Johnny Oates, who guided the Rangers with a steady hand and a folksy twang to the only three playoff berths in franchise history, died early Friday, four weeks shy of his 59th birthday.
Oates, an inaugural member of the Rangers' Hall of Fame, passed away in Richmond, Va., with his wife of 37 years, Gloria, and his three children at his side after a three-year battle against the most aggressive type of brain tumor. He had recently been hospitalized for lung problems.
``He was the best manager the Texas Rangers ever had and ever will have,'' said former Rangers manager Jerry Narron, who coached for Oates before succeeding him on May 4, 2001. ``He was solid, organized and very prepared. I don't know if he ever really knew how good he was. And as good a manager as he was, he was a better man.''
"When you begin to describe Johnny Oates, you start with character,'' said former Rangers president and managing partner Tom Schieffer. ``He believed in faith and family, first. He was the kind of person we all want to be.''
In six-plus seasons with the Rangers, Oates had a 506-476 record. Only Bobby Valentine managed more games and won more with the Rangers. Oates, who was also 291-270 in three-plus seasons with Baltimore, resigned on May 4, 2001 after a much-hyped Rangers club got off to an awful start.
After spending the summer in Virginia, he hoped to get back in baseball, which had been his life's work for most of the previous 35 years. During the World Series, however, he lost motor coordination while being interviewed on a talk show. A series of tests revealed the tentacle-like tumor, glioblastoma multiforme.
Though he underwent surgery to remove some of the tumor and later radiation treatments, glioblastoma multiforme almost always regenerates. Oates, a deeply religious man, turned to his faith.
"My days are filled with faith, hope, spirit and the small pleasures that many people take for granted,'' Oates wrote in The Sporting News in April 2002 in a first-person account of his battle with the tumor. "I don't know what the next month, five months, five years or 10 years will bring, but I do know that we are all going to face a reality. We are all going to face a physical death. We are all going to leave behind people and things that we love. And this is where my spirit resides. Whatever time I have left, I want it to mean something.''
Shortly after his diagnosis, Oates promised his youngest daughter, Jenny, he would survive to see her wedding. She was married on Aug. 10, 2002, two days before her parents' 35th anniversary. Oates gave his daughter away at the wedding.
A year later, he returned to Texas, having survived past even in the most optimistic projections for living with the disease. He returned to be honored with Nolan Ryan, Jim Sundberg and Charlie Hough as the first Rangers' Hall of Fame class. Rangers manager Buck Showalter, who played for Oates in Nashville, Tenn., in 1982, started the weekend by unveiling a plaque naming the manager's office at Ameriquest Field for Oates.
Then, to a standing ovation during the inductions, Oates delivered a brief, but emotional speech.
"There's one big difference between [the other inductees] and myself," Oates said. "They're here because of what they did. I'm here because of what others did for me.''
Oates applied the same humility and a gritty team-first determination to his baseball career, fighting his way up from a dirt-poor start in Appalachia. He was born on Jan. 21, 1946 in Sylva, NC, the third of four children. He got his first taste of organized baseball nine years later. A love affair quickly bloomed.
Oates was playing center field in that first game when the catcher had trouble doing the job. After an inning, the coach asked Oates if he could catch. He said "No.''
From the stands, his father, Clint Oates, said "Oh, yes he can.''
Oates moved behind the plate. He never played another position. He went on to play at Virginia Tech and was drafted twice, first by the Chicago White Sox in 1966 (he didn't sign) and then by Baltimore in the first round of the secondary phase a year later. The Orioles played a central part in his career.
In the Baltimore farm system, Oates played for Cal Ripken Sr., whom he later credited with instilling much of the foundation for his understanding of the game.
He reached the majors in 1970, playing five games. Oates spent parts of 11 seasons in the major leagues, mostly as a back-up with Baltimore, Atlanta, Philadelphia, the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees. He twice appeared in the World Series with Los Angeles, but was on the losing side against the New York Yankees both times. The Yankees foiled his greatest successes as a manager, as well.
"He was the perfect catcher for me,'' said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, who went 10-0 with Oates catching him in 1972."He was smart, always full of questions. He knew what he could do and what he couldn't. He worked so hard all the time. You have a lot of respect for somebody like that.''
On the way to hitting .250 in 593 major league games, Oates also went to the playoffs four times; was with Atlanta when Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth's home run record and broke his collarbone in a home-plate collision with Pittsburgh's Dave Parker on Opening Day 1976 with Philadelphia and was out long enough for Bob Boone to wrest the starting catcher's job.
After retiring as a player following the 1981 season, Oates began his managerial career with Nashville, the Yankees' Double-A affiliate. He managed one year at Triple-A, then joined the Chicago Cubs as a major league coach. He was with Chicago in 1984 when the Cubs reached the post-season for the first time in 45 years.
He nearly dropped out of baseball after being let go by Chicago following the 1987 season, but Doug Melvin, then the Orioles' farm director, convinced him to take a job as the organization's Triple-A manager. A year later he was back in the majors as a coach. And in 1991, he replaced Frank Robinson as Orioles manager.
He managed the Orioles to three consecutive winning seasons from 1992-94, but the combination of a meddling owner (Peter Angelos) and Oates' distant relationship with the media led to his firing after the 1994 season was cut short by a players' strike.
He did not remain unemployed long. Just nine days after Melvin was named Rangers general manager, he named Oates to replace Kevin Kennedy as the 14th manager in Rangers' history.
He almost quit the job before managing a game. At the end of a longer-than-usual spring training, due to the late settlement of a player's strike, Gloria Oates fell victim to a deep depression.
Oates left the team to be with his wife and started to plan for his post-baseball life. After counseling and prayer, Gloria Oates told her husband to return to the team.
"Johnny felt so badly, it being his first year, but he knew what his priorities were: family and then baseball,'' said Melvin, who hired him just three weeks after he was fired in Baltimore."You learned a lot from Johnny in that regard. There were two loves in his life, and he was going to find a way to balance them.''
Thus marked the beginning of the most glorious chapter in Rangers history. Oates led the Rangers to a 74-70 finish in 1995. The best was yet to come.
In 1996, the Rangers began the season with seven consecutive wins, the best start in franchise history. The strong start helped the Rangers jump ahead of the rest of the American League West. The Rangers spent three days in second place in May, the only time they occupied a position other than first during the season.
It was not without its hairy moments, though. The Rangers led by nine games on Sept.10, but lost nine of their next 10 to see the lead over Seattle slip to just one game. Oates remained the picture of steadiness throughout the shaky stretch.
"I wanted to scream,'' Oates said at the time."I wanted to yell. But I would have lost everyone in the clubhouse if I did that. I told guys they would be OK.''
The Rangers hung on to win the division, ending 24 years of frustration for the Rangers' franchise. They went on to the playoffs, beating the New York Yankees in the first game of a best-of-five series, but then lost the next three. Oates was named AL co-Manager of the Year for the Rangers' division title.
Twice more Oates guided the Rangers to division championships. The team came from 3 1/2 games back with 20 to play to topple Anaheim in 1998. In 1999, the Rangers set a franchise record with 95 wins. On both occasions, the Rangers faced the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs. On both occasions, superior Yankee pitching shut down the Rangers' offense. On both occasions, the Yankees swept the best-of-five series.
"Johnny handled adversity as well as anybody I've ever seen,'' Mr. Schieffer said."During losing streaks, he was at his steadiest. He never ducked out. He had everybody's respect.''