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Handling the Investment

Oriole Manager John Oates was a major league catcher with five different teams during 11 seasons, and he says, "I hated every minute of it." Too many moves, too few at bats, too much time away from home. He swore if he ever got a chance to manage, he would have a life he would enjoy. But in the middle of last year, when a writer reminded him of his vow, he admitted, "I lost sight of that." While Baltimore was losing its first four games after he became manager on May 23, 1991, he lost 16 pounds. He learned to eat after defeats, but the defeats still ate at him. He was uptight, and when players see that their manager is tense, they gel uptight and don't often win.

The pressure to win in '94 is more intense for Oates and the Orioles than perhaps for any other major league team. In the off-season new principal owner Peter Angelos committed $42.85 million to four high-profile free agents, one of the biggest winter talent hauls in history. Angelos, a demanding, competitive, homegrown fan, and the 23 other members of the mostly local Oriole ownership committee are expecting a winner. Already it has been written that if the Orioles stumble early, Oates might get fired.

Oates is aware of that possibility, but he says. "The money we spent doesn't make me any smarter. I haven't changed my approach. I can't work any harder." His club wasn't able to sustain either of two runs at the Blue Jays late last summer, but at leas! he now knows he can bear up under the weight of managing a contender. "I've talked to Sparky Anderson and Tony La Russa about it," he says. "Some questions [from the media] will infuriate me, the way we play might get me mad, but it's not because I feel pressure; it's because I'm a competitive person. I want to win. But I'm at ease this spring. I feel at peace."

He should, with the lineup he has now. The first seven hitters had both 20 or more homers and 78 or more RBIs at least once in the last two seasons. Third baseman Chris Sabo, one of the four tree agents lured to Baltimore, hit 21 homers and drove in 82 runs last year for Cincinnati—and he will bat seventh. Rookie rightfielder Jeffrey Hammonds, who is among the game's top prospects ("Rickey Henderson with more power." says a scout), will hit ninth.

The Oriole pitching staff turned out to be not so formidable this spring, especially when lefthander Sid Fernandez, another of the free agents, developed bursitis in his pitching shoulder; he will probably miss the first two weeks of the season. But the Blue Jays have proved that a team can essentially slug its way to a world championship. And Baltimore's pitching is still arguably better than Toronto's in 1993, because Mike Mussina, 25, and Ben McDonald, 26, are primed to become the club's first 20-game winners in 10 years. The bullpen needs another lefthander, but saving games will be up to free-agent closer Lee Smith, 36, who looks as if he has at least one big year left in him.

Throw into the mix slugging first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, the crowning free-agent signee, and the Orioles have what it takes to win the AL East for the first time since they did it in 1983. It all starts with Oates, one of the game's hardest-working, best-prepared managers. He has finally learned to relax, and just in time for what promises to be a high-stress campaign.

"I know I'm not going to be the manager of the Orioles forever," says Oates. "But I plan on staying a long time."

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JOHN IACONO

The Orioles' free-spending new ownership will expect Sabo to pay off with power.