T.R.'s Memoirs: Johnny Oates, the man behind the first great Texas Rangers teams (Part I)
Oates came to the Rangers from Baltimore after the 1994 season and became the first manager to take them to the postseason.
Editor’s note: T.R. Sullivan retired after covering the Rangers for 32 years for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and MLB.com. He is sharing his memories and history of the Rangers for this website. This week: A three-part look at Johnny Oates era of the Rangers.
Juan Gonzalez was hurt and not able to be in the Rangers’ lineup. His left quadriceps muscle was bothering him and all he could do was pinch-hit. The Rangers were in first place on July 21, 1996, and Gonzalez was having an MVP-type season, but now there was a possibility he could end up on the disabled list.
Johnny Oates, in his second season as Rangers manager, tried to patiently explain Gonzalez’s situation to the media assembled in his office at the Ballpark in Arlington. Among those in attendance was George Riba, the outstanding reporter from Channel 8 who was as professional as they come in his approach to the job.
Riba was sitting in a chair across the desk from Oates when he asked the question that, to be fair, was probably on a few people’s minds.
“Is the injury legitimate?” Riba asked.
Oates, a devout Christian who didn’t smoke, drink or – almost never – use foul language, exploded.
“Excuse me?” Oates said. “I’m [bleeping] offended by [bleeping] questions like that. Of course, he’s [bleeping] hurt. I’m really offended. I don’t answer [bleeping] questions like that. I don’t have to explain … to you. Not when you ask a [bleeping] question like that.”
In my 32 years of covering baseball, it was the single most impressive tirade ever delivered by a Rangers manager against a member of the media. The rapid volume of on-the-record f-bombs has never been equaled, not by Bobby Valentine, Kevin Kennedy or Ron Washington.
Once Oates calmed down, he explained why he was so upset.
“He still can’t run,” Oates said. “The guy was here the first thing yesterday morning. That’s what bothers me when I get a question like that. I got here at 8:15 and he was hooked up to electrodes. He shouldn’t be up there pinch-hitting. I’m the one who should be held accountable for putting him up there. It’s unfair for someone to ask that question.”
Oates felt bad the next day when I spoke to him alone in the manager’s office. He was upset at his vulgar choice of words and losing his temper to a reporter that Oates genuinely respected. Oates told me that he called and apologized to Riba.
Me? I thought it was one of Oates’ finest moments in his six-plus years as manager of the Rangers when he led them to the first three division titles in club history.
Oates came to the defense of his famously temperamental superstar, a player from Puerto Rico who didn’t speak English well and often didn’t try when approached by the media. Gonzalez was an incredible talent, but was also prone to the occasional injury – especially a balky lower back – that kept him out of the lineup at inopportune moments.
Well, any time Gonzalez was not in the Rangers’ lineup was an inopportune moment. He was the Rangers’ best player. Kennedy, the Rangers’ manager in 1993-94, often had trouble holding back his frustration when Gonzalez couldn’t play. Gonzalez’s volume of minor injuries became a point of contention and doubt for many.
Oates’ profanity-laced explosion in defense of his player was one of the best things anybody ever did for Gonzalez and confirmed what Rangers outfielder Rusty Greer said about his manager.
“Nobody could get Juan Gonzalez to play like Johnny did.”
Which goes a way to explaining why the Johnny Oates era was one of the most successful in franchise history.
A change in the weather
Tom Grieve’s time as Rangers general manager came to an end Sept. 14, 1994, when he was fired by club president Tom Schieffer. The Rangers were 52-62 when the 1994 season was canceled because of the players’ strike and Schieffer decided it was time for a change. Grieve was let go although Schieffer made no move with Kennedy. He decided to leave that up to the new GM.
Schieffer, in his usual thorough manner, spent a month searching for a replacement with Orioles assistant GM Doug Melvin and Rockies assistant Walt Jocketty emerging as the finalists. Schieffer went with Melvin on Oct. 10.
