Oates has talked with other managers about how to deal with the demands of his job. "When you don't enjoy winning, you're in bad shape," he says. A source close to Oates says Oates has considered quitting after this season because of the strain. Oates denies that but says, "There are days that I look forward to retiring. There are nights when I want to take off the uniform, go up to the upper deck, get a box of popcorn and enjoy the game like the fans. You can't do it from the dugout."
Oates wasn't this tense when he managed the Rochester Red Wings, the Orioles' Triple A affiliate, in 1988, or when he piloted the Orioles for three games in '90 while Robinson was serving a suspension; during that three-game stint Oriole players raved about his communication skills and his attention to detail, and some even expressed the wish that he was the full-time manager. Nor was Oates this uptight after replacing Robinson in May '91, even though he did drop 16 pounds while losing his first four games.
Oates began exhibiting more serious effects of managerial pressure in September 1992, when his overachieving club started to collapse in the thick of a pennant race. He wasn't his usual outwardly calm self, and it showed in his managing: He overworked his bullpen and didn't bother to rest tiring every-day players. But those symptoms of distress were a mere prelude to this season's. The pressure built between late November and late January as the four free agents were being signed; it mounted on Jan. 31 when Oates's friend and confidant, free-agent pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals; and it reached a climax in the tunnel at Yankee Stadium. The next day The Washington Post cited team sources as saying Oates's job was in jeopardy. Shortly thereafter Oates spoke with Angelos, who told him that he didn't have a problem with his managing. Said Angelos last week, "Sure he's under scrutiny when the team isn't doing well, but we're supporting him. He's not in danger of losing his position."
To relieve some of the tension, Oates stopped reading the newspapers. But then, he is his own worst critic. He says that all the money the club spent in off-season acquisitions doesn't mean a thing if he doesn't make the right decision in the eighth inning. "After a hard loss, some goofy things go through your head," he says. "I go back to my room, I lie in bed, and cruel things go through my mind. It's like, Why, why, why?"
Oates spends most of his free time—what little there is considering that he's usually at the ballpark—alone in his condo in Baltimore or in his hotel room on the road. He rarely socializes with his coaching staff. His wife, Gloria, and three children are home in Colonial Heights, Va. "I have times where I become so down," he says. "I need quiet, I need time to think, to pray, to be by myself." He often replays the games in his head, only to realize that he could have done everything right "and still ended up a loser."
His players see the strain; everyone in the organization does. "I hadn't seen it until this year, but I see it in his face," says Robinson. "That's not good." Robinson says managers must have an outlet. "He better get one," Robinson advises. "If you don't let stress out, it will get to you. My first year managing in Cleveland , clumps of my hair fell out. No job is worth your health. He's got to let go."
When it's suggested that Oates needs a diversion, he says, "Why? I have one. I read." He reads books by Charles Stanley, a prominent fundamentalist minister. He reads the Bible. He reads The Athlete's Topical Bible, which uses scripture to explain how to handle various situations, including some that pose difficulties for a manager. Oates would rather read than go out on the town. He doesn't drink. "What do I have to drink for?" he says. "I'm not a person who needs to drink to forget how bad the game was. I might not want to forget it. I may want to remember it and learn from it."
Oriole coach Davey Lopes, a staunch supporter of Oates's, says, "I feel bad for John and what he's going through. He should ask for help. He talks a lot with Gloria and lets it out, but when you talk to someone within the ranks, you can alleviate more stress."
Oates might telephone Gloria at 3 a.m. and tell her what he's thinking. "She never says, 'How can you feel that way?' or 'You're wrong.' She just listens," Oates says. Sparky Anderson, for one, feels that that's not good for Oates, and he recently told John and Gloria as much. "She has to scold him," says Anderson. "That's what my wife, Carol, does. She'll say, 'Shame on you for acting this way after all the game has done for you. Don't you start feeling sorry for yourself.' "
Oates is a small-town guy, from Sylva, N.C., who spent 11 virtually anonymous seasons as a backup catcher in the majors, "hating every minute of it." He was unhappy being away from home, being the 25th man on the team, hardly ever playing and sweating out the final roster cuts every spring. He hasn't swung a bat since his playing career ended, in 1981. He has always wanted to be an ordinary Joe, which is why, in his early days as Oriole manager, he would give a phony name at a restaurant so he wouldn't be seated ahead of someone who had been waiting.