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SPORTS Man Behind the Miracle


LIKE MOST ENTHUSIASTS OF THAT BRANCH of the visual arts known as baseball, 1 communicate with the Texas Rangers mostly via the miracle of television. Consequently, after almost every pitch. 1 see a close-up shot of the impassive countenance of manager Johnny Oates, standing in the dugout with folded arms.

Over the course of 162 days and nights, his expression-that of total, trance-like concentration-rarely changes. Sometimes, though, Johnny Oates’ eyes betray the mask.They go cold. I remember watching the game last season when a sidearm relief pitcher named Mark Brandenburg let the game slip away. The camera maintained its focus on the reaction of Oates. I’ve seen the reflection of softer emotions in the hooded face of a king cobra. “Say goodbye, Mark,” I remember thinking at the time and. sure enough, within 36 hours, Brandenburg was part of some package trade with the Red Sox.

Now it is mid-March 1997, and I get the same look from Johnny Oates that Brandenburg got, only it’s not on television. The Big Chill. I am four minutes late for a scheduled 8 a.m. interview with Oates in Port Charlotte. Fla. Oates arranges his life around a meticulous schedule, and a four-minute deviation ranks as a hanging offense. Forget the fact that I got lost in the maze of streets in this colony of old folks where the Rangers go to prepare for the regular season. Excuses don’t count in Oates’ self-styled book of human essentials.

Initially, 1 suspect that the project of exposing the man behind the mask in the Rangers dugout might prove something akin to chipping away at one of the faces on Mount Rushmore with a screwdriver. Instead, Oates quickly swings open the gates to his private garden of baseball. Very quickly, I learn thai Oates defies every known stereotype that identifies the Major League Baseball manager. Customarily, men in this job category share I wo common characteristics: They can’t complete a sentence without employing a barrage of barnyard expletives and, almost unanimously, they are what social critic H.L. Mencken would describe as “patrons of the jug.”

1 remember an encounter more than 20 years ago with another Texas Rangers manager. In the darkness of a tavern, the man’s eyes glowed red-orange like dying embers in a fireplace. The late and lamented Billy Martin, leader of men, recounted a conversation that he claimed to have had with Tommy Vandergriff, then mayor of Arlington. “1 told the mayor to inform those Arlington cops of his that whenever they see that black Continental with personalized plates ’N umber 1 ’ to leave well enough alone, even if I’m driving on the goddamn sidewalk.” Martin said.

Johnny Oates stands out as the antithesis of all this. Johnny Oates is the Anti-Billy. Johnny Oates does not drive on the sidewalk. Oates, a person of immense humility, talks about the importance of providing “warm fuzzies” to players when they hit a slump. The first thing Oates does after he wakes up is read his Bible. This isn’t the same man who generates those mean stares from the dugout. Baseball managers are not supposed to act this way.

But Oates’ Bible contains few passages to compare with the miracle that he accomplished in a trying and untimely triumphant season with the Texas Rangers. For the first time in a tiresome team history that dates back to 1972. the Rangers actually won a division. But the real story was not that the Rangers won, but how they won. Chronically, the Rangers franchise produced some dreadful slapstick worthy of Larry. Curly and Moe. A tedious procession of managers came to Arlington offering a blood oath to stress “pitching and fundamentals” to the on-the-field process. All of it lip service, like jive talk by some politician about balanced budgets.

Then along came Oates. Hired before the 1995 season, Oates quickly instilled law and order to the Rangers’ format. Consider this statistic: Last season, the Rangers played 95 games in which they did not commit an error. That included an August stretch of 15 consecutive errorless games, an American League record. The team’s .986 fielding average was the best in (he major leagues.

How was that done? Oates’ baseball pedigree provides some clues. He was a product of the Baltimore Orioles operation and there, baseball carries deep cultural-if not spiritual-overtones. Under the two-decade regime of manager Earl Weaver, the Orioles won a lot and when they didn’t, they still played the game the right way. Oates, a former catcher, explains it:

“About 98 percent of my baseball philosophy was taught to me by the people who ran the Baltimore organization, and I was fortunate to have been brought up around that. The best way to explain how we leach our guys is based on what Earl Weaver told Cal Ripken Jr. when he moved him from third base to shortstop. He said, ’I want you to catch every single ground ball. 1 want you to get your feet underneath you and make an accurate throw to first base, because the runner is either going to be safe or he is going to be out.’ That’s pretty logical. But what Earl meant was that if the runner is safe, then the next guy hits a ground ball and we’re out of the inning.

