•Expansion—and two more teams are likely on the way—has watered down the talent, the pitching in particular.
"The rules have changed—adapt or you're fired," says Kansas City Royal manager Hal McRae.
Drayton McLane Jr., one of the eight new owners of the '90s, had watched only a handful of major league games before he bought the Houston Astros for $115 million in November 1992. As the head of a giant grocery-distribution firm, he had made a fortune emphasizing hard work, goal orientation and leadership. In hopes of promoting those virtues within his ball club, McLane last season gave then Astro manager Art Howe motivational tapes of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. Howe apparently didn't get the message, and he was fired at season's end.
Then in March, McLane told Howe's successor, Terry Collins, to watch Twelve O'Clock High for a lesson in leadership. In that film Gregory Peck takes over a lackadaisical fighter squadron and whips it into shape. A gung ho type himself, Collins didn't resent having to fulfill such an odd request; but he couldn't resist telling McLane, "Do you know what happens at the end? Gregory Peck cracks. He couldn't get in the plane."
"Are you going to crack?" McLane asked Collins.
"No," the manager replied.
Will Oates? He seemingly has every element of modern managerial stress coming down on his graying head. For starters the Orioles' new principal owner, attorney Peter Angelos, is an impatient, fiercely competitive man who wants a champion. His ownership group took control of the team last October after purchasing the franchise for $173 million, then shelled out $42.85 million during the off-season to sign four high-profile free agents—one of the largest winter spending sprees in baseball history. Before the Orioles swept three games from the Red Sox in Boston last weekend, Angelos was not satisfied with his team's 31-25 record and third-place standing in the American League East. In fact, if the front-running Yankees hadn't hit the skids recently, losing 11 of 14 games from May 29 through Sunday to offset the Orioles' own 4-8 slump (May 29-June 7), Angelos might have already eaten the remainder of Oates's contract, which runs through 1995. "You can't zero in on the manager," says Angelos. "But as an observer, when the manager makes some moves that make you ponder why that happened, it makes you wonder."
The scrutiny of Oates is heightened by the fact that Baltimore is no longer the three-sport city that couldn't sell out American League playoff games at Memorial Stadium in the early 1970s. The Orioles have been the only game in town since '84, and a full house of 47,000 fans show up every home date at spectacular Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which opened in '92. The Colts and the Bullets aren't around to vie for the fans' and the media's attention, which these days is focused entirely on the O's. And Oates blames the media for most of his stress. It has been almost 11 years since Baltimore last went to the World Series, and like Angelos, many members of the local press corps believe this is the year for the drought to end.
It also doesn't help Oates to have assistant general manager Frank Robinson, one of the franchise's greatest stars and a former Oriole manager, looking over his shoulder. Robinson, who managed the Orioles from 1988 to '91, says he would be interested in taking over the reins again under the right circumstances. In the meantime he says he isn't doing anything to undermine Oates. "John isn't worried about me," says Robinson. "He told me, 'I know you're not backstabbing me.' " Still, Angelos has expressed a liking for high-profile managers, and none appear to be available or interested in managing except Robinson.
With the weight of a hoped-for World Series appearance on his shoulders, Oates is wound tighter than a 1994 baseball. "I don't handle stress well," he says. "My family says I handle it terribly." He has always been intense, but never before to the point where he would snap at writers, as he often has this season. These days he even has trouble getting over a win, as he did when Baltimore's Mike Mussina outdueled Boston's Roger Clemens 3-2 on May 17. After the game, Oates says, "you couldn't have put a needle in my stomach, that's how tight I was." The tension Oates complains about may be contagious: After that same win over the Red Sox, Oriole pitching coach Dick Bosnian hit golf balls into the baiting cage because he knew he couldn't sleep with the knot he had in his stomach.