LIVING WITH FULL COUNT:
Former Texas Rangers manager Johnny Oates
___Johnny Oates compiled a 506-476 record as manager of the Texas Rangers baseball team from 1995 until his resignation in May. He led the club to its first playoff berth in franchise history in 1996 and was named manager of the year by the Baseball Writers Association. Oates previously managed the Baltimore Orioles and played 11 seasons for the Orioles, Braves, Phillies, Dodgers and Yankees. He is a graduate of Virginia Tech University. He and his wife, Gloria, now live in Virginia. They have a son and two daughters.
___ Tell me about the childhood that produced the Johnny Oates that Texas Rangers fans have known over the last seven years.
___I grew up near Sylva in the North Carolina mountains. It was very rural. We were not poverty-stricken, but we had no indoor plumbing and no electricity until I was 7 or 8 years old. We could see the stars through the roof at night.
___But there was a lot of love, and I would call it a Christian home. It was especially Christian when my grandmother was there. I have a mental image of her kneeling and praying beside the couch, which was an army cot, in our living room.
___My parents had like two families. I have two older brothers and a sister, and then there was me and my younger brother. I didn't play any organized baseball until I was 12 because there were no other kids within five miles of us. There were no Little Leagues. We honed our baseball skills playing catch with each other on the North Carolina hillside. The field where we played had a branch at one end and a cabbage patch at the other. The branch was full of snakes, so you learned not to miss many.
___My father, the youngest of 11 children, had been a sandlot player and played for a cotton mill team. He did anything he could to make a living. He and Mom cut cabbage much of the time. He would cut it with a butcher knife, and Mom would follow along behind with a bag and carry it to the end of the field. He finally decided he wanted to do something different and began to make and install downspouts he made from oil cans he got from a service station. That got us out of the mountains. He went to work at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., and I was introduced to baseball on a Royal Ambassador team.
___ When did you know you were going to have a career in baseball?
___I don't know where I got the idea, because we didn't have a television set until we got out of the mountains, but Mom says that as a kid, when I was asked what I was going to be, I would always answer that I was going to be a baseball player. Dad took me to see my first major league game in Washington in 1961 when I was 16. We saw the old Senators (who later became the Rangers in 1972) play the Yankees, and I got to see a Saturday afternoon game and a Sunday doubleheader.
___Of course, that was the year Roger Maris hit 61 home runs, and he and Mickey Mantle hit three or four that weekend. I have an attic full of baseballs, but the only autographed ball I have in the house is one signed by Mantle.
___But I remember that I just wanted to play baseball. I signed with the Orioles after my third year at Virginia Tech, but a part of my contract was a provision that I would stay in school until June so I could graduate from college. I got a degree in health and physical education.
___ Who was the greatest influence on your choice of baseball as a profession?
___Both my mom and dad. Mom got me to practice and to the games. Dad was working every day and usually didn't get off work until after my games had started, but he drove me pretty good. Others had a lot of influence too--my high school coaches and later Cal Ripken Sr. and Sparky Anderson. It was never one person, but there was always someone when I needed him. John Shulock, the umpire, played a big role in my life. Once, when I was feeling some pressure, he encouraged me to get some help, and when I resigned as manager of the Rangers, he called to encourage me.
___ What was most satisfying as a major league player and manager?
___The biggest thrill was that I was able to put on a major league uniform for 30 years and to know the players I played with and against. I often have said that my biggest disappointment was that I didn't enjoy it more while I was doing it. I should have enjoyed it more. I had a career that many wanted to have, but I let too many things bother me.
___ What was least attractive about it?
___Separation from my family, no doubt about it. I missed our kids growing up, my son's baseball games, my daughter singing in Carnegie Hall, my oldest daughter's graduation. I missed all three of their baptisms and my first grandson's dedication. I won't miss any more. Some good things come out of resignations.
___ How did you cope with the long schedule and separation from your family?
___Not very well at the beginning, and it created lots of problems. I praise the Lord for my wife, who stuck with me and prayed for me. The only way our marriage survived was because of her faith and willingness to keep us together.
___I had accepted the Lord as my Savior in 1983, while I was in spring training as a minor league manager with the Yankees. I was worrying about everything, but in a chapel service I heard the testimony of Bill Watts, a pro golfer, who said he had been miserable, too, until he found Christ. I talked to him and said I needed what he had. We prayed together, and I accepted Christ.
___However, my walk didn't match my talk until my wife became ill in 1995. It was also during spring training. My daughter called and said Gloria was having a panic attack in a motel. They were on their way to Port Charlotte, where we were in spring training. I drove all night across Florida and Georgia to get to them, and when I saw my wife I put my arms around her and the Lord.
___ Have the huge salaries paid to baseball players today hurt the quality of the game?
___ Do players play as hard when they know they have guaranteed contracts?
___Today's players are as good as they have ever been, although I refuse to compare them. It's really impossible to compare a player today with one in the past. I am often asked if Ivan Rodriguez is the best catcher in baseball history. I certainly would rank him as one of the best ever, but I never saw Roy Campanella of the Dodgers or Bill Dickey of the Yankees play. How can I say Pudge is better or worse?
___As to the salaries, there always will be people who just work for their paycheck, whether they are baseball players or schoolteachers. Some teachers deserve Major League Baseball salaries. Some people will just go through the motions whether it is for $25,000 or for $2 million.
___But players don't talk about money. Once they walk through the clubhouse door, they are there to play. There is tremendous peer pressure among players, not only from the standpoint of doing well, but to get to where they have gotten, the major leagues, has taken a lot of perseverance and endurance. They know if they let their guard down, they will be overtaken.
___Satchell Paige was right when he said, "Don't look over your shoulder; they may be gaining on you." Day-in and day-out, the players are competitors on the field and off. I know some who are out to win even when they are playing checkers with their kids.
___ You always seemed to remain remarkably calm in the Rangers' dugout. How did you do that? Who were your career models?
___Outward and inward appearances are two different things. As the manager, I had to give the appearance that everything was under control. It's OK to get nervous, but don't panic. You don't want to see the manager panic. Birdie Tebbetts (former catcher and manager) told me once that I should never let the media catch me with my head down or in the act of embarrassing a player. I tried to keep a consistent demeanor all the time and not to indicate through the way I acted whether we were winning or losing.
___ How do you feel about the visible signs of religion on the playing field, Catholic players crossing themselves and others pointing skyward after a big hit?
___It's not up to me to critique or praise someone in those circumstances. That's between them and God.
___ Do you believe God is interested in who wins baseball games?
___No. But he gives us talent and ability and expects us to use it and praise him and love him as he loves us. One of my favorite Bible verses is Jeremiah 29:11, "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and future.'"
___ Is hitting a round bat with a round ball the hardest feat in sports?
___It always was for me. At dinner last night, a friend was telling me about the physics involved in hitting a golf ball, and the difficulty in matching the sweet spot on a golf club with the small surface of the ball. I reminded him the golf ball is sitting on a tee, not coming at the plate at more than 90 miles per hour.
___ What could be done to improve the game of baseball?
___It's an amazing game that now is played literally around the world, which indicates its popularity. The game has gotten very long, however, and we need to get rid of the dead time. But it is the one game where there is no clock. As long as my team is hitting, we have a chance to win.
___ What advice would you give to young players considering professional baseball as a career?
___Don't put all your eggs in one basket. We all have dreams of being a professional athlete, and it's OK to dream, but it's more important to set goals, both short- and long-term goals. Young people must strive to get an education, and then they can take care of themselves. Only a small percentage of those who dream of being professional athletes ever get a chance to play.
___Interview by Toby Druin
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