“Now what happens if we throw the ball away, or we boot it? Then the runner is on second and a single scores him. So that’s our basic philosophy. If we make an unbelievable play or we make some unbelievable base-running coup and we gamble and win, that’s gonna be tine. But you’re not going to win a championship tricking people and doing things that are out of the ordinary. We want to make all the routine plays. I tell the guys, ’Don’t try to throw a jump pass when you have no chance to throw out the runner because you’ll throw the ball into the dugout. Keep it simple and don’t mess it up.’ This ball club was willing to accept that role of keeping it simple.”

As primitively kindergarten-basic as Oates makes that sound, he outlines the reason why the Rangers will draw a minimum of 3 million paying fans in 1997 and, if things go according to his expectation, the total might go well beyond that. For the first time in the history of the franchise, the necessary ingredients stand in place to win a World Series.

I MAINTAIN A RATHER IMPRESSIVE INVENtory of spring training memories, drawn from the distant and carefree 1970s, back when the Rangers spent the entire month of March in Pompano Beach, Fla. That’s where they would go to get their livers in shape for the long season.

Now it is 1997, and I am back in Florida. After 20 years, settings and circumstances are supposed to change. Still, I am unprepared for the radical alterations of the camp-scene that modem-day Rangers embrace over on the Gulf Coast at Port Charlotte. What happened to the 26 million coeds who used to flock to the beaches for spring break? Where’s the horse track? Where are the seafood restaurants and the saloons that tremble and rock until 4 a.m.? You can find more night life in Borger than in Port Charlotte. This is Denny’s Country.

Tom Schieffer, the team president, sits in the owners’ box atop the stadium where an exhibition game against the Minnesota Twins is in progress and explains, “Charlotte County has die oldest population per capita of any county in the United States. By the seventh inning, all these fans will clear out of here to be first in line for the Early Bird Special at the cafeteria.”

Thus, we have the ideal setting for spring training, Johnny Oates style. Nothing to do but play baseball. Oates’ wife Gloria has said, “Baseball is Johnny’s mistress.” Opiate would be more like it. When Oates isn’t mainlining, he inhales. General manager Doug Melvin, the man who brought Oates to Texas, stands outside the Rangers’ clubhouse and laughs about his man’s compulsion for the game.

“Johnny look Gloria out for dinner on their 25th wedding anniversary. Very romantic occasion,” says Melvin. “Then she looked over and Johnny was scribbling out a new batting order on a bar napkin.”

The day is young, the birds are chirping and Doug Melvin is a happy man as he watches the 1997 Rangers assembled on the field for a post-dawn workout. “Notice,” Melvin says, “how they wear their uniforms. Everybody exactly alike. We were up at Sarasota to play an exhibition game against the White Sox and Frank Thomas was wearing some warm-up jacket cut off at the sleeves and Albert Belle had on his jewelry and they had guys running around with iheir caps on backward. You don’t see that around here. That might not seem like a big deal to you, but it is to me, and it’s a reflection on Johnny and how he runs things.” In the not-too-distant past, the Rangers’ clubhouse offered a dynamic that included outfielder Bob Brower feeding rats to his pet boa constrictor as pre-game entertainment. Julio Franco also liked to bring his pet tiger cub in there on a leash. Under Johnny Oates, animal acts are no longer a part of the Rangers’ presentation.

Twenty years ago, a keg of beer always adorned a table in the middle of the clubhouse. I didn’t see any kegs in Oates’ clubhouse. What I did see was a hand-out from the Rangers’ employee assistance program. Topic of the day: date rape. “Don’t allow yourself to be caught in questionable situations. With the bright future you have, and all your future opportunities, don’t let one lapse of judgment or one weak moment ruin it all. Know limits and standards before you gel into a situation in which judgment is lost in the heat of passion.” Yes. Big changes have happened since the wild and turbulent days of Billy Ball.

