January 21 – Happy Birthday Johnny Oates
Johnny Oates’ two most significant interactions with the New York Yankees during his long career as a big league back-up catcher and manager, suffered from the same problem, poor timing. By the time he got to wear the pinstripes as a player, he was 34-years old and at the very tail end of his career. The Yankees signed Oates as a free agent at the very beginning of the 1980 regular season to serve as Rick Cerone’s backup. That happened to also be Cerone’s first season as the Yankees’ successor to Thurman Munson and he went out and had the greatest year of his entire big league career, starting an incredible 147 games behind the plate. That left Oates with a table-scrap portion of catching to do and when he hit just .188 while doing it, you knew his pinstriped days were numbered. He did manage to make the Yankees’ Opening Day roster the following year, but when his anemic offense continued during the first two months of the 1981 season, the Yankees turned to Barry Foote as Cerone’s new backup and released Oates as a player, offering instead to employ him as a minor league manager.
A decade later, the native North Carolinian became the skipper of the Baltimore Orioles, replacing Frank Robinson, 37 games into the 1991 regular season. He lasted in that job for the next three seasons, finishing with a winning record in each of them and earning plenty of admirers along the way. One of them was Texas Ranger GM Doug Melvin who hired Oates to manage his Arlington-based ball club. Johnny would spend seven seasons in that position, leading the Rangers to three AL West Division titles during that time and winning the 1996 AL Manager of the Year Award. His one abject failure during his Ranger years was his inability to get his Texas teams past the Yankees in three different postseasons. The Rangers’ record against New York during their three ALDS confrontations was 1-9. The last of those three series was particularly hard on Oates, as the Rangers high-powered offense was able to produce just one measly run in their three games against the Bronx Bombers.
Less than two years later, Oates was replaced as Ranger skipper by Jerry Narron, the former Yankee backup catcher Oates himself had replaced two decades earlier. Johnny Oates would never manage another big league team, ending his 11-year career with an overall 797-746 record as a skipper. Shortly after being dismissed as the Texas manager, doctors discovered a cancerous tumor in Oates’ brain. Though given just a year to live, a determined Oates lasted three, dying in 2004 at the age of 58.
He shares his January 21st birthday with this former Yankee pitcher.