By Rob Goldman, AngelsWin.com Historical Writer -
By 1979 Baylor had finally disciplined himself to become a team leader, and it transformed him into one of the premier players in the American League. He was the full embodiment of the (Frank) Robinson doctrine he had learned as a young Oriole: take no prisoners. On the base paths he was an aggressive runner who knocked down infielders on double plays like bowling pins. At the plate, he was a tough out. He walked almost as often as he struck out, and he was never afraid of taking one for the team. “Whatever it took to reach base”—that was Groove’s motto. He called his approach “controlled aggression.”
“Controlled aggression is a game face, a mindset,” Baylor says. “The peripheral things that you see on the side, such as fans cheering, you’re hearing all of that, but you’re still locked into what you’re doing. You’re under control, your teammates look at you not as this wild, crazy man, but as a steady and consistent presence who puts his team ahead of himself.”
Baylor’s system was not exactly democratic. Some players received preferential treatment and some ex-teammates were exempt.
“Players who played in our division, guys like Freddie Patek, if they came across the bag they’d better get out of the way, because they were gonna get hit pretty hard. I was coming through and I wasn’t going to take any prisoners. Guys like [Mark] Belanger, [Cal] Ripken, and Grich, guys I’ve known all my life, I wasn’t going to tear their kneecaps out. When I hit them I’d still help them up and pat them on the back. Those other guys, I might leave lying there.”
In November of 1979, Baylor went to Japan for an All-Star tour featuring Major League players. He had just returned to the States and was driving from the airport listening to the Angels’ flagship station KMPC on the radio when the announcer said he was dedicating the song “My Special Angel” to Baylor, and predicted over the airwaves that Baylor was going to take MVP honors.
Later that afternoon, Baylor learned he had beat out the Orioles’ Ken Singleton for American League MVP. It was the first time an Angel had ever won the prestigious award. It would be another 25 years until the next Angel, Vladimir Guerrero, would win the award.
Buzzie Bavasi broke precedent when he requested that Baylor receive extra compensation as a reward for his feat. “I got Gene Autry to give him $50,000,” says Bavasi. “They all thought I was crazy. When I was with the Dodgers, if one of our players won the Cy Young Award, all he got was a motion picture camera.”
History has also proved that losing Baylor to free agency in 1983 was a mistake. His career was far from finished, and his presence and power helped to fuel three teams—Boston, Minnesota, and Oakland—into the World Series. There is no telling how the Angels would have fared had they kept him. Like Ryan before him, Baylor, who is well remembered to this day as the engine behind the Angels’ first two divisional championships, was allowed to leave early—well before his usefulness was used up.
Baylor's skills as a team leader made him a strong managerial candidate, and in 1993 he became the first manager of the expansion Colorado Rockies. One of his greatest experiences, he says, was to see 80,000 people at the first ball game at Mile High Stadium. “It was breathtaking,” he remembers. “The Rockies attracted four million fans that first year. As it turned out, they were dying for baseball.”
He managed there for six seasons, winning Manager of the Year in 1995. In 2003, following a three-year managerial stint with the Cubs, the New York Mets hired him as their bench coach. In 2002, he had began feeling excessive fatigue but put off seeing a doctor, blaming the fatigue on his increasing age and the usual grind of a baseball season. However, tests taken during a 2003 spring training physical showed flag-raising abnormalities in his cell counts. Subsequent testing disclosed multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood that destroys the bone marrow. Red and white blood counts became Baylor’s chief concern from that point forward; for Baylor, the battle for life trumped the battle on the ball field.
Still, he was present and accounted for throughout the 2003 season. Chemotherapy throughout the season allowed Baylor to not miss a day of work. In the off-season, after more chemo and additional therapy, Baylor underwent a stem cell transplant. The procedure was a success, and by late March he reported to spring training camp in Florida for his second year with the Mets.
Groove treated the cancer as he did opposing pitchers during his 19-year career—without mercy. “I used to always tell our cystic fibrosis kids to be strong, and then it was my turn,” Baylor says. “Now I had to go out and do that myself.”
In 2005, Baylor became the Seattle Mariners’ batting coach. That February he celebrated the anniversary of his stem cell transplant, and his cancer has been in remission ever since.
He considers winning the 1979 MVP Award and the prestigious “Roberto Clemente Award” in 1985, as his greatest baseball achievements. The latter is for community involvement and was presented for his work with 65 Roses, a nonprofit group aiding youngsters with cystic fibrosis. Since the 1970s, it has raised millions of dollars for research from annual golf tournaments and fundraisers.
“I try to balance what I do on the field with what I do off the field,” says Baylor. “65 Roses gave me that opportunity, and working with the kids there has been pretty special.”
For men like Baylor who know, love, and respect the game, there should always be a place in major league baseball. That competitive fire that has been with him since Clarksville still burns, and whether it’s helping players to do their best or teaching kids to fight against life-threatening diseases, Baylor is still taking no prisoners and doing whatever it takes to win.
Note: Don Baylor had surgery today to repair his broken femur bone from last night's opening ceremonial pitch thrown by Vladimir Guerrero in what was an unfortunate accident for the Angels hitting coach. Today Tim Mead tweeted out the following, which speaks volumes of the toughness of Don Baylor!