“Did you see how Johnny arranges his office?” demands Melvin. ’”Everything is perfectly arranged. He walked into that office after a workout the other day and lie said, ’Somebody’s been in here.’ Then he pointed at his desk and said, ’I left my pen lying here and now it’s over here.’ Another time, he cut short a conversation with me because he said he had to be in the dugout at 7:17. I worked for the Yankees when Billy Martin was still there.” Melvin laughed out loud. “Can you imagine Billy Martin worrying about being in a particular place at 7:17?”

Now Melvin watches as the players begin a peculiar-looking aerobics workout on the outfield grass. About 40 guys jog, in unison, leap-pirouette, actually-with their arms extended over their heads, and then jog backward. It looks like a Fellini version of Swan Lake. But according to Melvin, all the players perform the odi\ maneuvers without complaint. “Johnny sends out signals and one of those is, ’ If you tell the conditioning coach to go screw himself, then you’re also telling me to go screw myself.’ And that’s important to the staff. I’ve seen managers actually stand by and ridicule efforts of people like conditioning coaches, right there in front of the players, and when that happens, before long, the whole thing goes to hell.”

Melvin had been assistant general manager in Baltimore when he received a call from the Rangers ownership team after the strike-shortened season of 1994. Torn Schieffer was about to replace Tom Grieve as general manager and wondered if Melvin was interested. Melvin wound up with (he job. and his first officia] act was to fire field manager Kevin Kennedy.

At almost the exact time, Johnny Oates was becoming available. Peter Angeles, the new owner of the Orioles, dismissed Oates in Baltimore, even though his winning percentage in three seasons there was the third highest in the American League.

“When I first became manager in Baltimore, the one thing that 1 did not anticipate was the demands on my time…the demands that come from working with the modern-day multi-media,” Oates says. “Every radio station in the country wants a five-minute interview and [couldn’t say no. I tried to do everything by myself, and I would get so wrapped up, so frustrated, when I couldn’t get it all done. I was a peo-ple-pleaser, I knew that i couldn’t please everybody but that wasn’t going to keep me from trying to. It almost drove me crazy. I was either going to please everybody or kill myself. Whichever came first.”

While the experience might have been devastating to proud Johnny Oates, Doug Melvin was privately delighted. “Look at the history of the Rangers and you will find that the vast majority of the managers here were doing it for the first time,” Melvin says. “Whitey Herzog. Billy Hunter. Pat Corrales. Doug Rader. Bobby Valentine. Kevin Kennedy. Now I’m a first-time GM and so I needed experience and structure in the clubhouse. That’s why 1 recommended Johnny.”

Tom Schieffer remembers his first encounter with the new hire. ’’He seemed rather defensive about what had just happened to him in Baltimore,” Schieffer says. “But Doug Melvin assured us that Johnny has a phenomenal understanding of the game, and more importantly, understands what motivates people and, consequently, knows how to win.”

Melvin’s first key personnel decision was to get rid of Jose Canseco. The suave slugger had been a fan favorite and now Melvin was swapping him to Boston in exchange for Otis Nixon, a little squirt whose face looks like something that appears atop a totem pole. “When I told Johnny that I wanted to make that deal, he just smiled and said, ’Well, it sounds like I’m getting a good defensive centerfield and aleadoff hitter as well.’ “

The message was unmistakable. In the Melvin-Oates era, guys who used to date Madonna will not serve as the backbone of the franchise. Oates elaborates: “Peer pressure in our clubhouse is intense, just as it is in every clubhouse. What makes our peer pressure different is that, to a man, it’s the right kind. We don’t have one guy who is trying to be bigger than the whole ball club and that helps me a lot.”

FOR A TEAM THAT LARGELY PERFORMED with an efficiency rating that would be satisfactory in the home office of Mercedes-Benz, the 1996 Rangers were often plagued by some bizarre late- inning efforts from the bullpen. Mike “Heart Attack” Henneman became the maestro of the blown save and that worrisome aspect of the format embellished by Jeff Russell, a brave competitor whose right arm had gone deader than Bonnie and Clyde.

Through the combined efforts of those two, no lead seemed safe and many were sabotaged. Johnny Oates often found himself face-to-face with a test of faith. And when it seemed that the Rangers had finally locked up the division title with a ninegame lead over Seattle in mid-September, the cushion evaporated.

