There are some fun historical facts related to Johnny Oates’ career as a player.
He started his major league career in 1970 with a four-game hitting streak in five games for the Orioles.
He was Hank Aaron’s teammate when Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record.
He helped Jim Palmer to a 10-0 record in 1972 when he caught for him, leading Palmer to remark: “He was the perfect catcher for me. He was smart, always full of questions. He knew what he could do and what he couldn’t. He worked so hard all the time. You have a lot of respect for somebody like that.”
Oates listed his priorities as a player as follows: “My number one goal was to catch a win. Second, I hoped for a shutout. Third, I wanted a complete game for the starter. Fourth, well, if I got a hit, that was fine.”
His hitting struggles were no secret. Broadcaster Harry Carey once remarked, ‘Johnny Oates just hit his annual home run.’ “
Oates played two seasons in Baltimore (1970 and 1972) and 11 seasons in the majors, but he won’t be remembered for his contributions to baseball as a player. The Oriole Advocates, who will honor Oates as a member of the team’s Hall of Fame this weekend, correctly state, “It is for his work as a manager … that Oates is best remembered by Baltimore fans.”
Oates was Sporting News Manager of the Year with the Orioles in 1993. He replaced Frank Robinson during the 1991 season – inherting a team that had yet to win more than two consecutive games – and became Baltimore’s fifth manager in seven seasons. Nevertheless, he turned two consecutive losing seasons into three consecutive winning seasons before being dismissed following the strike-shortened 1994 campaign.
After leaving Baltimore Oates led the Texas Rangers to their first post-season appearance in 1996. He shared American League Manager of the Year honors that season with Joe Torre of the New York Yankees. He added American League Division titles with Texas in ’98 and ’99.
He is a member of the Rangers Hall of Fame – and come this weekend – the Orioles Hall of Fame. The Rangers retired his number; the Orioles obviously have not.
All things considered, it’s easy to overlook Oates’s time in Baltimore, in part because he never led the team to the post-season. In many fans’ minds his time as skipper likely just fills the space between memories of the beloved “Why Not?” campaign in 1989 and the team’s first Wild Card appearance in 1996.
However, Oates deserves to be recognized, though he rarely is, for his role in “Why Not?” And not just because he was a coach for the team.
In 1988 Oates managed the Rochester Red Wings, the Orioles’ Triple-A affiliate at the time. He earned International League Manager of the Year honors while coaching League MVP Craig Worthington and Rookie of the Year Steve Finley, both of whom contributed to the “Why Not?” effort.
Oates stood by Finley in 1988 when the outfielder got off to a slow start in Rochester and became a candidate for demotion. Here was Oates’ scouting report: “I think he’s ready to hit in the major leagues. He has a God-given gift of speed and intelligence. He’s going to bunt, and as he gets bigger, he’s going to get his 10 to 15 homers. He’s going to be outstanding defensively.”
Finley played 19 seasons in the majors, won five Gold Gloves, and was a two-time All Star.
Oates insisted at the winter meetings prior to the 1989 season that players like Finley, Worthington, and Bob Milacki were ready to help the parent club immediately. All three did just that, led by Milacki whose win total (14) and ERA (3.74) were both second-best on the club.
And then there’s Jeff Ballard.
Ballard acknowledged that he struggled with the mental aspects of pitching, particularly as he bounced back and forth between Triple-A Rochester and Baltimore during the 1987 season. Promoted to the bigs after a fast start Ballard split time with the two teams, finishing with a 13-4 record at Triple-A and a 2-8 record in Baltimore. He then moped in the minors in 1988 after failing to make the team out of spring training. That is, until Oates pulled him from a game and told him “I don’t like your attitude.”
“I snapped out of it after that,” Ballard said. “I realized the way I was acting wasn’t helping anyone. I pitched two real good games and was called up May 19.”
Ballard led the Orioles with 18 wins and a 3.43 ERA in 1989.
Ultimately, Oates understood that it was about the players and not about him. He summed up that sentiment when he was inducted into the Rangers’ first Hall of Fame class alongside Nolan Ryan, Jim Sundberg and Charlie Hough.
“There’s one big difference between [the other inductees] and myself,” Oates said. “They’re here because of what they did. I’m here because of what others did for me.”
[This post also appeared on Camden Chat on Thursday.]