T.R.’s Memoirs: Johnny Oates, the man behind the first great Texas Rangers teams (Part III)
Editor’s note: T.R. Sullivan retired after covering the Rangers for 32 years for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and MLB.com. He is sharing his memories and history of the Rangers for this website. This week: A three-part look at Johnny Oates era of the Rangers.
The tension between Tom Hicks and Johnny Oates could be felt the weekend of July 25, 1999, when Nolan Ryan was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. The Rangers were in Tampa Bay that weekend and then flew to Cooperstown on Sunday night so they could play the Royals the next day in the annual Hall of Fame Game, a meaningless exhibition held at Abner Doubleday Field just off the main street in the village.
Hicks was in a great mood that weekend. He was in his first full season as owner, the Rangers were comfortably in first place and Ryan was being inducted into the Hall of Fame. One month earlier, the Dallas Stars had captured their first and only Stanley Cup championship by beating Buffalo in the finals.
Hicks went all out for Ryan. On Sunday morning, Hicks hosted a grand party for anybody and everybody coming from Texas for the induction. It was on the lawn of Fenimore Art Museum overlooking Otsego Lake. A giant tent was pitched on the lawn, commemorative beach towels were handed out, roving string quartets played soft music, and the champagne flowed freely well before it was time to head for the induction ceremony.
The Rangers owner also had an informal interview with the Texas media. At that point in the season, the Rangers, Indians and Yankees were all comfortably ahead in their divisions and were locks to make postseason.
While praising the work of his manager and the play of his team, Hicks said it would be great if the Rangers could finish with at least the second-best record in the American League. If they did, they would have home-field advantage in the first round and possibly avoid facing the Yankees for the third time in four seasons. Hicks added it would be even better if the Rangers ended up with the best record.
It was a perfectly innocuous interview. But Oates, when he showed up Monday, took exception to what the owner said. Oates said the goal was to win the World Series, not have the best record at the end of the regular season.
The Mystery of the Baggy Pants
Then, there was the big flap over Juan Gonzalez’s pants, which may have been the biggest Much Ado About Nothing in the history of the Rangers. It’s still mind-boggling to think about it.
You see, Your Honor, here is what happened …
First of all, Gonzalez had injured his right wrist sliding into third base Friday night in Tampa Bay and had to come out of the game. X-rays were negative. Gonzalez did not play Saturday and then went 0-for-4 on Sunday with the wrist still bothering him.
The Rangers then headed to Cooperstown to play in the Hall of Fame Game, held annually in conjunction with the induction ceremony. It was a nice tradition but also a meaningless exhibition game, so meaningless that Rangers bullpen catcher Ken Guthrie and video coordinator Josh Frasier played in the game.
Gonzalez was not going to play in the game. Oates was not stupid. He was not, repeat not, going to play the defending AL MVP in a meaningless exhibition game when he was nursing an injured right wrist.
Understand also that the Rangers were not wearing their regular uniforms. They were going to wear specially made uniforms from 1993. That was to honor Ryan because that was his last season.
Doubleday Field was built in 1920 and was adequate for your average American Legion game. The stands hold approximately 10,000 fans and there are no adequate locker room facilities for an MLB team.
Instead, the Rangers had to dress at the Clark Sports Center, a few miles away across town. The Clark Center is a modern recreation center with excellent facilities, but still not what an MLB team is used to every day. Oates was dealing with the media and other distractions while his players presumably were getting dressed for the bus ride over to Doubleday.
Understand also that the Rangers had brought extra players for the game so the healthy regulars could sign autographs, get one at-bat and get out of Cooperstown. Ivan Rodriguez was not going to catch.
Neither was Gregg Zaun, the backup catcher that season. Zaun started in right field because, remember, Gonzalez was hurt and wasn’t going to play. Bad wrist, remember?
Once the Rangers got to Doubleday, they took the field for stretching, warm-ups and batting practice. Oates stood in the first-base foul territory watching his team warm up when Hicks casually walked over to visit with his manager.
Hicks, still basking in the glow of the weekend, just wanted to chat with his first-place manager on a beautiful day in the pastoral village in upstate New York. As they chatted, Hicks asked a simple and obvious question.
