worth your health. He's got to let go."
When it's suggested that Oates needs a diversion, he says, "Why? I have one. I read." He reads books by Charles Stanley, a prominent fundamentalist minister. He reads the Bible. He reads The Athlete's Topical Bible, which uses scripture to explain how to handle various situations, including some that pose difficulties for a manager. Oates would rather read than go out on the town. He doesn't drink. "What do I have to drink for?" he says. "I'm not a person who needs to drink to forget how bad the game was. I might not want to forget it. I may want to remember it and learn from it."
Oriole coach Davey Lopes, a staunch supporter of Oates's, says, "I feel bad for John and what he's going through. He should ask for help. He talks a lot with Gloria and lets it out, but when you talk to someone within the ranks, you can alleviate more stress."
Oates might telephone Gloria at 3 a.m. and tell her what he's thinking. "She never says, 'How can you feel that way?' or 'You're wrong.' She just listens," Oates says. Sparky Anderson, for one, feels that that's not good for Oates, and he recently told John and Gloria as much. "She has to scold him," says Anderson. "That's what my wife, Carol, does. She'll say, 'Shame on you for acting this way after all the game has done for you. Don't you start feeling sorry for yourself.' "
Oates is a small-town guy, from Sylva, N.C., who spent 11 virtually anonymous seasons as a backup catcher in the majors, "hating every minute of it." He was unhappy being away from home, being the 25th man on the team, hardly ever playing and sweating out the final roster cuts every spring. He hasn't swung a bat since his playing career ended, in 1981. He has always wanted to be an ordinary Joe, which is why, in his early days as Oriole manager, he would give a phony name at a restaurant so he wouldn't be seated ahead of someone who had been waiting.
Oates is regarded by all who know him as a decent, honest man, a dedicated father as well as a devout Christian. He doesn't chew tobacco, and he rarely swears. He works as hard and is as well prepared as any manager in the game, and no one, including his players, blames him for the team's sometimes sluggish play this year. Injuries have limited rookie phenom Jeffrey Hammonds to 86 at bats. With the exception of closer Lee Smith, the bullpen has been terrible. There was no lefthanded hitter on the bench until rookie Bruce Dostal was called up from Rochester last Friday. Third baseman Chris Sabo, one of the big free-agent signees, missed 19 games with a bad back, then asked to be traded after losing his job to Leo Gomez. (Even after Oates put Sabo in leftfield against the Red Sox—and he delivered a game-winning home run last Friday—Sabo didn't back off his trade request.) The Orioles were expected to be a great hitting team, but at week's end they ranked 10th in batting average in the American League and had scored the second-fewest runs. "His stress didn't cause the injuries," says outfielder Brady Anderson, who was hitting .247 through Sunday. "Maybe our performance has caused his stress."
Perhaps, but Oates hasn't been managing the same way he did in previous seasons. He used to be a fearless strategist, winning games with his baseball smarts. Now he appears less willing to take a chance. There's a concern on the club that perhaps he's overly prepared and doesn't rely enough on his instincts to stay flexible during a game. One Oriole even says Oates's tension seeps into the clubhouse and makes the players play tight.
"I'm very intense," Oates says. "My heart is beating fast during a game. I hope theirs is too. If not, maybe that's what's wrong with this club. Maybe they're not intense enough. We have the wrong guys here if the reason we're playing poorly is I'm making them nervous." On June S. during a game in Kansas City, he delivered that message in an angry outburst in the dugout.
That was the stress coming out. By nature Oates doesn't berate players or challenge them in the dugout. "People are seeing me as a shriveled-up, scared-to-death, tight, frozen manager in the dugout. I'm not," he says. "This is a very serious business. This isn't a sandlot game where you get a beer between innings. I'm not some depressed guy who is hanging by a string. I'm not to the point where I'm going to commit suicide. I'm a conscientious person. If we don't excel, it's going to bother me."
Oates says he has been less on edge since that time in the tunnel in New York. The tirade he directed that day at umpire John Shulock wasn't premeditated, but he suggests he was thrown out of that game for a deeper reason: His ejection gave him a chance to be alone. The feeling of peace he had that day was something he had never before felt as a manager. Oates says he isn't clinging to his job now, that he's not afraid of being fired. "I've felt great ever since," he says. "But if it ever gets worse than that, I'm in trouble."
He smiles. He knows it could get worse. Every manager knows it can always get worse.