“If ] had one word to describe last season’s team, it would be resilient,” says the manager. “We went to Seattle and lost four straight games. Then we went to Anaheim, took a late lead, and, with two outs and two strikes on the batter, we lost that game. too. “Earlier, there were back-to-back games at home against Minnesota when we had a two-run lead with two outs in the ninth and lost both of those. We had a weekend in Boston where we took leads into the ninth every day and lost. We lost one with two outs in the ninth at Kansas City and another one at Minnesota. We had a five-run lead one Friday in Cleveland and blew that.

“I like word pictures. Some ball clubs are made out of clay. Ours was made out of rubber, Many, many times we got thrown up against the wall and we just kept bouncing back. If this ball club had been made out of clay, the second time somebody tired us against the wall, what happens?

“You just shatter-and start pointing lingers. 1 think that’s what happens a lot of times in adversity. People just start making excuses. They don’t want to be held accountable for their own actions. It becomes easier to say ’he’rather than ’we’ or ’I,’ but this team, it stuck together just like rubber. We didn’t split when things got really bad and, no matter what kind of beating we took, we just kept bouncing back,”

Beyond the cosmic instability in the bullpen, Oates thinks that the Rangers biggest obstacle in 1996 was the monumental task of overcoming the phantoms of the franchise’s past. “Well, in the public’s eye and certainly throughout the media, the history of the team became a big topic and the ball club spent some time in the area of self-defense.” Oates confirms. “Inside, we felt we were a different ball club. We weren’t part of those other 24 teams. But in a court of law. we’d have been found guilty! This team had never officially won. If you read it and hear it often enough, prêt 1 y soon you start believing it. If you go up to (he plate thinking you’re going to strike out. believe it or not. you’re going to strike out. So I told the guys, ’Don’t right it. Just go out and win and we won’t have to worry about (hat next year.’ “

IF YOU HAPPEN TO BE FAMILIAR with those close-up dugout angles when the TV camera focuses on Oates, you’ll notice his ever-present companion is this character who looks something like actor Bruce Dern. That’s Dick Bosman, the Rangers’ pitching coach. You could refer to Bosman as the manager’s right-hand man, except, Bosman says, “Sometimes 1*11 stand to his immediate left. Depends on where the phone to the bullpen is located in certain dugouts.”

Interestingly, when Johnny Oates rapped out a single in his very first major league at-bat back in 1970, Dick Bosman was pitching. It is also interesting that during those unsightly on-the-field clown acts in the early years of Rangers baseball, Bosman was the anchor of the pitching staff. “My first child, Michelle, was bom in Arlington the same night the Rangers played their first game, ever, at Arlington Stadium-April 22, 1972,” says Bosman.

What I remember about Bosman in those days was that he didn’t fit in, necessarily, with the overall personality of the team. Bosman didn’t screw around on the road. He was always getting on the plane carrying a big box containing a new outfit for his wife. Unlike most of his teammates, Bosman also was not merely satisfied to roam the country, play bad baseball and enjoy the amenities of big-league travel accommodations. Basically, he was embarrassed to be a part of it all.

’i enjoyed living in the Arlington area. Loved it, in fact. But those teams were clearly not championship-oriented. There was no comparison in the teams between then and now,” Bosman says.

Now it is Dick Bosnian’s job to serve as a communications conduit between the manager and pitchers because Johnny Oates, like most managers, realizes that pitchers exist on a separate intellectual wavelength from the remainder of the planet. Pitchers, mostly, are skittish and unpredictable characters. It has also been said that pitchers are like snowflakes: No two are the same. “Oh, there’s a ton of variety,” says Bosman, rolling his eyes. “That’s what makes it so interesting.

“It’s my job to provide encouragement and support to the pitchers and sometimes that is not easy to do after a guy has been handed his lunch,” Bosnian confesses. “But what I like about the job is that Johnny gives me total freedom to do what I want. He insists on it, in fact. He says, ’If there’s something that you think I need to know, then tell me, but otherwise, leave me alone because I have other things to worry about.”

Johnny, at least, is the same guy, every day, and you don’t find that with every big league manager. And believe me, it’s those peaks and valleys that’ll beat you to death.”

AUTHOR WILLIAM STYRON, IN DARKNESS Visible, describes his encounter with clinical depression as “totally remote from normal experience. The gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain. But it is not an immediately identifiable pain, like that of a broken limb. It would be more accurate to say that despair comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this cauldron, because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.”

