I selected Johnny Oates today because he was the manager of the Orioles on Thursday, June 2, 1994. Of all of the games I've attended over the past fifteen years, that day's game has proven one of the most memorable. Among other things, it was the only game I've ever attended with my mother - just the two of us. Even better, she pulled me out of school to go to the game, which started at 12:35 in the afternoon. I was in sixth grade at the time, and for reasons I did not fully understand at the time (and certainly don't understand or even remember now) our teacher failed to plan a field trip for the class at any time that year. With the school year winding to a close, Mom took it upon herself to provide me with a field trip of my own. This was obviously superior to a regular field trip; I was spared from a day of school when no one else was, and there was no threat of an educational experience! The tickets were a gift from one of her coworkers who couldn't use them that day. I recall a quick stop at the McDonald's around the corner from my school for lunch, and then we were off to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. This would have been only my second game at the still-new ballpark, and my first game of the 1994 season.
At the time, the O's sat in third place with a respectable 27-22 record, six games back of the front-running Yankees. It was one of several competitive Baltimore teams in the early-to-mid Nineties, anchored on offense by Rafael Palmeiro, Cal Ripken, Jr., Brady Anderson, and Harold Baines. The starting rotation was topped by Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald, who was having a breakthrough year; at the end of games, veteran Lee Smith would saunter in from the bullpen to close out wins. There's no telling how good that team would have been over a full season; they were 63-49 on August 12, when a players' strike halted (and ultimately cancelled) the rest of that year's action. They stood frozen, six and a half games behind the Yankees in second place and just two and a half games behind the Indians for the first-ever Wild Card berth.
As time ran out on the 1994 season, so too did it run out on Johnny Oates. The former O's catcher, who had guided the team to three straight winning seasons and no worse than third place in each full season since taking the reins, was fired by an impatient Peter Angelos, who had spent a lot of money to bring several star players (Palmeiro, Smith, Sid Fernandez, and Chris Sabo) to town and expected greater results. Oates, known as one of the kindest and gentlest men in the game, landed on his feet. He was quickly hired by the Texas Rangers, and helmed them during the greatest period of success in team history. In 1996, his second year in Texas, the team won 90 games and captured their first division title. For his efforts, Johnny was named Manager of the Year in the AL. The Rangers would win three AL West crowns in four years, but they ran into the Yankees each time, winning just one playoff game in all that time. Oates resigned after a last-place finish in 2000 and a slow start in 2001. Just three years later, at age 58, he died from a brain tumor. Texas retired his number 26; legendary pitcher Nolan Ryan (#34) is the only other Ranger to receive this honor.
To be continued tomorrow.