Two days later, Melvin dismissed Kennedy. It was hardly unexpected, and the leading candidate to replace him was Johnny Oates.
Oates had spent the previous three-plus seasons as manager of the Orioles, replacing Frank Robinson 37 games into the 1991 season. The Orioles lost 95 games that year but then had three straight winning seasons under Oates. They were 63-49 in 1994 when the strike hit and brought the season to an abrupt end.
That was also the Orioles’ first year under new owner Peter Angelos, the Baltimore lawyer who led a group that purchased the team at auction from Eli Jacobs. The Who’s Who in the ownership group included author Tom Clancy, sportscaster Jim McKay, Hollywood director Barry Levinson and tennis star Pam Shriver. But Angelos was the boss and was not a fan of Oates.
In a June 17 edition of the Washington Post, Angelos was asked about Oates and said, “This guy’s a problem. He’s obstinate, an insecure man. Not a very good manager. I don’t think he’s a good leader.”
Angelos apologized to Oates the next day in a six-page letter. He also misspelled “Johnnie’s” name while asking Oates to stop being so tough and demanding on himself. This from an owner who once ordered Oates to give up his Toyota because it did not look good for the Orioles’ manager to be driving a foreign car.
The Angelos-Oates relationship came to a head in late July over third baseman Chris Sabo, who had been signed as a free agent in the offseason. Sabo had been a three-time All-Star for the Reds but was hitting .251 for the Orioles. Angelos ordered Oates to bench him and play Leo Gomez at third.
Oates complied. On July 26, Gomez started both games of a doubleheader against the Indians. The two teams were rained out the next day, so a doubleheader was scheduled for July 28. Gomez started the first game, but Oates decided to give him the second game off and play Sabo.
Angelos was furious. He viewed it as insubordination and wanted Oates fired. Melvin came to Oates’ defense in a meeting with Angelos’ lieutenants. There was only one player in Baltimore who played every game and that was Cal Ripken Jr.
“You guys owe it to Johnny to let him know if Gomez is the everyday third baseman or has to play every game,” Melvin said. “There’s a difference.”
Oates never forgot what Melvin did that day.
Three months later, Melvin needed a manager and it was clear from the beginning that Oates was the favorite. Truth to be told, no other candidate immediately came to mind.
Melvin initially decided to interview two others: former Rangers third baseman Buddy Bell and Oakland pitching coach Dave Duncan. Bell was a big Arlington favorite, and Melvin was vaguely intrigued by having a pitching coach as a manager.
Then Melvin changed his mind. Oates had interviewed with the Red Sox and Melvin didn’t want him to get away. Melvin recognized he was a rookie general manager and needed a veteran field boss. Melvin felt Oates could both manage a game and handle the clubhouse. He did not share Angelos’ view of Oates as a leader.
Melvin decided to cancel his interviews with Duncan and Bell. Both weren’t happy about it although Bell eventually softened his ill feelings. Melvin went with Oates.
“What this club needs is a manager who has experience and a winning percentage in the big leagues,” Melvin said. “This man, Johnny Oates, brings both qualities to the ballclub. He’s a proven winner as a major-league manager who brings good organizational skills and a well-disciplined fundamental approach.”
Oates, for his part, couldn’t understand why everybody thought Melvin was hiring his friend from Baltimore.
“I have been to his house just once and he’s never been to my house,” Oates said.
The turbulent spring
Oates was hired, but his time in Texas got off to a turbulent start. First of all, there was replacement baseball. The players were still on strike when spring training started and clubs brought in replacement players to fill their spots. Oates and his coaching staff were forced to work with them but weren’t too happy about it.
Oates spent six weeks in spring training, in his words, “with one eye on the field and one eye looking up to heaven hoping this will be over soon.”
The strike ended right before Opening Day so everybody had to head back to Florida for another fast-paced major-league camp. Oates went to work but soon had to deal with a major family crisis.