In 1995, just before the end of spring training during Oates’ first season with the Rangers, he received a phone call from his wife of 27 years, Gloria. En route to Port Charlotte from the couple’s home in Virginia, Gloria checked into a motel in Georgia, where she apparently experienced symptoms like Styron describes. It was a major mental and emotional collapse.

Oates received permission to join his wife. He almost didn’t come back. “When I went to Gloria, she was not very well at all. Next to my faith in God, my wife is the most important thing in my life and for all intents and purposes, she was dying,” recalls Oates, his eyes reflecting the agony. The fact is, Oates says that for two weeks, he shared his wife’s disabling anxiety.

Tom Schieffer says, “We were all very worried, and I think that there was a point when Doug Melvin felt that Johnny wasn’t going to come back.”

Oates wondered whether he would be allowed back. “Fortunately for us, we had an ownership and a general manager who were willing to give us a chance to get well,” he says. “The healing process is still going on. But Tom Schieffer and Doug Melvin and Rusty Rose cared about the people who were going through this. Thanks to the encouragement offered by the people I just mentioned and many others, Gloria and I have the love affair that we are experiencing now.

“When or if I ever get around to writing the story of my life in baseball, that chapter would be at the center of it.”

IF THERE IS ANYTHING TYPICAL ABOUT Johnny Oates as a major league manager, it is that his playing career had been a transient affair, as he served on various teams largely in a utility role. Oates was traded from Baltimore to Atlanta. Then to Philadelphia. Then to Los Angeles. Then to the New York Yankees. He retired after the 1981 season in New York, when he appeared in 10 regular games.

“As a player, I wish my career had been more, oh, permanent someplace. But I bounced around and that became a blessing,” says Oates. ” As a player, 1 got to watch the management styles of an Earl Weaver, a Cal Ripken Sr., an Eddie Matthews, a Clyde King, a Tommy Lasorda. And I learned something from all of them.

“But the one I remember the most and the one I would most like to emulate was Dick Houser, who managed the 1980 Yankees. That team won 102 games and I’ll bet I didn’t have 50 at-bats. but Dick Houser made me feel as important as Ron Guidry or Reggie Jackson.”

Houser died of brain cancer after managing Kansas City to the World Series championship in 1985. “It was from him that 1 discovered the value of warm fuzzies in the clubhouse…as opposed to the cold pricklies, and I played for some guys who dish those out with the best of them, too.

“Sometimes, when you’re winning 2-1 in the ninth and your shortstop throws the ball away and then the pitcher hangs a breaking ball on an 0-2 count and you lose the game, it’s easy to slam the door and yell and shout. What’s not easy under those circumstances, but what is very important, is to go out in the clubhouse and remind the shortstop of how many great plays he’s contributed on the nights that we won, and explain that he’s gotten that guy out plenty of occasions in the past and that he’ll get him out plenty more times in the future.

“Because you’re gonna need those guys tomorrow. There’s another game tomorrow and those players have to be mentally alert and ready to go.”

JOHNNY OATES IS NOT ONE OF THESE Cardboard Christians from the realm of sports who kneels in prayer in the end zone after running back a punt. Oates prays in private and says, “I pray that the Lord will guard my tongue, guard my actions and let my walk be my talk.” The fact that Johnny Oates’ baseball nickname is Quaker relates more to his lifestyle than a pun on the breakfast cereal.

Johnny Oates does not pray that Will Clark will drive in 100 runs this season; he does not pray for quick recovery for Juan Gonzalez’s surgically repaired thumb. Nor does he pray that the Texas Rangers will win the pennant this season. Frankly, Oates is confident that the Rangers can still accomplish their on-the-field job without the Lord’s help.

Melvin agrees. “We are very similar to last year but hopefully better,” he says, pointing out the acquisition of New York’s John Wetteland to the revamped bullpen. “We’re the same car with a new set of tires.”

Says Oates: “In our mind, the Rangers haven’t won anything yet. Yes, we won the division last season, but that was not our ultimate goal. Only one guy in this clubhouse accomplished his goal last season and that was John Wetteland (who won the World Series with the Yankees). So now our goal is help him win it two years in a row.

“I’m not saying that we’re going to win the World Series. I’m not saying that we’re not going to win it, either. What I do say is dream big because, sometimes, dreams come true.”