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Oates Knows That Tension Goes With Being Boss

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 6, 1993

BRADENTON, FLA., MARCH 5 -- Johnny Oates had many mentors on his way to becoming one of baseball's most respected young managers.

As a player with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he would sit alongside Tommy Lasorda on the bench and ask questions. During his days with the New York Yankees, he learned dignity and compassion from Dick Howser. Oates admits that, as a coach with the Baltimore Orioles, he would peek into the other dugout to watch Tony La Russa at work for the Oakland Athletics.

Oates says he also has learned a thing or two about leading a group of athletes from a man not even involved in his sport -- Joe Gibbs. Oates describes himself as an ardent Gibbs admirer, and the third-year Orioles manager seemed stunned to learn today that Gibbs had stepped down as the Washington Redskins' coach.

The games may be different, Oates said. What Gibbs did for a football team doesn't always translate into a lesson for Oates as a baseball manager. The environments are vastly different. But Oates said he believes the basics of leadership are the same.

"I admire his coaching technique a great deal," Oates said here this afternoon, before the Orioles began their Grapefruit League season by beating the Pittsburgh Pirates 7-0. "I've seen {the Redskins} play a couple times, and every time I caught myself looking at the sideline the whole game, wondering: 'What's he saying? What's he telling his players in this situation? Is he reprimanding that guy or building him up?' "

Oates often had talked about going to Redskin Park for a closer view of Gibbs at work, but he never got around to it. He did, however, read Gibbs's autobiography, and he came away with a few tidbits.

Oates says he's tried to apply a trait often associated with Gibbs's coaching style -- straightforwardness with his players -- to his own work. "You just try to be as honest with your players as you can, all the time," Oates said. "Even if they don't want to hear it, they'll respect you more for saying it."

Oates, like Gibbs, is renowned for his work ethic. Oates, 47, doesn't sleep in his office several nights a week, but he -- like Gibbs and so many others who have become successful coaches -- most certainly lives the job.

Oates likes to tell a story about the first wedding anniversary that he and his wife celebrated after he was named to manage the Orioles. Gloria Oates caught her husband's mind wandering at lunch that afternoon, and -- after discovering that Johnny Oates was contemplating his lineup for that night's game -- she rebuked him sternly and told him that all she wanted was an hour, just one hour, of his time.

Oates beams when he says that Gloria Oates got her hour on their anniversary last summer. But it's more than a once-a-year test for Oates. It's a nightly test.

"People like to tell you they can leave the game at the ballpark," Oates said today. "I try to do that, but I can't. I try to hide it. Everybody around me will think I'm not thinking about baseball, except my family. They know when something is bothering me. My wife says she knows the minute I come out of the clubhouse {after a game} what the night will be like. She doesn't even have to say, 'Hello, how are you doing?' She just looks at me, and she knows."

Whenever people in Oates's profession hear about one of their own, like Gibbs, stepping aside partly for health-related reasons, they're left re-examining their own approaches to the business. They think about the time that's spent away from their families. They think about the rigors of coaching, and about what that can do to one's health.

It doesn't matter whether the job contributed to their colleague's ill health. Everyone who does this kind of thing for a living knows that the stress ultimately could get to them, and an abrupt departure like Gibbs's exit is a reminder of that. Perhaps they contemplate an early -- and unforced -- retirement.

But usually, they remember that this is what they do. "You have to throw yourself into it," Oates said. "You can't do the job halfway. I'm one of those guys who gets wrapped up in it like a rubber band, and I think the guy over there {motioning toward Pirates Manager Jim Leyland} gets wrapped up in it like a rubber band. Most of us do.

"Stress is part of the job description. ... There are a lot of people in this world who deal with stress. Do you think a surgeon doesn't deal with stress when he's about to go into the operating room? Of course there's stress involved there. ... You deal with it. You recognize there's going to be stress day in and day out, and you live with it."

Oates seems to do a good job of coping. His weight can fluctuate with the fortunes of his team. When the Orioles lost their first four games after he was named manager in May 1991, he couldn't eat. He said throughout the Orioles' better-than-expected season of a year ago that he couldn't enjoy what was happening. That would have to come later -- and it did, he says, during the offseason.

"He's our best asset," Orioles pitcher Rick Sutcliffe said recently. "He's one of the best I've ever seen at handling people. We were a contending team last year because of Johnny, and if we win it this year it'll probably be because of Johnny."

Oates normally scoffs at notions that he could or should worry about his health -- except, of course, when the soundness of his right shoulder (the one he needs to be pain-free to throw batting practice) is the subject. But Oates did undergo a battery of tests last year, including a stress test that came out normal. Oates, it seems, plans to be doing this job for a while -- "as long as they'll have me."

© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post

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