Oates' 26 Should Inspire Buck's Leadoff Choice
By Stan "The Fan" Charles
The last time the Orioles had a leadoff dilemma this serious was in spring training 1992 -- Johnny Oates' first full season at the helm of the Orioles. In 1991, after the club had gone 13-24 during its first 37 games, the O's dismissed Frank Robinson, and Oates took over for the remaining 125 games of the season.
|Are Buck Showalter and Nolan Reimold the modern-day version of Johnny Oates and Brady Anderson?
It just so happened that the 1992 season was also the club's first season at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. I remember reading early in spring training that Oates was leaning heavily toward turning over the left-field job and leadoff spot in the batting order to Brady Anderson.
That became a fact, and when O's fans hear that anecdotal story now, it seems as if it was a pretty obvious choice to bat the future member of the O's Hall of Fame as a leadoff hitter. But nothing could be further from the truth. Those around the club -- management, coaches, players and the media -- met Oates' decision with quizzical countenances.
The simple truth of the matter was that, up to that point, Anderson had been pretty much a bust. Acquired in a trade June 30, 1988, in which the O's sent Mike Boddicker to the Red Sox for both Curt Schilling and Anderson, Anderson would go on to play in 53 games during his first partial season in an Orioles uniform. He belted just a single home run and knocked in just nine runs while batting .198. In 1989, Anderson appeared in 94 games, and in 266 at bats, batted .207 with four home runs and 16 RBIs. He followed that season up with a third consecutive bummer in 1990 -- three home runs, 24 RBIs and a .231 average.
All the while, I remember then-assistant general manager Doug Melvin always preaching patience, saying that Anderson had never had enough at bats at Triple-A. The facts bore out Melvin's point of view -- during parts of seven seasons in the minor leagues (85-91), Anderson had accumulated just 1,185 at bats, including a paltry 342 at the Triple-A level.
But six weeks away from Opening Day 1992, Oates was making a bold commitment to a player that had not done much to inspire that sort of confidence. Anderson rewarded Oates with by far his finest season to date, one during which he played in all but three games, while leading the league in plate appearances with 749. Anderson scored 100 runs, walking 98 times and stealing 53 bases.
Despite being the leadoff hitter, Anderson slugged 21 home runs, with 80 RBIs and 59 extra-base hits. Led by their dynamic leadoff hitter, the Birds jumped from a 67-win season during their last year at Memorial Stadium up to 89 wins in 1992.
Now, Camden Yards is 20 years old. Oates has been gone for years. Anderson went on to become one of the best leadoff hitters in club history, on his way to the O's Hall of Fame, and he has now moved front and center in the O's management hierarchy as a special assistant to Dan Duquette, executive vice president of baseball operations.
One of Anderson's primary areas to focus on is training players to maximize their performances. Much has been made of his work this past offseason with Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman. But, one of his pet projects as far back as 2010 has been to help Nolan Reimold off the ledge when his career spiraled downward.
When Buck Showalter came on board as manager for the last two months of 2010, Juan Samuel had already taken his usual uniform number, No. 11. In a tribute to his old friend and mentor, Oates, Showalter obtained permission from Oates' widow, Gloria, to wear the uniform number of his old friend.
During the ensuing time since taking over, Showalter has always made it clear that this uniform number No. 26 was more than a token gesture. Now with Opening Day beckoning on April 6, eerily the same day that Camden Yards opened 20 years ago, Showalter just so happens to have an enigmatic left-fielder who doesn't have tremendous support from all corners of the club and a problem deciding upon a leadoff hitter.
Also, as was the case with Oates in 1992, Showalter in 2012 has zero to lose. Perhaps, by channeling his inner Oates, Showalter could gain a meaningful bat in his lineup, and maybe 20 years from now, some old writer will remember this as the seminal moment in Reimold's Orioles career.
I know two people who'd be looking on and cheering -- Anderson and the late Oates.
Posted March 14, 2012