“Juan’s wrist still bothering him?” Hicks said.
Oates looked behind him and – to his great horror – there was his superstar watching batting practice in his street clothes. He was not dressed for the game. Oates was flummoxed.
Oates could have simply said, “Yeah, we don’t want to take any chances with him,” and the owner would have been more than satisfied. The wrist was the reason why Gonzalez was not going to play that day.
But Gonzalez refused to dress for the game because his pants were too baggy. He was embarrassed to be seen wearing them.
“They made me look like a [beeping] clown,” Gonzalez told me later.
The Rangers revealed the reason for Gonzalez’s absence in uniform during the game to the Texas media that really didn’t care that much. I barely mentioned it in my notebook for the next day in the Star-Telegram. Ken Daley, an excellent baseball writer for the Dallas Morning News, wrote a short story on it with a headline that said “Baggy Pants Sideline Gonzalez.”
What the Rangers didn’t announce was Gonzalez had his wrist examined by Dr. John Conway that day in Cooperstown.
Zaun was the real story of the day. He was playing right field and started yukking it up with the fans in the bleachers behind him. Both sides were having a great time.
Then, Zaun came to bat in the fifth inning and the fans started chanting, “Call Your Shot!” Zaun did after taking a first-pitch strike. He stepped out of the box and pointed to the right-field bleachers. On the next pitch, Zaun pulled a Babe Ruth and blasted a pitch from Royals right-hander Jeff Austin into the right-field bleachers. After the inning was over, he went back to right field and high-fived every fan sitting in the front row from the foul pole to the deepest part in center field.
The game ended after eight innings when the skies unloaded a downpour. The Rangers bolted to the bus for a quick getaway. We were able to talk to Zaun, and that was it.
Gonzalez did not play in the Rangers’ next four games. It was because of the wrist.
Hicks in charge
As far as I can remember, Hicks never spoke ill of Oates. But there were people in the non-baseball media who were whispering in the owner’s ear and speaking ill of the manager. Oates also didn’t win any points when he refused to let some important people and their buddies shag balls in the outfield during batting practice.
Melvin was the one who had a bull’s-eye on his back because he was unable to satisfy the one fetish that preoccupied Rangers owners and fans alike for years and years. He was unable to acquire Roger Clemens.
Clemens won back-to-back Cy Young Awards with the Blue Jays in 1997-98. But the Blue Jays weren’t going anywhere as a team, and the hiring of Tim Johnson as manager in 1998 had been a disaster. Clemens demanded a trade. The story dragged out into spring training, and the Rangers put together an impressive proposal centered around their top prospect, Ruben Mateo. But the Blue Jays wanted David Wells from the Yankees. Clemens went to New York, and Hicks never forgot it even after the Rangers won the division.
The Rangers also failed to achieve Hicks’ goal of finishing with at least the second-best record in the American League. They finished at 95-67, a club record for most wins in a season, but the Yankees were 98-64 and the Indians were 97-65. Since the Red Sox won the wild card, they didn’t have to play the Yankees in the first round because they were from the same division. The Rangers had to face the Yankees and were swept in three games for the second straight year.
After the season, the Rangers decided to trade Gonzalez. He had one year left on a seven-year, $45 million deal signed before the 1994 season, and in May of 1999, the Rockies had signed Larry Walker to a six-year, $75 million contract. The Rangers were hoping to sign Gonzalez to a similar extension, but he wasn’t interested.
So, on Nov. 2, 1999, the Rangers announced they had traded Gonzalez, Zaun and pitcher Danny Patterson to the Tigers for pitchers Justin Thompson, Francisco Cordero and Alan Webb, catcher Bill Haselman, outfielder Gave Kapler and infielder Frank Catalanotto. The Tigers saw Gonzalez as a centerpiece player for a team getting ready to move into Comerica Park.
Ironically, there are those who feel this is one of the worst trades in Tigers history. Gonzalez found himself frustrated by what was clearly a pitcher-friendly park with a deep left-field fence and had a lackluster season, finishing with 22 home runs and a career-low 67 RBI. One of his home runs was an inside-the-park shot against the Rangers. Gonzalez turned down an eight-year, $140 million contract from the Tigers and left as a free agent after the season.
