All the Way Home (Nov-Dec 1997)

By Matt Dabbs

by Grant Boone
November – December, 1997

29A lot of things are said between umpires and managers during a baseball game. Most of them are not fit for print in a family publication. But the words of American League umpire John Shulock three years ago in an altercation at Yankee Stadium may well have saved a family.

The game was between the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles. The family in question belonged to Johnny Oates, the Orioles’ manager at the time, who had rushed out of the dugout to vehemently argue a close call.

“He told me at home plate,” says Oates, who thought Shulock had made a bad call on a close play, “John, you better get help. Something’s wrong with you.”

The ump was right.

“Of course I’d been thrown out of ball games as a manager before, but John saw something in me, and he didn’t know me that well. Since then, I’ve called him and said, ‘Thank you for what you did for me that day.’ He doesn’t even know. I mean, I don’t think he understands, but he saw in my eyes that I was hurting so badly.”

Oates was hurting because the everyday pressures of managing a major league ball club had been compounded by criticism from, among others, the owner of the Orioles, Peter Angelos.

“I was having a tough time separating John Oates, the manager, from John Oates, the person, because really they were the same person. I didn’t separate them. I thought everything people were saying about me was personal and that I was a bad person,” said Oates.

The hurt reached a boiling point that afternoon at Yankee Stadium. After being ejected, Oates retreated to the tunnel that leads from the dugout to the visiting team’s clubhouse. He had no idea God was there waiting for him.

“I was just about ready to give up, and I said, ‘Lord, help me. I can’t do this anymore.’ And I felt a physical presence of something or someone siting on my left thigh. And it was an experience that I had never felt or experienced before, and I can’t explain it. The Holy Spirit touched me and said, ‘I’d never leave you. I’m going to be here with you. I’ve told you I’m here.’ He knew that I would need something to physically touch me to encourage me that day.”

That wasn’t Johnny Oates’ first encounter with God. And it wouldn’t be his last. Though he grew up in a church-going family, Christianity for Oates as a young man was more liturgy than lifestyle. Whatever happened in a Sunday morning worship service certainly had no bearing on the rest of his week. It wasn’t until 1983, after years of receiving some of the best pitchers in baseball history, that the veteran catcher finally received salvation with the Philadelphia Phillies. But, as he reflects on his commitment to Christ nearly 15 years later, Oates sees a man who accepted the Lord’s forgiveness, but not his full authority. “For a guy who has been in charge his whole life, being a catcher, being a professional athlete, being looked up to everywhere I go, boy, it’s tough to say, ‘I surrender all.'”

The struggle to surrender became even more difficult as Oates moved from the most important position on the field to the most important position off the field. When his playing career ended, Oates became a manager, first in the minor leagues, then in the majors with the Baltimore Orioles in 1991. But as he began devoting more and more of his time to the 25 players on his team, the four most important people in his life – his wife, Gloria, and his three children, Lori, Andy, and Jenny – got less and less husband and father, whether he was on the road or not.

“The physical separation, I think, a lot of people understand and try to deal with,” says Oates. “In my case, the thing that almost killed my family was the emotional separation even when I was present. I was so wrapped up in my vocation that I didn’t have time to even sit down at a meal table without jumping up to do an interview or think about a lineup. Gloria and the kids were dying inside, but they had so much respect for me that they let me do my thing. That’s the trap so many men fall into: ‘Well, it’s my job, I’ve got to do it.’ It’s that old male ego. Where we get our satisfaction from is our vocation most of the time. And being in the limelight of a professional athlete, boy, everybody’s gonna give you the red carpet treatment. They’re gonna throw the warm fuzzies at you, and that’s gonna reinforce that you’re doing the right thing while your family is crying inside and dying emotionally because even when you’re home, you’re not there. You’re mentally at the ballpark.”

The emotional separation contributed to the burden that bubbled over on that 1994 afternoon at Yankee Stadium. And, while divine intervention got Oates’ attention, it didn’t change his lifestyle.

“It went great for a couple of weeks,” Oates says, “and then I got right back into the Oates verses Angelos thing. Then at the end of the season I was let go, and if I ever wanted to be a baseball manager, well, from then on I wanted to be one even more.”

