Baseball Loses A Beloved Figure In Don Baylor
The first manager in Rockies franchise history, Don Baylor demanded respect from teammates and opponents, because that’s exactly what he afforded them. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
I didn’t even cry when my father died.
Dang, Don Baylor, I can’t believe you made me do it.
I don’t have a particular memory of the first time I met Baylor—just four decades of memories of what a special person he was and how he impacted the lives of so many.
He never backed down from any challenge, not even multiple myeloma, which he battled for 14 years before passing away on Aug. 7.
Baylor will be forever remembered in baseball lore as the 1979 American League MVP, when he helped the Angels claim the first postseason berth in franchise history.
He will be forever remembered as the first player to play in three consecutive World Series for three different teams, which happened to come at the end of his career.
And he will be forever remembered as the National League Manager of the Year in 1995, when he took the 3-year-old Rockies to the NL Championship Series, which at the time was the quickest an expansion team had qualified for the playoffs.
Oh, but there was so much more to remember about Baylor, the man who took pride in everything he did and demanded the same from his players.
He let it be known from Day 1 in spring training of 1993 that coats and ties would be worn during travel, regardless of the time the planes might land in the next city, and for every game, every player would be expected to be on the top step in the dugout for the national anthem.
“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.”
This is a man who in junior high school was one of three kids who integrated public schools in Austin, Texas, in the 1960s, and he was the first African-American athlete at Austin High. Baylor’s high school coach, Frank Seale, was an important part of his life.
Never did a key event in Baylor’s life 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 Darryl Royal offered a full ride to play football at the University of Texas. Baylor, however, was a baseball player at heart, and when Royal wouldn’t allow him to play baseball in the spring, he wound up signing with the Orioles as a 1967 second-round pick.
Baylor and I became acquainted in the late 1970s, when he played for the Angels and I covered the team. We never lost contact while I moved on to Seattle, Kansas City and Dallas, and he would play for the Yankees, Red Sox, Twins and Athletics.
And then we were together again in Colorado, where I was hired in 1992. Baylor was hired as the Rockies’ first manager.
What kind of person was Baylor?
Well, he had special karma in the clubhouse. He helped keep the pennant-winning 1986 Red Sox, 1987 Twins and 1988 A’s focused on what mattered—and not the petty whines that can sidetrack a team.
In life or at the ballpark, everybody was part of the team and deserved respect.
In the final days of the 1979 season, the Angels clung to a three-game lead with 11 to play. With two outs in the fourth inning in a game in Kansas City, Willie Wilson bunted for a hit, then Hal McRae followed with a single. George Brett then hit a routine ground ball to shortstop that went between Jim Anderson’s legs. The Royals scored three unearned runs in what became a 6-4 win.
After the game, the media crowded around the 22-year-old Anderson’s locker, reliving that critical play. 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 Anderson and raced to Baylor’s locker.
Later I asked Baylor about the incident, knowing how out-of-character it was.
“That kid is our shortstop and we need him if we are going to win,” Baylor said. “We don’t need him having to relive that play. We need him to look ahead.”
He paused. “I got the attention off him, didn’t I?”
Ellis Burks came to the Rockies as a free agent in 1994, because he wanted to play for Baylor, his teammate in Boston in 1987.
Burks remembered being hazed by Red Sox veterans until Baylor called out the veterans. He made it clear that Burks was a teammate, and the rookie was just as important to the team’s success as every other player.
“He made his point and nobody was going to challenge him,” Burks said.
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Baylor had so much respect from everyone whose life he touched because he respected every person and the challenges they faced.