Claire Smith, who was inducted into the writers’ wing of the Hall of Fame at July’s end, tells a charming story about Don Baylor, who died Monday at 68, after a long battle with multiple myeloma. As an Angel, Smith remembers, Baylor once threw a postgame fit and leveled the clubhouse spread. Not because he himself was upset after a hard loss, but to draw the press away from a rookie Angel who’d had a worse game.
“Don wanted, needed to pull the media to him,” Smith wrote for ESPN. “He told me that’s what veterans, team leaders do. So he stagecrafted his way into an impromptu state-of-the-team scrum with reporters, pulling attention away from the kid.” That was a lot more pronounced than the day Dennis Eckersley yanked the press away from Frank Duffy by bellowing, “The L goes next to my name. Come talk to me!”
Baylor won a Most Valuable Player award with the 1979 Angels as they went to the franchise’s first postseason. He had a way of affecting anyone who played the game when he was around, according to the tweetstorm that greeted his death.
“Don Baylor told me, ‘Son, you’re making a lot of people proud you will never know’,” tweeted former pitcher Dontrelle Willis. “‘You’re a true joy to watch’.” Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, who played with Baylor in Baltimore during Baylor’s first six major league seasons, tweeted, “One of the nicest men I’ve known, unless you were a middle infielder on a [double play].”
Baylor would slice infielders into quarters trying to break up double plays or drive outfielders to the walls if not through them hitting some mammoth home runs, but few men have played exactly 28 games with a team about to go to the World Series where they smashed a Game Six-tying two-run homer an inning before a teammate hit the grand slam that guaranteed a seventh game his team won.
Baylor did that for the 1987 Twins. A year after he went to a Series with the Red Sox, having been one of the key reasons why those Sox got to that Series in the first place. The late Dave Henderson earned the bigger headlines when he wrecked Donnie Moore’s knee-high outside forkball in the top of the ninth of Game Five, but it was Baylor who’d hit a two-run homer off Angels starter Mike Witt earlier in the inning to set up the dramatics in the first place.
But in Shea Stadium in Game Six of the ’86 Series, Baylor was on the bench with no DH in the National League. Red Sox manager John McNamara pinch hit for Roger Clemens in the eighth . . . with light-hitting Mike Greenwell. Then Bill Buckner’s turn came up in the same inning, with Mets lefthander Jesse Orosco on the mound. And Baylor still sat as Buckner hit for himself and lined out to center field.
“I was in the clubhouse swinging a bat,” Baylor said later, “and was never told that I was going to bat.” He swore he heard from another player that McNamara was talked out of hitting for Buckner.
Baylor may have played intensely with something of an intimidating reputation, but he was a quiet kind of tough, whether getting hit by 267 pitches to counter-balance his 388 home runs (Smith swears Ken Griffey, Sr. claimed that when Baylor was hit, the trainers put the ball on a stretcher) or managing an expansion franchise, as he did with the newborn Rockies in 1993.
“Everybody says how intense he was and how fiery he was,” says Dante Bichette, who first met Baylor in Milwaukee when Baylor was a batting coach, before Baylor helped pick Bichette to stock the Rockies and made Bichette his number three hitter. “He really wasn’t a man of a lot of words, but when he spoke, everybody heard.
“I’m talking everybody in the league, man. When he talked, and when people came up to him, he was a very revered, respected man and it was just neat to be around him. He’s one of the really neat guys.”
Baylor led the Rockies to their first postseason in 1995. His Colorado tenure was his most successful as a manager. ”He wasn’t a big team meeting guy,” Bichette says, “but when he had a team meeting it was simple and to the point and you got it.”
He fought cancer the same way, simple and to the point. When he was diagnosed, he teamed up with former Yankee pitcher and Mets/Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre—who also battles the disease—to support the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation.
Nationals manager Dusty Baker struck a friendship with Baylor during their playing days. Once as opponents, when Baylor was a Yankee and Baker an Athletic, the two leaned on the upper steps of their dugouts as their pitchers got into a particularly nasty game of brushbacks. Baker kept his bat at his side. Baylor merely glared.
Smith says she checked in with both men after that insane game. “Ahhhhh,” Baker said, “Donnie wasn’t going anywhere.” Baylor rejoined, “Dusty wasn’t going to do anything!”
“We signed the same time. We were in Double-A against each other, Triple-A for two years,” Baker told the Washington Post on learning of Baylor’s death. “I was supposed to be the next Hank Aaron. He was the next Frank Robinson with the Orioles.
“We fought for batting titles all the way up. We played in Puerto Rico together. His first wife picked out my first wife’s engagement ring. That was the first time I had ever gone to Baltimore, was when I drove up to see Donny.”
Robinson hung Baylor with the nickname Groove, half in sarcasm, when the young Baylor arrived at his first Orioles spring training and proclaimed that, however well stocked the Oriole system was with prospects, he could and would hit major league pitching whenever he was in his “groove” at the plate.
Baker is grateful, though, that he got one more chance to talk to his old friend and friendly rival. For Baker’s two Silver Sluggers and All-Star teams, there were Baylor’s three Silver Sluggers and one All-Star team. Baylor was named the National League’s Manager of the Year once, in 1995. Baker has three such awards, for 1993, 1997, and 2000.
Both Baylor’s wife, Rebecca, and Claire Smith called Baker this past Saturday; Baker seized the chance to talk to Baylor.
“I learned that when somebody says call me back — a couple times someone called me and I was going to wait till tomorrow — but that person died before I called back,” Baker says. “So when somebody says call ’em, somebody’s not doing well, you better call ’em right then. Because there’s nothing worse than somebody calling and saying somebody’s not doing well and they’ve died already.”
Baker and Baylor talked. Come Monday morning, Baker sensed something amiss. He was only too right, as is most of baseball sensing something amiss because Baylor has gone from earth to the groove in the Elysian Fields of God.