Oates got that chance the very next season when the Texas Rangers hired him as their new manager. But his debut with the new team was delayed when God grabbed his attention once again, not with a tender touch but with a frightening phone call.

“Gloria and the girls were coming to spring training. Gloria had already been to Florida a couple of times, but when she was there, I’d leave the house at six in the morning to go to spring training, got home at seven at night and then do a couple of TV shows. You know, we talk about physical separation. I think the fmaily can accept that, but then when I emotionally wasn’t with them when I was physically with them, that just killed them. So, on the way to spring training, they stopped in Savannah, Georgia. They got ready to go to bed about midnight, and Gloria had what the doctors described as a severe panic attack. She couldn’t breathe, and she didn’t want to breathe. The kids called me and said, ‘Dad you’d better come.’ She didn’t want them to call. She said, “Don’t call dad because baseball doesn’t even stop for death.’ The medics got her to the hospital, but she wanted to die that night. She thought my life would be better if she would just go on out.”

Unable to find a flight out of Port Charlotte, Florida, Oates drove to Savannah, fully expecting to solve the situation and carry on as usual. It didn’t happen.

“I walked into that motel room and saw her sitting there, and, just like turning on a light switch, my whole view of Gloria changed. I saw a beautiful lady that, for all intents and purposes, was dead sitting on the side of the bed. We just sat there on the bed, and I don’t remember how long it was that we didn’t speak. I could feel her crying with her head on my shoulder, and we just sat there because I didn’t know what to say. For the first time in my life, I can honestly say in my heart that baseball wasn’t number one in my life. And it wasn’t something I had done. The Lord had tried so many ways to get my attention.”

This time it worked. With permission from the front office of the Texas Rangers to take as long as he needed to get his house in order, Oates and his wife went home to Virginia where Gloria entered Rapha, a Christian treatment center.

“I would attend some of the classes with her, and we’d go to lunch,” says Oates. “We were telling each other things about each other that I never thought I’d talk to her about. It was so exciting! We became like high school sweethearts again.”

So much so that Oates was prepared to prove his priorities were finally in order.

“I was ready to stay home, but the doctors said, ‘Johnny, she’ll never make it if you don’t go back. The rest of her life she’ll say she cost you what you wanted the most.’ I said, ‘But she’s what I want!’ And they said, ‘She sees that now.'”

“That’s all she wanted,” says Oates, “for me to hear, ‘I’m important. Value me. Validate me as your wife, as an equal.'”

So Oates did go back. After missing the first week of the 1995 season, he rejoined the team and led them to a winning season. The next year, the Texas Rangers won the American League West and reached the playoffs for the first time in the club’s 25-year history. Johnny Oates was named the American League’s Co-Manager of the Year, but his greatest individual honor came when he returned home to Virginia at season’s end. Gloria showed him a tree that had changed as much as she had since the previous spring.

“It had been pruned back to just the bare roots. And when we went back, it was in full bloom. She said, ‘You know, that’s me. When I went to the hospital 16 months ago, I was pruned to the ground, and now, I feel like that tree looks now, full of pink and white flowers, and it’s because of you and God.'”

Another season has come and gone since then. Oates is disappointed that the Rangers did not make the playoffs in 1997, but he is excited about spending the off-season at home.

“My desire to do well at my job has not lessened, but my desire to be a husband and a father has increased greatly. Therefore, I’ve given up a lot of stuff that I didn’t even want to do to begin with.”

Like granting every one of the dozens of daily requests for interviews. Like golf with the guys. Now, he spends that time with his wife and children.

“[God] gave me an acronym, to DREC,” Oates says. “Delegate, regulate, eliminate, and communicate.”

He recommends those concepts for men whose time management leaves their families behind. And he urges other men to avoid the mistakes he made.

“Our families are right there in front of us, and we don’t even see them. We look right through them to our jobs because we get so much satisfaction, but if you really give your family a chance, they can give you so much more satisfaction.”

It’s ironic. After spending his entire life in a game where the objective is to get home, Johnny Oates is finally there.Wineskins Magazine

Grant Boone is an Atlanta-based sportscaster with the PGA Tour Radio Network.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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