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Don Baylor’s Life and Career Part III: A Leader Enshired through Legacy

Colorado Rockies news and links for Wednesday, February 22, 2023

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In honor of Black History Month as well as the Colorado Rockies’ 30th anniversary, it only feels appropriate to reflect on the career and contributions of Colorado’s first manager, Don Baylor. This week we focus on his post-playing days. Again, this is going to be a long one folks. (Part 1) (Part 2)

After hanging up his cleats following the 1988 season, Don Baylor found himself without a uniform for the first time in over 20 years. After years of enduring the grind of daily games, as well as growing into a well-respected clubhouse leader, it wouldn’t be long before a baseball lifer like Baylor would make the transition from big leaguer to coach, mentor, and instructor for many years to come until his passing in 2017.

Hitting Coach: Milwaukee Brewers (1990-1991), St. Louis Cardinals (1992)

After taking a breather for most of 1989, he joined the Milwaukee Brewers in a front-office role, performing various duties. However, the lure of a big league dugout enticed Baylor once again to don a uniform, becoming the Brewers’ hitting coach in 1990 for his first gig as a coach. The move began a long career of helping share his knowledge of the game with continued generations of players.

He spent two seasons with the Brew Crew and during his tenure with the Brewers, Baylor emphasized an offense around getting on base by any means necessary and hitting in the clutch. In 1991, the Brewers won 90 games with an offense that ranked as one of the best in the American League.

He also had an influence off the field that made him a valuable coach and friend for players on the team, such as future Rockie Dante Bichette.

During his first season as a Brewer in 1991, Bichette headed to the gym near Fenway park while on a three-game series. Bichette walked in and saw a girl he was immediately infatuated with but was too scared to talk to her. He returned to the park and told Baylor about the experience, a conversation that ended with Baylor telling him to go back to the gym and ask her out. Dante Bichette and Mariana Peng have been married since 1993.

He was also a strong motivator for Bichette’s performance on the field. “Don Baylor pulled me aside one day when we were in Milwaukee,” Bichette recalled, “and he said to me, ‘You don’t realize how good you are. When you figure this thing out, you’re going to run this league. You’re going to be the best player in this league.”

“God bless him. I owe Don Baylor a lot,” said Bichette, “he was put into my life for a reason.”

St. Louis Cardinals Hitting Coach (1992)

Following the 1991 season, Baylor headed to St. Louis to help Joe Torre with the Cardinals as the hitting coach. The season was a lackluster outcome for the team, but Baylor’s offense turned in strong numbers and was one of the better teams in the National League, including leading the league in stolen bases and batting average.

Yet, it was his work with a single player that would have a huge impact on both of their careers.

Andres Galarraga had a rough year in 1992, with injuries hindering him to a .243/.282/.391 batting line with 10 home runs in 347 plate appearances. Afraid that his best years were behind him halfway through that season when he was batting .186/.230/.276, Galarraga sat in tears beneath the bleachers at Busch Stadium. It was Don Baylor that found him and an opportunity to share advice that Galarraga was finally ready to listen to. The two worked together in the cage, where Baylor opened up Galarraga’s stance, transforming the production overnight.

In 182 second-half plate appearances, Galarraga batted .296/.330/.497 with eight home runs, all thanks to Don Baylor.

Manager: Colorado Rockies (1993-1998)

A Mile High Hiring

After several interviews around the game for managerial positions, Baylor finally secured the head position with a new expansion team for the 1993 season, the Colorado Rockies.

Rockies General Manager Bob Gebhard had been involved with the trade that brought Baylor to Minnesota during their World Series championship run in 1987 and despite Baylor’s lack of managing experience Gebhard stated, “I’m willing to roll the dice because I know the man.”

Executives, former teammates, and coaches praised the hiring of Baylor as a manager.

Bob Watson, assistant general manager of the Houston Astros and Baylor’s former hitting coach in Oakland, said, “ I tip my hat to (General Manager) Bob Gebhard for giving him the opportunity. I had a chance to work with Don in Oakland and felt he was on his way to becoming a general manager or club president”

He also added, “I don’t think there will be a pressure to win as much as to develop young players, and I think Don will do that, he commands respect.”

