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Back to Basics for Rockies : Baseball’s Tradition, Fundamentals Are Keys for Baylor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Manager Don Baylor of the Colorado Rockies stands alone in front of the gathering of obscure and unwanted players, absorbing the immensity of it all, a feeling he has sought for so long.

He scans their faces, restraining his emotions at this first team meeting.

Baylor wants to tell the players that he knows how they are feeling. Many of them were discarded by teams and abandoned by organizations, as he had been rebuffed for every managerial opening from Seattle to New York.

He doesn’t know the reason why each of them ended up playing for an expansion franchise, much as he is sure they don’t know how he wound up in Denver.

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Baseball always told Baylor it was impossible to be a major league manager without experience. It didn’t matter that nine managers had been hired since 1984 without experience, and two of them had won World Series.

“I remember talking to Pete Rose about that,” Baylor said. “He kept telling me, ‘Why do you have to go to the minor leagues to manage? I never had to go, and I was hired.’

“I never felt comfortable enough to say to Pete Rose, ‘Yeah, but you’re white.’ ”

Baylor, 43, born in Austin, Tex., became one of the first three African-American students to attend O. Henry Junior High there. He was ridiculed by fellow African-American students in high school, saying he shouldn’t be playing baseball, a white man’s sport.

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Never did he complain. He came home each day, told his mom that everything went fine and went to his room to study. It was the Baylor way.

It wasn’t until after his 17-year playing career ended, after leading his third different team to a third consecutive World Series, that Baylor says racism affected his future. No one cared about his skin color when he was winning the most-valuable-player award and taking seven teams to division titles, he says. It was different, he says, when he wanted to be a manager.

He spent three years in the Milwaukee Brewers’ organization, two of them as the hitting coach, after his retirement. When Manager Tom Trebelhorn was fired, Baylor sought the job, fully expecting to be the leading candidate.

Instead, Baylor was granted only the courtesy of an interview, answering questions from a computerized form that he says left him feeling as if he were applying for a cashier’s job at McDonald’s.

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Baylor walked out of General Manager Sal Bando’s office, telephoned his wife, Becky, and told her that they had no intention of hiring him.

“I try to leave that all in the past,” Baylor said, “but I never forgot what went down there. The only reason they interviewed me was just to say, ‘We interviewed a minority.’

“If something like that ever happened again, I’d walk out, because they were just wasting my time. Believe me, that will never happen again.

“It was blatant racism, just camouflaged in a different way.”

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The Brewers told Baylor he wasn’t getting the job because he had no managerial experience. So they hired Phil Garner of the Houston Astros. Garner’s managerial background? None.

“We were sick to our stomachs, especially the black players, when we found out Baylor didn’t get the job,” said San Diego Padre third baseman Gary Sheffield, who at the time was playing for Milwaukee. “The whole time I was there, we knew that if he would ever get the manager’s job, we’d win. That’s how much we respected him.

“To me, just his presence alone was going to be worth another 15 wins a year.”

Baylor, who sought managerial jobs in Seattle and St. Louis before being hired as the Cardinals’ batting coach by Joe Torre, was summoned last August by the Rockies’ general manager, Bob Gebhard.

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Baylor was the first of eight serious candidates Gebhard would interview, but because of his past rejections, Baylor decided not to tell anyone but his wife. Even after he interviewed a second time, making the final cutdown of four, he never told his father or his son.

“They had been let down so many times before,” Baylor said, “that I didn’t want to hurt them again.”

Gebhard, who first met Baylor in September of 1987 when he acquired him for the Minnesota Twins’ stretch drive, narrowed his choices to Baylor, Bill Virdon, Tony Muser and Trebelhorn. Baylor was the only finalist who had no managerial experience.

“I wanted someone who would be patient and a teacher,” Gebhard said, “but I also wanted someone with a deep, burning desire to win. Then, I kept thinking back to ’87.

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“I was always in the clubhouse, and I remember how players just gravitated toward him. He didn’t just walk in and say, ‘Here I am. I’m your leader.’ It was just that his presence commanded so much respect.”

After traveling to Phoenix for some soul-searching, Gebhard decided on Oct. 25 that he would hire Baylor as the Rockies’ first manager. The most difficult aspect was trying to find him. Gebhard left messages throughout the next day at Baylor’s La Quinta home, but all were unanswered.

It finally dawned on him that this was the time of year when Baylor held his annual Cystic Fibrosis golf tournament. He called the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in Denver, asked for their assistance, obtained a number for the tournament in California and finally paged Baylor on the golf course.

“When I got a hold of him, I spent the first few minutes asking how his round went,” Gebhard said. “I talked to him about the tournament, and I finally got around to telling him that we wanted him for the job.”

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Silence.

Baylor said: “My knees were shaking so bad, I didn’t know what to say. I finally said, ‘I’ll take it.’ I mean, I took that job before I even found out how much I was making.”