The irony is this was a trade that also hurt Melvin’s standing with Hicks. Thompson was the most important player in the package acquired by the Rangers, a 26-year-old left-hander who had won 15 games as an All-Star in 1997.
Thompson was dealing with a shoulder injury in 1999 and went 9-11 with a 5.11 ERA in 24 starts before undergoing surgery Aug. 27 to repair a torn labrum. The Rangers gambled that Thompson would have a full recovery from his surgery. He did not. He didn’t make it back to the majors until 2005 and then pitched in just two games.
The lion in winter
The 2000 season was a rough one for Oates. His veteran team had been dismantled. Mark McLemore, Todd Zeile, Tom Goodwin and pitcher Aaron Sele left as free agents, and Rusty Greer and Rodriguez missed time because of injuries.
Most devastating was Mateo, a 22-year-old outfielder who was one of the best minor-league prospects in Rangers history and had taken over for Gonzalez in right field. The Rangers thought they had another budding superstar, and they were in first place at the end of May.
Then, on June 2, Mateo suffered a broken leg against the Diamondbacks. Mateo fractured his right femur with an awkward step on first base trying to run out a ground ball. Mateo, hitting .291 at time, missed the rest of the season and was never even close to being the same player.
The Rangers were 30-26 and tied for first place June 5 before experiencing a complete collapse that sent them to last place. But Oates still had Chad Curtis and Esteban Loaiza.
Curtis was a fourth outfielder and eight-year veteran acquired in the offseason from the Yankees. He was also a self-professed devout Christian and member of the Yankees teams that won World Series in 1998-99.
At some point early in the season, Curtis decided he didn’t like the music being played in the Rangers clubhouse. He especially took exception to the Thong Song, a risqué ditty from Sisqo that hit No. 3 on the Billboard charts and was nominated for four Grammy awards.
Curtis didn’t like the lyrics and asked shortstop Royce Clayton not to play it. Clayton responded with a social-media blog basically ripping Curtis for being a cancer in the Rangers’ clubhouse. This might have been the first time a social-media posting caused such a big stir in a major-league clubhouse. Oates was left to put out the fire.
In a private conversation with Oates, I pointed out this was the first time he had to deal with a serious clubhouse issue since becoming Rangers manager. Oates laughed at that one.
“T.R., I deal with this all the time,” Oates said. “You just never hear about it.”
Oates related a story about the time the Rangers had a Sunday day game in Seattle, and then took a charter flight afterward to Oakland. The Rangers had the day off Monday before opening a three-game series.
“The charter plane was dropping us off in Oakland and then flying to Las Vegas,” Oates said. “A bunch of players found that out and decided they were going to spend the off-day in Las Vegas. So, they hid in the plane’s bathrooms until it took off for Las Vegas.”
The Rangers first acquired Loaiza on July 17, 1998, in a trade with the Pirates. Loaiza was a talented pitcher – he won 21 games for the White Sox in 2003 – but was a strange dude. He had a tumultuous personal life, and Gonzalez once accused him of stealing a $3,000 coat. Gonzalez promised to punch Loaiza’s lights out.
Oates wasn’t at that point, but when the Rangers arrived in San Francisco for a three-game series July 16-18, he decided he had enough of Loaiza. Missing team charters, showing up late for games, washing his car in the parking lot during the game … Loaiza was just too much for the manager. Oates made it clear to Melvin that he wouldn’t mind it if Loaiza was traded.
Melvin obliged him. Loaiza was traded to the Blue Jays for pitcher Darwin Cubillan and Double A infielder Michael Young. Suffice to say, it turned out to be one of the best trades in Rangers history.
As an aside, it was Rangers scout Rudy Terrasas who recommended Young to Melvin.
“Young was the guy we wanted all along,” Melvin said in announcing the trade. “He’s got good athleticism, he’s someone who can play on both sides of the bag at second, he runs well, has a strong arm. We like the way he plays the game. He’s a real intelligent player.”
