The strike-shortened 1994 season was the year baseball entered the Twilight Zone. Submitted for your approval: Johnny Oates, a dedicated baseball man whose Orioles hadn't finished under .500 since 1991, was inexplicably fired in September by owner Peter Angleos despite compiling the best winning percentage of his career. Within a month, he was hired by Texas, where things were pretty strange, too. Although the Rangers somehow won the division for the first time ever despite a 52-62 finish, management had canned manager Kevin Kennedy and most of his staff.
Oates, a catcher used primarily used for his defensive skills, began his minor-league career in the Orioles' system playing for future Baltimore skippers Joe Altobelli and Cal Ripken Sr. In his first major-league at-bat in September 1970, Oates singled against defending ERA champ Dick Bosman, whom he later hired as his pitching coach with the Rangers. Oates returned to Baltimore as a rookie in 1972 and, while sharing the catching duties with Andy Etchebarren, posted the best fielding percentage of any catcher in the American League. But manager Earl Weaver was always looking for power hitters, and after the season he sent Oates and Davey Johnson (who would eventually become manager of the Orioles a year after Oates was fired) to Atlanta for Earl Williams.
"When I played for the Orioles, Earl Weaver only spoke to me twice," Oates told a Texas reporter in 1999. "Once, our catcher got hurt and I said, 'I'll get in there for you, Earl.' He said, 'Fat chance.' After I got traded, he said, 'Enjoy Atlanta.'"
Williams hit 22 homers in the potent Orioles lineup as Baltimore won the 1973 AL East title, while Oates was a disappointment for the mediocre Braves. Slowed by a knee injury in 1973, he hit only .248 and the following year saw his average drop to .223. After a slow start in 1975 Atlanta re-acquired Williams from Baltimore and packaged Oates with Richie Allen in a deal that brought Jim Essian and Barry Bonnell from Philadelphia.
Ironically, after the trade Oates (who platooned with Bob Boone on the Phils) went on to have his best year at the plate, finishing the season with a .282 average. However, even before Oates suffered a collarbone injury in an Opening Day home-plate collision with Dave Parker in 1976, it was clear that Boone was the Phillies' catcher of the future. After an All-Star season by Boone in '76, Oates was traded to the Dodgers for Ted Sizemore. In Los Angeles, he backed up Steve Yeager, who was in the process of establishing himself as one of the game's better catchers. By midway through the 1978 season Oates had sunk to a third-stringer behind Yeager and Joe Ferguson.
Oates retired in June 1981 after two anemic seasons with the Yankees -- both years, he failed to hit over .200. But he gained notoriety during the 1981 World Series when he was recruited by the Yankees to help the team prepare for the Dodgers. When the Yankees won Games One and Two, Los Angeles manager Tom Lasorda accused Oates of stealing signs.
First drafted by Baltimore in 1967 -- and heavily influenced by Cal Ripken, Sr. during his playing days in the minors -- Oates returned to the Orioles organization in 1988 as manager of their Rochester (Triple-A) affiliate. In 1989 he was promoted to the majors as first base coach under Frank Robinson, whom he replaced in May 1991 after a 13-24. Under Oates, the Orioles finished the season with a 67-95 record, but surprised the AL East by with an 89-73 finish in '92. In 1993 (even though the team took a step back in the won-loss column) Baltimore's 85-77 effort won Oates the Sporting News Manager of the Year award.
But it was with the Rangers that Oates' preparation paid off. After going 74-70 in Oates' debut season in Texas, the Rangers made it to the playoffs for the first time ever in 1996 after winning the West with a record of 90-72. Despite a team ERA of 4.65, the potent Ranger lineup was unstoppable, hitting 221 homers with an overall .284 batting average. Eight players had double-digit home run totals, led by Juan Gonzalez with 47. For his efforts, Oates was honored as the AL Manager of the Year. In 1997, thanks to unproductive seasons by the Rangers' infield and pitching staff, compunded by key injuries, Oates suffered his first losing season in five years. But the Rangers, confident in Oates' abilities as manager, extended his contract through 1999.
The Rangers rebounded to win the West in each of the next two seasons but both times were swept by the Yankees in the ALDS. Discouraged, Texas management shipped star right fielder Juan Gonzalez to Detroit before the 2000 season but kept Oates at the helm. The Rangers slipped to fourth place, prompting the blockbuster signing of superstar Alex Rodriguez, but continued to struggle early on in 2001. After a five-game losing streak that dropped the team's record to 11-16 -- the team's worst start since 1985 -- Oates decided to call it quits. His 506 wins with the club trailed only Bobby Valentine's 581. (JGR)
Contribute your recollections of Johnny Oates by clicking here.
FROM THE BASEBALL CHRONOLOGY
»May 7, 1975: The Braves trade C Johnny Oates, along with the contract of Dick Allen, to the Phillies for two players and cash. Allen had refused to report to Atlanta following his trade from the White Sox on December 3, 1974, and announced his retirement.
»August 5, 1975: The first seven Phillies hit safely—good for 15 bases—against Bill Bonham (10–8)and the Cubs, in setting a ML record. No pitcher has ever started a game by allowing seven straight hits. Dave Cash leads off with a single, and Larry Bowa matches it. Garry Maddox homers over the LF fence. Greg Luzinski singles, and Jay Johnstone and Tommy Hutton follow with doubles to make it 5–0. Mike Schmidt then hits his 22nd homer to finally drive Bonham out of the game. His replacement, Ken Crosby (making his ML debut) gives up a single to Johnny Oates for the 8th straight hit. Dick Ruthven lays down a sac bunt for the first out, but three walks, two hits and a balk make it 10–0. As historian Lyle Spatz notes, the Phils last scored 10 runs in a frame on August 13, 1948. Schmidt adds a 2nd homer to help push the final to 135.
»April 10, 1976:
In the Opening Day 5–4 win at Pittsburgh, Dave Parker scores the winning run in a violent collision at the plate with Phils' C Johnny Oates. Oates will miss two months with a broken collar bone.
»May 23, 1991:
Manager Frank Robinson is fired by the Orioles—the 3rd manager in three days to get the ax—and replaced by first-base coach Johnny Oates.
»April 19, 1996: The host Rangers show no mercy in running up the largest score in the A.L. in 41 years and trouncing the league-leading Orioles, 26–7. Sixteen of the runs come in the 56-minute 8th inning, their last at bat, and the largest 8th inning tally in baseball history. The inning is highlighted by Kevin Elster's grand slam off O's backup IF Manny Alexander. Manny, no Grover Cleveland Alexander, walks four including three with the bases loaded, but does manage to get an out. For O's reliever Jesse Orosco, it's a bad two days as he gives up 12 earned runs in two 1/3 innings: The two outings raise his season ERA from 1.52 to 3.40. Juan Gonzalez hits two homers and has six RBIs, while Dean Palmer (2) and Will Clark also add round-trippers. O's manager Johnson fumes when Mickey Tettleton takes 3B with Texas ahead 20–7: "I've seen it all, but guys tagging up from second with an 18-run lead, it's ridiculous." Texas manager Johnny Oates, who still carries a clipping from a 1983 IL game when Johnson, with a 9-run lead, had his team stealing against Oates' squad, counters, "Davey didn't have to use an infielder to pitch in that inning."
»May 2, 2001:
Texas manager Johnny Oates resigns and Jerry Narron takes over as interim manager. Narron dodges a bullet when today's game is called after three innings with the visiting White Sox leading, 6–0.