The low point of John Oates's managerial career came during a game against the New York Yankees on May 22. "It seemed like everything was caving in," says Oates, whose Baltimore Orioles had lost seven of their previous eight games. "I was all wrapped up in keeping my job—that was my goal. I was going to squeeze it until I lost it." In the fifth inning of that game at Yankee Stadium, he argued a call on a play at the plate and was ejected. After leaving the field he sat alone in the tunnel that leads from the third base dugout to the visitors' clubhouse. Angry, depressed and confused, Oates bowed his head and said softly, "Lord, I give up. Help me, please."
Of course Oates, 48, wasn't the first major league manager to sit in the dark fearing for his job. But there's no doubt that additional pressures placed on big league skippers in the last few years have made what was already one of the most stressful occupations in professional sports even more so. Twenty-nine managers have been fired so far in the 1990s, including, most recently, the California Angels' Buck Rodgers, on May 17. And until the Orioles won six of seven games last week, it looked as if Oates was going to be the next. The trick for any manager is to leave with all his marbles.
"See this?" says Detroit Tiger manager Sparky Anderson, lifting a cup of coffee from his desk. He makes sure the cup is never more than half full, because it shakes so when he picks it up. "This is from 25 years of managing. Two weeks after every season, the shaking stops. When the season starts, it starts."
Managing has always been a precarious business, but here are some of the reasons why the skipper's chair in the '90s is more of a hot scat than ever.
•There's a new breed of owner who knows little about baseball and demands an instant return on his huge investment.
•A new generation of general managers is filtering in—thirtysomething and eager to make a mark.
•The players, whose salaries average $1.2 million and whose contractual rights astound, are more powerful than ever. Yet many of them arrive in the majors less skilled than their predecessors, and it's up to the managers to teach them the game.
•With the expansion of TV coverage on sports cable networks and the proliferation of all-sports radio, the media have become more intrusive and influential.
•New ballparks—four have opened this decade, with two more on the way—generate tremendous fan interest but unreasonable expectations for the home team.
•Divisional realignment created two additional postseason spots in each league and an extra playoff round, giving teams more opportunities to make the playoffs—but more pressure to do so.