Then there was the bizarre case of Scott Sheldon, the Rangers utility infielder who was adept at playing multiple positions. Sheldon was also a good guy and great teammate. So as the Rangers went into September free-falling out of contention, Oates decided it would be cool if Sheldon got to play all nine positions in a game. It had happened only a couple times before.
It’s something that needs to be planned ahead because there are nine innings and nine positions. You can’t just all of a sudden decide to use a player at nine different positions in the middle of a game.
Oates did just that. The Rangers were playing the White Sox in Chicago on Sept. 6 when they fell behind 10-1 after just two innings. In the bottom of the fourth, Sheldon entered the game at catcher and stayed the entire inning. Now, since the White Sox weren’t obviously going to bat in the bottom of the ninth, Oates had four innings to use Sheldon at eight positions.
He played first base in the fifth, second and shortstop in the sixth, and right and center field in the seventh. In the eighth, Sheldon began the inning in left field. After one out, he ran to the mound and struck out one batter. That done, he finished the inning at third base while a crowd of 15,622 remained mystified as to what the Rangers were doing.
Besides pitching and catching, the only time Sheldon fielded a ball was on a groundball single to right field.
“I thought it was the perfect night,” Oates said. “He deserves it. I don’t think we embarrassed anybody.”
The firing of Dick Bosman
Oates’ most turbulent issue came at the end of the season as the Rangers stumbled to a 71-91 record. He made the painful decision to fire pitching coach Dick Bosman.
Bosman had been Oates’ pitching coach for nine years, including three in Baltimore. When Oates took the job in Texas, Bosman joined him as pitching coach on a staff that also included Jerry Narron (third base), Ed Napoleon (first base/outfield). Bucky Dent (infield), Rudy Jaramillo (hitting coach) and Larry Hardy, who was the bullpen coach.
All six were still with Oates in 2000. Before that season, there was no reason to make any coaching changes with a club that had won three division titles. But now the Rangers were headed for last place in the American League West.
Understand, when a team is hopelessly out of contention in September, the beat writers start asking questions about next year. One of the more obvious questions is if there will be any coaching changes.
Oates was asked about his coaches several times before the Rangers went to Oakland for the final three games of the season. His most definitive answer was this …
All his coaches were coming back in 2001 or he would resign on the spot.
Then, when the Rangers arrived in Oakland, they announced that Bosman had been fired as pitching coach.
This should have been a simple news story. The Rangers were at the bottom of the American League in team ERA and there was definite dissatisfaction among the pitchers with the pitching coach. If you were around the Rangers every day that season, you had to hear and know there were pitchers that weren’t happy with Bosman. That story was written as early as August, but when it was, Oates came to a vehement and unequivocal defense of Bosman.
That was the big story. It wasn’t that Bosman was fired. What everybody wanted to know was why Oates changed his mind.
Oates, clearly on edge about the firing, was immediately asked about that during his media session in the visitors dugout before the Friday game against Oakland. His explanation defies description. Oates gave some convoluted explanation about how he had new information on the subject. He compared it to a valued employee or beloved nanny who had been with the company/family for years, but had suddenly been caught stealing. The person was still loved, but had to be fired.
The writers and broadcasters sitting there just looked at each other with amazed and befuddled looks on their faces. It was not Oates’ finest moment.
The next day, there was still unanswered questions and Oates was still on edge and fuming. Conspiracy theories were afloat, one being that Hicks and/or Melvin had forced Oates to fire Bosman to save his job. Hicks and Melvin made it clear the decision was totally up to Oates.
Oates, still agitated by the whole messy situation, started rambling in the dugout in his media session with Texas writers and broadcasters.
At one point he blurted out, “Off the record … I should just resign here and now.”
That one was a shocker, especially for the two beat writers, myself and Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News. Evan just got up and walked away, saying he couldn’t be present if the Rangers’ manager was talking “off the record” about resigning.
It was a difficult spot for a reporter.
One, someone can say something is “off the record,” but if a reporter doesn’t stipulate beforehand, then they are under no obligation to honor the request.
Secondly, a good reporter/writer can easily work around the exact quote and still write a story saying the Rangers’ manager is thinking about resigning.
Third, the Morning News and the Star-Telegram were intense competitors. If one newspaper has a big headline saying Oates is thinking of resigning and the other paper ignores it, there would be hell to pay.
