The strike-shortened 1994 season was the year baseball entered the Twilight Zone. Submitted for your approval: Johnny Oates, a dedicated baseball man whose Orioles hadn’t finished under .500 since 1991, was inexplicably fired in September by owner Peter Angleos despite compiling the best winning percentage of his career. Within a month, he was hired by Texas, where things were pretty strange, too. Although the Rangers somehow won the division for the first time ever despite a 52-62 finish, management had canned manager Kevin Kennedy and most of his staff.
Oates, a catcher used primarily used for his defensive skills, began his minor-league career in the Orioles’ system playing for future Baltimore skippers Joe Altobelli and Cal Ripken Sr. In his first major-league at-bat in September 1970, Oates singled against defending ERA champ Dick Bosman, whom he later hired as his pitching coach with the Rangers. Oates returned to Baltimore as a rookie in 1972 and, while sharing the catching duties with Andy Etchebarren, posted the best fielding percentage of any catcher in the American League. But manager Earl Weaver was always looking for power hitters, and after the season he sent Oates and Davey Johnson (who would eventually become manager of the Orioles a year after Oates was fired) to Atlanta for Earl Williams.
“When I played for the Orioles, Earl Weaver only spoke to me twice,” Oates told a Texas reporter in 1999. “Once, our catcher got hurt and I said, ‘I’ll get in there for you, Earl.’ He said, ‘Fat chance.’ After I got traded, he said, ‘Enjoy Atlanta.'”
Williams hit 22 homers in the potent Orioles lineup as Baltimore won the 1973 AL East title, while Oates was a disappointment for the mediocre Braves. Slowed by a knee injury in 1973, he hit only .248 and the following year saw his average drop to .223. After a slow start in 1975 Atlanta re-acquired Williams from Baltimore and packaged Oates with Richie Allen in a deal that brought Jim Essian and Barry Bonnell from Philadelphia.
Ironically, after the trade Oates (who platooned with Bob Boone on the Phils) went on to have his best year at the plate, finishing the season with a .282 average. However, even before Oates suffered a collarbone injury in an Opening Day home-plate collision with Dave Parker in 1976, it was clear that Boone was the Phillies’ catcher of the future. After an All-Star season by Boone in ’76, Oates was traded to the Dodgers for Ted Sizemore. In Los Angeles, he backed up Steve Yeager, who was in the process of establishing himself as one of the game’s better catchers. By midway through the 1978 season Oates had sunk to a third-stringer behind Yeager and Joe Ferguson.
Oates retired in June 1981 after two anemic seasons with the Yankees — both years, he failed to hit over .200. But he gained notoriety during the 1981 World Series when he was recruited by the Yankees to help the team prepare for the Dodgers. When the Yankees won Games One and Two, Los Angeles manager Tom Lasorda accused Oates of stealing signs.
First drafted by Baltimore in 1967 — and heavily influenced by Cal Ripken, Sr. during his playing days in the minors — Oates returned to the Orioles organization in 1988 as manager of their Rochester (Triple-A) affiliate. In 1989 he was promoted to the majors as first base coach under Frank Robinson, whom he replaced in May 1991 after a 13-24. Under Oates, the Orioles finished the season with a 67-95 record, but surprised the AL East by with an 89-73 finish in ’92. In 1993 (even though the team took a step back in the won-loss column) Baltimore’s 85-77 effort won Oates the Sporting News Manager of the Year award.
But it was with the Rangers that Oates’ preparation paid off. After going 74-70 in Oates’ debut season in Texas, the Rangers made it to the playoffs for the first time ever in 1996 after winning the West with a record of 90-72. Despite a team ERA of 4.65, the potent Ranger lineup was unstoppable, hitting 221 homers with an overall .284 batting average. Eight players had double-digit home run totals, led by Juan Gonzalez with 47. For his efforts, Oates was honored as the AL Manager of the Year. In 1997, thanks to unproductive seasons by the Rangers’ infield and pitching staff, compounded by key injuries, Oates suffered his first losing season in five years. But the Rangers, confident in Oates’ abilities as manager, extended his contract through 1999.
The Rangers rebounded to win the West in each of the next two seasons but both times were swept by the Yankees in the ALDS. Discouraged, Texas management shipped star right fielder Juan Gonzalez to Detroit before the 2000 season but kept Oates at the helm. The Rangers slipped to fourth place, prompting the blockbuster signing of superstar Alex Rodriguez, but continued to struggle early on in 2001. After a five-game losing streak that dropped the team’s record to 11-16 — the team’s worst start since 1985 — Oates decided to call it quits. His 506 wins with the club trailed only Bobby Valentine’s 581.