Jim Reeves of the Ft. Worth Star Telegram is probably one of the best sports reporters in the state of Texas. As I was cleaning out clippings from a file of things that touched me, I came across this article. I hope you enjoy it as half as I did and do…
Faith, above all
Former Rangers manager never wavered during his ordeal
By Jim Reeves
This story originally appeared in the Ft. Worth, TX Star-Telegram on Dec. 25, 2004
Johnny Oates said a strange thing to his wife, Gloria, a few weeks ago.
“I’m looking forward to this Christmas,” he said, “more than I have any other in my life.”
That’s peculiar, Gloria thought, because as strong a Christian as Oates was, he had never really been a Christmas person.
“It usually made him depressed,” she explained, “because he always worried about those who wouldn’t have a good Christmas.”
His out-of-character words earlier this month brought an unbidden thought to her mind.
“You’re looking forward to this Christmas,” she thought to herself, “because you’re going to spend it with Jesus.”
And with the meticulous timing that marked his entire life, that’s exactly what Johnny Oates is doing today.
“That’s our family’s prayer,” Gloria had said Thursday night, as Oates lay in a deep coma in a Richmond, Va., hospital. “That Johnny spend Christmas with Jesus.”
Those prayers were answered when Oates, who was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in November 2001, died early Christmas Eve morning.
This is exactly how Johnny would have scripted it, if he could have. Three years ago, when I visited the Oateses in their Matoaca, Va., home about a month after surgery to remove the brain tumor, he told me wished for only one Christmas present.
“I believe God is going to use me,” Oates confided. “That’s all I can ask.
“It’s the only thing I want for Christmas.”
And use him God did. Oates’ faith never wavered even once through his long ordeal. It was that strong personal faith that set Oates apart from anyone else I’ve ever met in sports.
“If anyone deserved to have a prayer answered, it was John Oates,” said Rangers manager Buck Showalter, who played for Oates in Nashville, Tenn., in 1982. “He touched a lot of lives.
“People are always asking who affected you the most, and I try to avoid answering that because there are so many. But there was never any question for me that it was Johnny.”
I know exactly how Buck feels. I’ve covered and been around the Rangers since they first came to Texas, but no manager ever touched me like Johnny Oates did.
We hit it off from the moment we met. Maybe the fact that he was almost exactly a month older than me — he would have been 59 next month — had something to do with it.
But mostly I think it was the fact that Johnny was already taking giant steps along a spiritual journey that I was just beginning.
It was during his six-plus years of managing in Texas that Oates became comfortable with who and what he was. A crisis with Gloria’s health in his first spring as Rangers manager in ’95 put him on the fast-track to understanding life better than most.
Oates’ single-minded devotion to baseball was killing his marriage, and he didn’t realize it until he almost lost Gloria.
“Baseball doesn’t stop for death,” she told him when he rushed from Port Charlotte, Fla., to her side in the spring of ’95. He took several weeks off, missed the season opener and came back a changed man.
He talked openly and frequently about his relationship with the Lord. Baseball was still important to him, but God and family had moved to Nos. 1 and 2 on his ever-present list of things to do.
Our relationship, at first based on business, blossomed into friendship. We were equally comfortable together talking about baseball or faith.
My trip to the Oates home in Matoaca three Decembers ago was one of the highlights of my life. Never have I seen such strong faith in a family facing such a devastating crisis.
Instead of presents under the Christmas tree, Gloria had carefully set up photos of the family. Johnny with son Andy. Johnny with daughters Lori and Jenny. Johnny with Gloria. Johnny in his baseball uniform.
“I wanted to put them there to celebrate life,” Gloria said at the time. “And to celebrate the life that was given to us and for us.”
Doctors at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore had told the Oates family that patients with a Grade 4 tumor, like Johnny had, usually died about 14 months after diagnosis. They weren’t sure then whether that would be Oates’ last Christmas or not.
Turns out, he would be there not just for that one, but for two more after that. He had not 14 months, but 37.
He lived each day, each hour, each minute, each second, in the present. It’s a lesson we all should learn.
“If we have 14 months or two years, why waste a day?” Oates asked while I was there three years ago. “We spend so much time in our lives taking care of the baggage of our past, or worrying about the future, we forget to live today.
“This has brought the present into focus for us. We don’t worry about yesterday. We’ve quit being concerned about our schedule tomorrow.”
Oates’ faith, and that of then-Rangers closer John Wetteland was such an inspiration to me, I wrote a little 12-line poem one day and dropped it into a Sunday column in 1997.
Johnny liked it so much, he had it done up in 8 x 10 calligraphy, had three copies made, and had them matted and framed. He gave Wetteland and me each one and hung the third on his office wall. It’s called,
When I’ve reached the final innings
And the day is getting late
When the foe has the bases loaded
And ol’ Satan’s stepping to the plate
And the Manager strolls to the mound,
To the ump growls, “He’s had enough,”
And turns to wave to the bullpen,
‘Cause it’s plain I’ve lost my stuff
As the bullpen gate swings open
And The Closer looms into view
As the crowd rises with a roar,
Lord, please let it be You.
Johnny lived the life he talked. He put it all in God’s hands.
“There’s no reason to feel sorry for me,” he said. “I know this is going to end up being good. I don’t know how he intends to use me, but I just want God to get the glory, because this isn’t me.
“I don’t fear death, because I know there’s a better place. I will follow God’s will and do what he wants me to do.”
The Closer came in for the save Friday. Just as Johnny had it planned all along.
For the Oates family, it was a prayer answered.
For Johnny, it was a Christmas wish come true.