Oates is regarded by all who know him as a decent, honest man, a dedicated father as well as a devout Christian. He doesn't chew tobacco, and he rarely swears. He works as hard and is as well prepared as any manager in the game, and no one, including his players, blames him for the team's sometimes sluggish play this year. Injuries have limited rookie phenom Jeffrey Hammonds to 86 at bats. With the exception of closer Lee Smith, the bullpen has been terrible. There was no lefthanded hitter on the bench until rookie Bruce Dostal was called up from Rochester last Friday. Third baseman Chris Sabo, one of the big free-agent signees, missed 19 games with a bad back, then asked to be traded after losing his job to Leo Gomez. (Even after Oates put Sabo in leftfield against the Red Sox—and he delivered a game-winning home run last Friday—Sabo didn't back off his trade request.) The Orioles were expected to be a great hitting team, but at week's end they ranked 10th in batting average in the American League and had scored the second-fewest runs. "His stress didn't cause the injuries," says outfielder Brady Anderson, who was hitting .247 through Sunday. "Maybe our performance has caused his stress."
Perhaps, but Oates hasn't been managing the same way he did in previous seasons. He used to be a fearless strategist, winning games with his baseball smarts. Now he appears less willing to take a chance. There's a concern on the club that perhaps he's overly prepared and doesn't rely enough on his instincts to stay flexible during a game. One Oriole even says Oates's tension seeps into the clubhouse and makes the players play tight.
"I'm very intense," Oates says. "My heart is beating fast during a game. I hope theirs is too. If not, maybe that's what's wrong with this club. Maybe they're not intense enough. We have the wrong guys here if the reason we're playing poorly is I'm making them nervous." On June S. during a game in Kansas City, he delivered that message in an angry outburst in the dugout.
That was the stress coming out. By nature Oates doesn't berate players or challenge them in the dugout. "People are seeing me as a shriveled-up, scared-to-death, tight, frozen manager in the dugout. I'm not," he says. "This is a very serious business. This isn't a sandlot game where you get a beer between innings. I'm not some depressed guy who is hanging by a string. I'm not to the point where I'm going to commit suicide. I'm a conscientious person. If we don't excel, it's going to bother me."
Oates says he has been less on edge since that time in the tunnel in New York. The tirade he directed that day at umpire John Shulock wasn't premeditated, but he suggests he was thrown out of that game for a deeper reason: His ejection gave him a chance to be alone. The feeling of peace he had that day was something he had never before felt as a manager. Oates says he isn't clinging to his job now, that he's not afraid of being fired. "I've felt great ever since," he says. "But if it ever gets worse than that, I'm in trouble."
He smiles. He knows it could get worse. Every manager knows it can always get worse.