BALTIMORE -- As 20 members of the 1992 Orioles gathered to celebrate the 25-year existence of Oriole Park at Camden Yards the weekend of Aug. 19, a name often mentioned by them was the late Johnny Oates.
Oates, who manged the team from 1991-1994, died in December 2004 due to a brain tumor. He was 58.
Rick Sutcliffe played for the Chicago Cubs when Oates coached there in the 1980s, and as the Orioles’ new ballpark was about to open for the 1992 season, Sutcliffe received a phone call in late 1991 from Oates asking if he would consider playing for Baltimore.
“I had no intentions of doing that,” Sutcliffe said. “I was older. I had no business being in the American League, particularly the American League East, but as a favor to Johnny, who was a longtime friend, one of the most important people not only in my career and in my life, I came back here.
“He walked me out to the mound. It’s cold. The ballpark’s not even complete and he said, ‘I don’t want you to tell anybody, but you’re going to throw the very first pitch ever in this ballpark.’ And goosebumps just overcame me.”
Sutcliffe told his agent he wanted to sign with the Orioles, and late in spring training, he told Oates that he should choose Ben McDonald to start instead.
“Mike Mussina’s a lot better than you are, too,” Oates told him. “I don’t want Ben to have to deal with Opening Day. I don’t want him to have to deal with the media.”
Sutcliffe started and pitched a 2-0 shutout against the Cleveland Indians.
Brady Anderson, who played with the Orioles from 1988-2001 and is now the team’s vice president of baseball operations, said Oates had faith in him.
“I owe my career to him,” Anderson said. “He was a great manager, a great man. I’m forever indebted to Johnny. Without him, I wouldn’t have had the career that I did.”
Tim Hulett, a reserve infielder on that team, lived in the same apartment complex with Oates. Hulett’s 6-year old son was killed by a car that summer, and Oates was a comfort.
“He was a players’ manager and so it was great to have him around,” Hulett said. “For the Hulett family, Baltimore will always have a special place in our hearts and our lives. And I think the Orioles organization, led by Johnny and the things he was able to do through our time here, was just fantastic.”
Orioles manager Buck Showalter played for Oates in the minor leagues in the New York Yankees organization, and later managed against him in the majors. As warm as their relationship was in the minor leagues, as opponents it was hardly warm.
“You would have thought that he never thought anything of me,” Showalter said. “John was very competitive. We had a night here where he thought our starting pitcher was doing something illegal to the ball, and the confrontation that we had, you’d never think we had any feelings for each other, and didn’t at that time.”
Showalter attended the services for Oates in Virginia.
“His funeral was like a celebration of John’s life,” Showalter said. “His kids got to see how many people John impacted in his life. I can’t tell you what looking back on it meant, playing for a guy like him. So ethical, moral, competitive, but always wanted to do the right thing."