Baylor signed a three-year contract on the morning of Oct. 27 in Denver, greeted reporters at a packed news conference, and posed for photographers at the Brown Hotel in downtown Denver.

He received nearly 250 telegrams and congratulatory letters within a few days of the announcement. His eyes teared when he opened notes from the likes of Fay Vincent, Al Campanis and Spike Lee. He found it odd that he never heard from Jesse Jackson.

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Yes, Baylor wanted to tell the Rockies’ 63 players all about perseverance and overcoming adversity, but instead paced back and forth as he told them of his expectations.

This might be an expansion team, he said, but he would not allow anyone to tolerate failure. They would act and behave as if they had been in the National League the last 100 years, developing a tradition that is quickly eroding in the game.

Players no longer are permitted to wear beards, he said. There will be no earrings. No high-top spikes. No unnecessary sunglasses.

“To me, this game has tradition, and the rest is all a fad,” Baylor said. “I never thought the day would come where I’d have to put in a rule about no earrings.

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“If you want to wear earrings, I told them, ‘Go grab your Converses and play basketball.’ ”

Frank Funk, the Rockies’ triple-A pitching coach, said: “I kept looking around to see how the players were reacting to all of this, and there wasn’t a pair of eyes that weren’t glued on him. I knew no one was going to challenge him.”

Veteran pitchers Bryn Smith and Jeff Parrett shaved their beards that night. Outfielder Daryl Boston shed his diamond earring and left it at home. All egos were checked at the door.

“He’s never managed a day in his life, he walks in cold turkey and takes charge like that,” Gebhard said. “That tells you something about the man right there.

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“Never in my 28 years of baseball have I seen a person command so much respect as Don Baylor.”

*

Rod Carew, the Angels’ batting instructor, peeked at Baylor standing on the top dugout step, and couldn’t help but wonder how life might have been different if Baylor had remained an Angel.

In Carew’s first four years with the Angels, they won two American League West titles, coming within one run of earning a trip to the 1982 World Series. Those were the years with Baylor.

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Since Baylor’s departure 11 years ago, the Angels have made the playoffs only once, losing to Boston in 1986. Baylor batted .346 for the Red Sox during that series, including a home run in the ninth inning of Game 5 that led to Dave Henderson’s heroics.

“He was a special type of player,” Carew said softly. “We missed him as a person, as a leader, and what he could do on the field.

“When a club has a guy like that, they should never let him go.”

Said former Angel manager Gene Mauch: “Some people are a pleasure, others a privilege to have on your team. I put Don Baylor in the privilege category.”

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Unable to convince General Manager Buzzie Bavasi that he was worth more than Fred Lynn or Rick Burleson, Baylor left for the New York Yankees as a free agent in 1982. He tried to return several times to the organization after he retired but, even as a member of the Angel Hall of Fame, never was given a job.

“I really wanted to come back because I felt part of the Angel family,” Baylor said, “but they never let me back in. I didn’t want to go to Milwaukee and coach. You kidding me?

“But I could never get a job with them. It was like I was a threat. Maybe they were afraid of their own jobs.”

Baylor, who arrives at the ballpark at 6:45 each morning to begin his daily preparations, has no illusions of grandeur for the Rockies’ first season. The 1961 Angels are the only expansion team in history to win more than 64 games in their first season, going 70-91. The Texas Rangers, created in ’61 as the Washington Senators, have never been to postseason play. And the Seattle Mariners have had only one winning season in their 16-year history.

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And because third baseman Charlie Hayes is the Rockies’ only million-dollar player, it is doubtful they will fare better.

“I think we all know we’re not as talented as most of the other teams,” pitcher Mark Knudson said. “We’re going to get beat some nights on pure ability. But Don’s made it clear to us that we’re not going to be using that as an excuse, either.

“It’s one thing to lose, but we’d better play the game right. He’s not about to let us embarrass ourselves.”

Said left fielder Jerald Clark: “You just look at the man, and you know you better not mess up. Believe me, you don’t want to get one of those looks from him.”

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Baylor, 6 feet 1 and 225 pounds, indeed can appear menacing. He was hit by more pitches (267) than anyone in major league history, mostly because he crowded the plate, heckled the pitcher and never showed fear by dodging pitches. He wants his team to have the same attitude.

“No one’s going to stand there and let teams intimidate my players,” Baylor said. “I’m going to defend my players to the hilt. We’re going to stand up for ourselves. We’re not going to say, ‘We’re an expansion team, go ahead and do what you want to us.’ ”

Former teammate Marty Barrett said: “If they play half as hard as Don Baylor did, that’s going to be some tough team. When I first came into the league, people warned me about three people who would come at you hard at second base: Hal McRae, Reggie Jackson and Don Baylor. Thank God, I was his teammate most of that time.”


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