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BASEBALL Oates slowly losing out battle to brain cancer



Published: Wed, April 30, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Removed by surgery in 2001, the tumors returned to the former manager.

MATOACA, Va. (AP) -- Johnny Oates never used to notice the squirrels gobbling birdseed on the deck behind his home. He rarely saw the woodpeckers pounding at the pines or scaring smaller birds from the feeders.

Even when he was home, he really wasn't. His wife, Gloria, used to tell him that he always was preoccupied by his job as a major league manager.

That was before the brain tumor. Before doctors told the 57-year-old man and his high school sweetheart that his future might be measured in months.

"It's the same squirrels, the same birds, the same lake, the same grass, but now you see them," Oates said, looking out at his spectacular yard that ends where Lake Chesdin begins in Chesterfield County, 30 miles from Richmond.

"It's something like smelling the roses, and we don't until it's too late," he said.

The look on his face briefly suggests regret, but he wipes it away and speaks of life after baseball and making certain his days ahead -- however many -- mean something.

Knew news was bad

Johnny Oates knew the news was bad before he heard it. The giveaway was the nurse's arm going around his wife before the doctor spoke.

The twitching in his left shoulder that he blamed on three straight days of bad golf, and that sudden inability to speak during a radio show was glioblastoma multiforme. Brain cancer.

Untreated, he probably had four months to live. With treatment, the doctor said, the average life expectancy was about 14 months.

Oates opted for surgery, and Dr. Henry Brem, chairman of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital University, removed the tumor in November 2001, replacing it with chemotherapy wafers to deliver time-released cancer-killing drugs.

Radiation left Oates bald on the right side, and he gradually lost the use of his left arm and hand.

"When the doctor told me I'd have deficiencies on my left side, I said 'Hey, doc, I know God doesn't make deals ... but you can have my left arm if you give me a couple more years,"' Oates said. "He laughed and walked out, but it's looking like that."

Brem marvels at Oates.

"He has never had a moment of feeling sorry for himself or being angry," he said.

Oates has started a new form of chemotherapy after the tumor recurred, but he remains upbeat and comforted by his faith. "I don't have any worries," he said.

He uses a cane to shuffle around and has days when he hardly makes it off the sofa in his sunroom.

Other days, he's up at 4:30 a.m., off to a Promise Keeper's meeting at 6 a.m. and dozing off watching a favorite Western or a baseball game in the afternoon. He's also known to attend local high school games.

He spends many mornings reading the Bible and sharing devotions with his wife of 35 years, looks forward to visits from children and grandchildren, and chats with friends.

Regular callers include Montreal manager Frank Robinson, Philadelphia coach John Vukovich and former big league pitchers Tommy John, Jim Palmer, Jim Kaat and Ken Brett, who also is being treated for a brain tumor.

Had close brushes before

This brush with mortality isn't the first for Oates and his wife.

In 1995, Oates was at spring training in his first year as manager of the Texas Rangers. During a trip to Florida, Gloria and daughter Jenny stopped at a hotel in Savannah, Ga., and suddenly Gloria had trouble breathing. His wife was panicked, overburdened with the stress of running a family and "ready to sign off," Oates recalled.

Jenny grabbed the phone to call her father, but Gloria stopped her.

"She told her, 'Don't call him. Baseball doesn't even stop for death,"' Oates said. "I think that's one of the greatest quotes of all time for a man to listen to. That's been my thing that keeps me going now, that she is here and I don't have baseball."

The medics stabilized Gloria. Oates drove through the night from Port Charlotte, Fla.

"As soon as I walked into that room, the Lord spoke to me and changed my heart for baseball," he said. "Up until that point, I was never going to get out of baseball. And when I walked through that door, baseball took second fiddle in my life. I knew I had to get her home and get her healthy."

Instead of going back to Florida, Oates took his wife back to Virginia and spent nearly a month at her side.

"Our marriage has been so much better since," he said. "Unfortunately, she had to get sick to get me closer to her, and I had to get sick to get baseball out of my life."




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