His wife, Gloria, was driving to Port Charlotte, Fla, from their home in Virginia when she and daughter Jenny had to pull over in Savannah, Ga. They couldn’t go any farther. Jenny called her dad in Florida and said, “Something is wrong with mom.”
Oates left the team, went to Savannah and took his family back to their home in Colonial Heights, Va.
Gloria was diagnosed with physical and emotional exhaustion. Oates stayed away from the team for 16 days while Gloria recovered. Third-base coach Jerry Narron managed the team in his absence. When Oates felt she was recovered, he rejoined the team in Arlington.
He did so with a certain amount of trepidation. Oates knew Melvin was in his corner, but he wasn’t sure about ownership. George Bush was now governor of Texas and the team was being run by Schieffer and managing partner Rusty Rose. Oates didn’t think it looked good having to leave the team after just being named manager. He had just left one bad relationship with an owner and didn’t need another.
Oates had nothing to worry about. Schieffer and Rose made sure of that.
The Rangers granted him a two-week leave of absence and then welcomed him back after Oates missed the first five games of the season. Upon his return, Schieffer went into Oates’ office and had a long conversation with the manager. Schieffer asked about Gloria, how she was doing, what did she need, who was staying with her while Oates was working. He asked how Oates was holding up, what did he need, how could the Rangers help.
Oates later said it was one of the most significant conversations he ever had in his life. Oates said Schieffer made him feel good, that he was all right as a manager and a person, and that everything was going to be all right. Schieffer had a deep respect for what Oates stood for as a person, his vast baseball experience, his strong religious faith and his commitment to his family.
Oates knew he was in the right place.
Johnny Oates was also the right man for the Rangers job when he was introduced Oct. 14, 1994. This was a man who oozed baseball, a mediocre catcher whose path crossed baseball royalty everywhere he went.
As a professional baseball player, he got his start and was raised in the Baltimore Orioles system during the time of Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver, but his real mentor was Cal Ripken Sr. Oates credited Ripken’s influence on everything he knew about baseball, but the list of other managers he played for or worked under included Danny Ozark, Tommy Lasorda, Dick Howser, Jim Frey, Joe Altobelli and Frank Robinson.
Trust me, that’s an impressive list. Howser especially made a deep impression on Oates. Howser was the Yankees’ manager in 1980 when Oates, at the end of his career, was his third-string catcher.
“He spoke to me every day, asked me how I was doing and to stay ready because he might need me today,” Oates said later. Oates remembered that when he became manager.
“He was very level-headed, didn’t get too high, didn’t get too low,” first baseman Will Clark said. “The team sort of mimicked that. Johnny trusted the veterans in the clubhouse to run the team. There were some times when he’d call you into the office and say, ‘We need to get after this guy a little bit.’ The veterans kind of policed their own.”
Oates was brought up through the Orioles Way when that organization stood for something and was an American League powerhouse. Weaver built a Hall of Fame career on pitching, defense and the three-run home run. Fundamentals were a must. Oates came to spring training every year with a 14-day plan to prepare his team for the start of exhibition games. Every aspect of the game would be scripted in those 14 days with no deviation.
Defense was a must, but Oates had a simple goal for his players. Make the routine play and turn the double play. All the other stuff was secondary.
Oates was not a brilliant tactician. He wasn’t a manager who was going to steal a victory with some brilliant move late in the game. But he wasn’t going to lose the game either because he overlooked something or got outmaneuvered by the opposing manager.
I remember when Brad Radke threw a three-hit shutout against the Rangers in 1995, walking two, striking out three and throwing just 101 pitches. Oates was criticized the next day because the Rangers didn’t work the pitcher. You know, like they do in Moneyball.
Oates bristled and said, “The guy was throwing first-pitch strikes. What are we supposed to go, get behind in the count every time we go up there?”
Oates told me to go look up what Rangers hitters were batting when they swung at the first pitch. For the record, Will Clark hit .403 on the first pitch that year. Mickey Tettleton hit .474.
