When Oates speaks, the Orioles listen. Along with Milwaukee's Phil Garner and the Oakland A's Tony La Russa, Oates is a strong candidate for American League manager of the year. Detroit Tiger skipper Sparky Anderson says Oates, 46, "is the best young manager in baseball." He managed for three years in the minors (1982-83, '88), coached for four years with the Chicago Cubs (1984-87) and coached two years with the Orioles before replacing Frank Robinson as Baltimore's skipper on May 23, 1991. Oates doesn't marinate himself in beer or chew tobacco or swear incessantly, as some managers do, but few are more prepared, organized or dedicated. "If I'm awake, 90 to 95 percent of my time goes to this job," he says.
"The biggest advantage we probably have is our manager," says Oriole pitcher Rick Sutcliffe. "He took a lot of pressure off the pitching staff earlier in the year and put it on himself. If I didn't pitch well on Opening Day this year, I wouldn't have gotten the blame, he would have. I'm a 36-year-old pitcher who had been hurt for two years."
Sutcliffe tossed a shutout on Opening Day and has been dealing ever since, winning 15 games through Sunday. He saved the staff in August, winning four straight decisions while the rest of the starters were in a slump. "He's a champion," says Oriole pitching coach Dick Bosman.
Sutcliffe has also been Baltimore's leader. When the Orioles had an off day on Sept. 3 in Anaheim, he held a team party at the house of actor Mark Harmon, whom Sutcliffe befriended while he was playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers (1976-81)."I was in charge of Mark's bachelor party," says Sutcliffe. "Most people have one bachelor party. Mark's sixth annual party was this year. I'm in charge of them."
Harmon seems to be the one in charge of practical jokes. Two years ago, when Sutcliffe pitched for the Cubs, Harmon and some other friends paid $7,000 to have a billboard erected in Chicago for one day. It displayed Sutcliffe's home phone number and his high school yearbook picture and urged people to call him. "I don't know what you looked like in high school, but I looked like an idiot," says Sutcliffe. "We got so many calls, we changed our number that day."
This year Harmon went to watch Sutcliffe pitch in Kansas City. After the game Sutcliffe entertained Harmon and a number of other friends and relatives at a restaurant. Harmon asked if he could show a three-minute tape from an episode of his TV series, Reasonable Doubts, on the restaurant's big screen. "I said, 'Oh no, he's up to something,'" Sutcliffe says. The scene, part of which will air later this year, takes place in a bar and somehow involves a corpse. In the clip Harmon says, "I can't believe the Cubs let Sutcliffe go." The female bartender in the scene refers to the deceased and says, "Even though he's dead, he still has a better fastball than Sutcliffe." Sadly, that part won't run.
It's true that Sutcliffe doesn't throw nearly as hard as he used to, but he wins on guts and guile, setting a good example for the young Oriole pitchers. He asks for no credit. "The main reasons we're here," he says, "are the kids, [Mike] Mussina and [Ben] McDonald."
Mussina (15-5) won the opening game of last weekend's series against the Brewers 3-2 with a complete-game six-hitter. Then Baltimore—not just Ripken—stopped hitting. Standout leftfielder Brady Anderson, slowed by a stomach virus and fatigue, went 0 for 11 with six strikeouts for the weekend. Centerfielder Mike Devereaux was only three for his last 26 at bats at week's end. Saturday night, when the Orioles were shut out by Milwaukee's Jaime Navarro on five hits, the Brewers stole five bases, including the club-record four by Jaha. "Slowest man on the team sets the record," says Jaha, who has eight steals this year.
McDonald started Sunday against the red-hot Eldred, and everyone expected a pitchers' duel. The Brewers scored twice in the second, and Eldred made it stick, firing a four-hitter. "He was throwing 100 miles per hour," Anderson said. That victory ran the rookie Eldred's record to 8-1 with a 1.26 ERA in 10 starts.
Against Ripken it was High Cal versus Low Cal. When Eldred fanned Ripken in the seventh, the crowd booed Ripken. When Eldred ended the game with a strikeout, the 44,242 hushed fans seemed to sense that this season was slipping away. But the Orioles, especially Sutcliffe, weren't conceding. "I came here because Johnny convinced me this team could win," Sutcliffe said. "We've now put ourselves in a position where we have to win all three against Toronto. But from here on you play from the neck up. If you think about how tired your legs are or how sore your shoulder is, you can't win. We have to pick it up."