I was able to get Oates alone.
“You are not going to resign, are you?” I asked.
“No, but …”
“Then don’t say something like that, even off the record. You’re putting us on the spot.”
“You know what I wish,” Oates said. “I wish I could take the Phillies job (Terry Francona was about to get fired) and take Boz with me as the pitching coach.”
Evan and I talked about it afterward upstairs. We both agreed to honor Oates’ request. There would be no mention of the word “resign” in either paper.
The Rangers lost 23-2 that afternoon. They were in tough shape. The roster was so depleted that Young had been called up on Friday because the Rangers were running out of players. He made his debut as a pinch-runner that night
Oates wanted to win. Oakland and Seattle were going down to the wire for the American League West. The Indians, second in the AL Central, were right there with them. Oates desperately wanted to uphold the honor of the pennant race and try to play the spoiler.
They didn’t. Oakland beat the Rangers on Sunday to win the division and the Mariners won the wild card. The Indians, after five straight trips to postseason under general manager John Hart, stayed home.
Years later, after he became the Rangers general manager, Hart said, “We would have gone to postseason six straight years if the Rangers hadn’t thrown in the towel in 2000.”
Oates never threw in the towel once as Rangers manager.
But that winter, Melvin did have to talk Oates out of resigning. Oates was ready to stay home in Virginia, but Melvin still wanted him as the manager.
The happiest I ever saw Johnny Oates was on a Saturday morning the next year in spring training. The Rangers were playing a Saturday afternoon game against the Pirates at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, about an hour north of the Rangers’ spring home in Port Charlotte.
McKechnie was the oldest ballpark in Florida. The Rangers’ clubhouse was a wooden shack down the left-field line, but with a nice lawn out front in the bullpen area.
Oates did not travel with the team from Port Charlotte that day. He was staying on the beach in Sarasota with Gloria. On this morning, Oates and Gloria had brought their 2-year-old grandson, Collin, with them and arrived well ahead of the team.
With nobody else around, Johnny took Collin out into the bullpen area and let him run freely through the bullpen. The grass was thick and healthy, and the little child gurgled joyfully. Johnny sat there watching him with a big smile on his face, as relaxed and serene as I had ever seen him.
That was Alex Rodriguez’s first spring training with the Rangers. It was also the year the Rangers opened the season against the Blue Jays in Puerto Rico.
The schedule actually called for the Rangers and the Blue Jays to first play an exhibition game on a Saturday night with the season opener scheduled for the next day.
The writers caught up with Hicks poolside around noon at the Caribe Hilton on Saturday. The man who had signed Rodriguez for $252 million that winter was in a great mood on the eve of Opening Day.
“I think we win the West,” Hicks said, standing in the Caribbean sun wearing his bathing suit. “We beat Oakland in a close race. Oakland is going to be real good, but we win the West.”
The Rangers did have Rodriguez, the best player on the planet, and their pitching had performed deceptively well in spring training. This was also a team that had won three division titles in five seasons.
But Oates knew better. He knew the Rangers couldn’t stand up to a young and talented Oakland team that had a pitching staff led by Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. He wasn’t sure who his nine starters were, who he had for a rotation or who would be his closer. He wasn’t surrounded by a team of proven veterans he could trust.
Oates had no problems with Rodriguez. He just wasn’t comfortable with the idea of his star player and owner being so buddy-buddy.
The Rangers started the season going 11-13. On May 29, a Sunday, Oates watched his team before their game against the Indians and said a private prayer. He asked for clear guidance if he should remain as manager of the Rangers.
Oates received a quick answer. The Rangers lost 9-2 to the Indians that day at the Ballpark in Arlington and then were swept by the Tigers in three games. After a 9-4 loss to the Tigers on a Thursday afternoon, Oates’ decision was final.
He told Melvin that it was time to resign. Oates said he had lost the clubhouse and did not want to cost Melvin his job. Oates was ready to fall in his sword for the good of the others. Hicks made it easier by promising to honor the remainder of Oates contract through the 2002 season.
Oates was replaced by Jerry Narron.
The Rangers didn’t win another division title until 2010.