Oates believed in veteran players and wanted a set lineup. He wanted to know who his nine position players were, his five starting pitchers and one closer. He wanted two left-handers in the bullpen.
Baseball was his life. Baseball, his family and his faith.
When Oates was hired as Rangers manager, he checked into the Marriott Courtyard near the ballpark and stayed there for five seasons. Yes, he went back to Virginia in the offseason. But during the season, he stayed at the Courtyard. He checked in at the beginning of the season and kept the same room through 162 games. He did not check out when the team was on the road. His room would be waiting for him when he returned.
There was no reason to change. The Courtyard had everything Oates needed – breakfast, coffee, laundry, cable television — and they treated him like royalty. He was comfortable there.
On the road … there was one trip when the Rangers flew into Minnesota on a Sunday night, had a day off Monday and opened the series Tuesday night. Oates checked into his room on Sunday and left just once Monday night to take his staff out to dinner. He went back to his room and didn’t leave again until it was time to go to the ballpark on Tuesday.
Exercise? No problem, wearing shorts, t-shirt and a head band, and he would take a brisk walk circling the warning track at the ballpark. He was once asked which church he attended.
“Any one that teaches the bible,” Oates said.
In 1995, the Rangers’ rotation included right-hander Bob Tewksbury, a soft-tossing right-hander who threw strikes and got by with guile more than anything.
After every start, Oates was asked about Tewksbury. His reply…
“Tewks was Tewks,” Oates said.
That was it.
Tewks was Tewks, and Johnny was Johnny.
Oates the professional
Oates also held his professionalism to a high standard.
One memorable incident occurred in spring training before a game against the Twins in Fort Myers. Oates was standing in the dugout while his team was going through pregame stretching when a middle-aged man handed him a photo and asked him to autograph it.
Oates took the photo and was horrified, aghast, appalled. Oates couldn’t have reacted more vehemently if the man had handed him a photo of a naked woman. The photo was of Oates, but he wasn’t naked.
Oates was in uniform, but his “gig line” was askew. Oates was furious that such a photo of him existed.
You’re forgiven if you don’t know what a “gig line” is. It’s a military term. The gig line refers to a man in uniform. It means the buttons in front of his jersey form a straight line with his belt buckle and the zipper of his trousers. If you are in military formation and your gig line is askew, there is hell to pay.
Oates felt the same way about a baseball uniform. He refused to sign the photo. He went looking for and found a photo of himself properly dressed in uniform. The man got his autographed photo.
Then there was the final game of the 1995 season against the Mariners at the Ballpark in Arlington. The Mariners went into the game needing a win or an Angels loss to clinch the American League West. Instead, the third-place Rangers beat the Mariners, 9-3, and the Angels won to force a one-game playoff with Seattle the next day.
Oates wasn’t concerned about that. In the eighth inning, Rangers outfielder Otis Nixon reached on a single. Nixon had 49 steals on the season. The Rangers had a six-run lead, but Oates wanted Nixon to get his 50th steal. Nixon took off and made it safely.
After the game, Oates brought it to the media’s attention that he had called Mariners manager Lou Piniella and apologized profusely for allowing Nixon to steal with a six-run lead. Oates made it clear to Piniella that he wasn’t trying to show up the Mariners He was wanted Nixon to get No. 50.
Oates and Piniella had been teammates on the Yankees and were good friends. Truth be told, Oates commanded respect from just about every manager in the league. Everybody liked Oates. He and Twins manager Tom Kelly were especially close. Piniella thanked Oates for calling and then got back to preparing for his playoff game against the Angels.
The Rangers were 74-70 in their first season under Oates. There had been some injuries – third baseman Dean Palmer missed most of the season with a torn bicep tendon – and the pitching came up short. The weird start to the season didn’t help.
That wasn’t the case in 1996. That year was different, and the first indication came in spring training. In a development unprecedented for that era, every player in the projected starting lineup was in camp at least one day before the official reporting date. So were the five starting pitchers.
That included Juan Gonzalez. Nobody had seen that ever before.