JOHNNY OATES 1946-2004
BY JOHN MARKON
Mr. Oates was born Jan. 21, 1946, near the town of Sylva in western North Carolina. He often said that his parents' home didn't have electricity or indoor plumbing until he was 8 years old.
By the time Mr. Oates was in high school, his family had relocated near Petersburg, where his father was employed as a machinist. Mr. Oates was a three-sport athlete at Prince George High School, earning a baseball scholarship to Virginia Tech, where he played from 1964 through 1967. He was elected to Tech's athletic hall of fame in 1982.
Mr. Oates signed his first professional contract with the Baltimore Orioles organization, where he first came into contact with the late Cal Ripken Sr., a longtime coach and minor-league manager in the Orioles system. Later in life, Mr. Oates often made a point of telling interviewers that his role model as a manager was Ripken, rather than Earl Weaver, who managed the major-league Orioles at that time.
"Earl only spoke to me twice when I was with the Orioles," Mr. Oates said. "Once, Andy Etchebarren got hurt and I said, 'I'll get in there, Skip.' Earl said, 'Fat chance.' When they traded me after the 1972 season, Earl said 'Enjoy Atlanta.'"
Mr. Oates, a catcher, eventually played for five OATES major-league teams - the Orioles (1970,'72); Atlanta Braves (1973-75); Philadelphia Phillies (1975-76); Los Angeles Dodgers (1977-79) and New York Yankees (1980-81). He played in 1,637 games, many as a defensive replacement in the late innings. His career batting average was .250 with 14 home runs and 126 runs batted in.
He appeared in the 1977 and 1978 World Series as a member of the Dodgers, batting a total of three times with one hit.
After accepting positions on three major-league coaching staffs, Mr. Oates returned to the Orioles as manager shortly after the start of the 1991 season. He held that position for the next three seasons, being dismissed in 1994 when a players' strike ended the season with the team in contention for a spot in the playoffs.
Mr. Oates was hired by the Texas Rangers before the 1996 season and immediately produced a division championship and a playoff appearance. His Rangers teams also qualified for postseason play in 1998 and 1999. On all three occasions, the Rangers were eliminated in the first round by the New York Yankees, winning only one of 10 games.
"Easy explanation," Mr. Oates said. "The Yankees were better. Every year they beat us, they went on to win the World Series."
Mr. Oates' career record as a manger was 797-746. He received the Sporting News' American League Manager of the Year award in 1993 and shared the major leagues' official AL Manager of the Year award with New York's Joe Torre in 1996.
The Rangers announced yesterday that they will retire Oates' No.26 before a game dedicated to him next season. A commemorative patch will adorn the Rangers' uniforms next season, and the club will place the No.26 on the outfield wall, pending approval from baseball.
Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer and Mr. Oates were classmates at Tech, and they remained close through the years. When Oates managed in Texas and Lou Piniella's son played for the Hokies, Beamer and his family sometimes traveled to take in Rangers-Mariners games.
When Beamer and Mr. Oates were students, Tech conducted classes on Saturdays. Mr. Oates would cover for Beamer in football season, Beamer would cover for Mr. Oates in baseball season.
"Every time I talked with him lately, I always told him he was the toughest guy I know," Beamer said yesterday. "The way he approached this . . . he had a great belief in God, everything was going to be OK. He always wanted to talk about me, never wanted to dwell on his problems or anything.
"Johnny's a special person, a special friend."
Mr. Oates always kept a home in the Ettrick/Matoaca area and could reliably be found there on the day after any of his teams played its final game.
He was diagnosed with brain cancer in October 2001, eliminating any thoughts of a return to major-league managing. Mr. Oates said later that he wasn't sure he would have returned even if given the opportunity.
"Baseball played too large a role in my life," he said. "I missed my kids growing up. I missed my son's baseball games and I missed my daughter, Jenny, singing in Carnegie Hall. I missed all three of my children's baptisms and my first grandson's christening."
After beginning treatments for his disease, Mr. Oates did as much for his favorite charitable causes as his health allowed. He made an emotional return to Camden Yards in the spring of 2002 when the Orioles chose him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on opening day.
He's survived by his wife, Gloria, their three children and five grandchildren. A celebration of his life will be held Tuesday at 11 a.m. at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, 3110 Greenwood Ave., Colonial Heights. Interment will follow in Sunset Memorial Park, Chester. The family will receive friends Monday evening from 6:30 to 8:30 at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church.