362 Days Since Don Baylor Passed Away -- And It Is Still Hard to Accept
It was jast weekend in Cooperstown, N.Y., that Chipper Jones, a member of the Hall of Fame Class of 2018, took time to remember the late Don Baylor.
Baylor was the hitting coach for Jones and the Braves back in 1999, and Jones has admitted often, it was Baylor who helped him make the step up in his career that led to him winning the NL MVP in 1999 and, in truth, to becoming the complete player who was voted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Baylor challenged Jones that spring, telling him that as an opposing manager and coach, it was Jones who was the reason the Braves so often faced left-handed pitchers because the opposition felt that would neutralize Jones.
"I miss you buddy," Jones said of Baylor. "Not a day goes by that I don't miss our rigorous cage sessions."
Most anyone who knew Baylor misses him. It was 362 days ago that Baylor lost a battle that he couldn't win. He passed away at the age of 68 after a 14-year battle with multiple myeloma.
It still hard to believe it really happened. It's still hard to believe that when the phone rings it won't be Baylor on the other end. Anyone who met Baylor was a better person for it.
This is a man who, as a junior high school student, was one of three kids who integrated public schools in Austin, Texas, in the 1960s. Baylor was the first African-American athlete at Stephen F. Austin High School, and to the day of his death, his high school baseball coach, Frank Seale, was an important part of Baylor's life.
Never did a key event in Baylor's life -- from All-Star Games to World Series to Spring Training -- occur without Frank and Anne Seale in attendance. Baylor never forgot the impact Seale had in helping him deal with the challenges he faced in integrating the Texas education system.
Baylor was even the first African-American who Darrell Royal offered a full ride to play football at the University of Texas. Baylor, however, was a baseball player at heart, which was fortunate for me, because it was through baseball that this writer from Cheyenne, Wyo., and Baylor became friends. We could not have had more different backgrounds, but I would doubt that many, if any, developed a stronger bond than Baylor and myself.
We became acquainted in the late 1970s, when Baylor played for the Angels and I covered them. We never lost contact while I moved on to Seattle and Kansas City and Dallas, and he went on to play for the Yankees, Red Sox,Twins and A's.
And then we were together again in Colorado, where I was hired the year before the Rockies played their first game, and the next fall he was hired as the first manager in Rockies history.
What kind of person was Baylor? Well, he played in the World Series each of his final three big league seasons with different teams -- the Red Sox, Twins and A's. Why? He had that special karma in a clubhouse. He could keep everyone focused on what mattered and not the petty whining that can sidetrack a team.
And Baylor was willing to take the bullet to make sure nobody got lost along the way.
It was the final days of the 1979 season. The Angels were battling for the first postseason trip in the history of a franchise that was created out of expansion in 1961. They were playing the three-time defending American League West champion Royals in Kansas City, holding a three-game lead with 11 games to play.
Nolan Ryan was pitching for the Angels, and he retired the first two batters in the fourth. Then came a bunt single by Willie Wilson and another single by Hal McRae. George Brett hit a routine ground ball to short that went between Jimmy Anderson's legs, and the Royals wound up with three unearned runs in what became a 6-4 win.
After the game, the media was crowded around the 22-year-old Anderson's locker, reliving that critical play over and over again. All of a sudden, Baylor's voice was heard, and the table in the middle of the clubhouse with the postgame meal was turned over. The media forgot all about Anderson and raced to Baylor's locker.
After he answered questions the rest of the media members departed.
"OK," I said, knowing how out of character the actions were, "What's up?"
"That kid is our shortstop, and we need him if we are going to win," said Baylor. "We don't need him having to relive that play. We need him to look ahead."
"I got the attention off them, didn't I?" Baylor said.
He did. Oh, and the visiting clubhouse attendant was quick to mention to me as I left the clubhouse, "You know 'Groove.' He gave me more than double the cost of that meal."
Don Baylor wasn't afraid to take the heat. And he wasn't about to take advantage of anyone.
What kind of guy was Don Baylor? When he was first diagnosed with cancer, I wrote a piece for the Rocky Mountain News in which I mentioned that Baylor, the first manager in franchise history, was at a certain hospital. The phone rang the next morning. Baylor was calling.
Baylor was upset I wrote the article.
"You were the first manager in the history of the franchise, you took the Rockies to the playoffs in their third year of existence," I explained. "You mean a lot to the people here. I felt your situation was newsworthy."
Baylor paused before responding, "But you mentioned the hospital. People are sending all these flowers and things. These nurses have so much work to do. They don't need to be carrying flowers around."
That was Don Baylor.
It wasn't about him. Here he was, diagnosed with cancer, and he was concerned about any burden that the nurses might be facing.
Baylor was such a perfect manager for the expansion Rockies. The first-year roster was a group of basic castoffs from other organizations. And he quickly handed down rules, including coats and ties on every road trip, and everybody would be standing on the top step of the dugout, as a team, for the national anthem before every game.
"We are an expansion team," Baylor said. "People can think what they want, but we are going to be professional. We are going to respect the game, and we are going to respect ourselves. We'll surprise people."
And in the third year of the franchise's existence, it was in the postseason -- quicker than any team up until that time.
Baylor was dismissed by the Rockies after the 1998 season and hired to be the hitting coach for the Atlanta Braves. The Braves came to Colorado for a series with the Rockies in early April, and the topic of conversation at Coors Field among the ushers, the ticket takers, the receptionists and secretaries was, "Don and [his wife] Becky are going to be here tonight."
And Baylor arrived early so he would have time to see the ushers, the ticket takers, the receptionists and secretaries.
Longtime baseball exectutive Chris Rice was one of those people.
"I used to say, 'I would take a bullet for Don Baylor,'" said Rice, whose baseball career began with the expansion Royals in 1968, included being a part of the expansion Rockies and is now finishing her career reunited again with John Schuerholz in Atlanta. "A bullet would bounce off him, but I would take one for him anyway."
That was Baylor. In life or at the ballpark, everybody was part of the team. There was no class distinction. To him, all people were truly created equal, and all people deserved respect.
Ellis Burks came to the Rockies as a free agent after the franchise's first season, because he wanted to play for Baylor, who was his teammate with Boston in 1987.
Burks remembered being a rookie, and being hazed by veterans until Baylor, who came to the Red Sox from the Yankees the previous season, called out the veterans. He made it clear that Burks was a teammate and was just as important to the team's success as every other player.
"He made his point, and nobody was going to challenge him," said Burks.
Hit by a pitch 267 times in his career -- more than any modern player who didn't wear padding -- Baylor charged the mound only twice. Both times he was hit in the head. The other times?
"I'd send a message through the second baseman or shortstop, whoever was covering second when I stole the bases," Baylor said with a smile.
"I remember when I was traded from the Orioles to the A's," Baylor explained. "Bobby Grich and I were the first- and second-round picks in the same Draft, and were roommates from rookie ball to the big leagues. He is my son's godfather.
"The Orioles come to town, and I get hit by a pitch. I looked across the infield and Bobby's staring at me, like `You aren't going to, are you?' I just nodded yes. He was on the other team."
And Baylor was a team guy, at the ballpark, and in life in general.
Baylor had so much respect from everyone whose life he touched, because he respected every person and the challenges they faced in life.