Former second baseman Bobby Grich, a teammate of Baylor’s with the Angels and Baltimore Orioles and one of Baylor’s closest friends, said Baylor has wanted to manage for a long time.

“(He) had the opportunity to play under a lot of different managers with a lot of different styles, and I’m sure that helped him develop a style of his own,” Grich said.

He described Baylor as a man of quiet strength who is fair, tough and aggressive.

“He treats everyone the same, from the clubhouse kid to the superstar,” Grich said. “He has a no-nonsense approach. If the situation called for extra batting practice, he was there. If the situation called for extra work of any kind, he was there. I think he’ll demand that of his players and get it.”

Former Angel manager Gene Mauch said, “(He) knows to surround himself with good people and to instruct his instructors in what he wants and have them carry it out.”

Baylor became just the sixth black manager in MLB history and was the fourth active black manager at the time.

Of his own hiring, Baylor said he was excited by the opportunity to manage a “brand-new team in a brand-new city,” and knew he would have to be patient with a team of young players.

“My goal is to teach them how to win and how the game should be played,” he said. “People say we’re going to lose 100 games. It’s not my competitive spirit to simply accept that.”

True to his word, the fledgling Rockies didn’t lose 100 games, a fact that has remained true every season since. With their manager in place, the Rockies were set to build their team and begin a new era of baseball.

Baseball with Altitude

The team quickly went to building their expansion roster. Thanks to Don Baylor’s influence and connections, the first transaction the team made was to sign free agent Andres Galarraga.

While preparing for the expansion draft, the prospect of acquiring Dante Bichette was on the table to which Baylor said, “Boy, that would be a good get if we could acquire him.” Things fell exactly how they wanted and were able to trade draft pick Kevin Reimer to the Brewers for Bichette.

No one knew exactly what to expect with baseball in Colorado, but they had all the confidence in Baylor to lead the way into this uncharted territory, something he wasn’t unfamiliar with.

While breaking and setting attendance records, the inaugural Rockies displayed a new brand of baseball never before seen. Pitching struggled, which was evident from the start, but the offense did quite a bit to make up for it, utilizing their home-field advantages. True to their reputations, Galarraga and Bichette lead the charge offensively, with helpful contributions from Eric Young, Charlie Hayes, and Vinny Castilla. Unfortunately, the 1993 season ended with a sixth-place finish in the division and 67 wins.

“He doesn’t lose his cool very often. On the other hand, he can be intolerant sometimes of people who don’t give their best.” pitching coach Larry Bearnarth said, “He is very direct and he never varies from that, so players are never surprised. If he has something to say, he just says it like he’s still a player, like players used to do to each other.”

The 1994 season was a promising improvement. The Rockies added Ellis Burks to the roster, a player that debuted with the Boston Red Sox in 1987 and drove in his first RBI, Don Baylor. The offense continued to improve and dominate at home while trying to tread water on the road. Again, pitching struggled, but improvements were made, unfortunately, the season came to a premature close to the player strike.

The Wild Card Year

Following the end of the strike in 1995, the Rockies welcomed a new brand new home at Coors Field and would go on to have a season for the ages. The Rockies also brought in a shiny new free agent with future Hall of Famer Larry Walker rounding out the Blake Street Bombers.

Dante Bichette finished second in the MVP voting after batting .340/.364/.664 with 40 home runs and 128 RBI. However, he almost wasn’t in purple for that historic season. After turning down a three-year $10 million contract from the Rockies, Bichette even contemplated a deal in Japan at one point. After the signing of Walker, he figured his time was done in Colorado, until the phone rang.

“The only reason I signed back with the Rockies right there was because Don Baylor called me personally,” Bichette said, “I owed [him] because he gave me an opportunity to play first of all. There was no way I wasn’t going to play for him when he called.”

Galarraga, Castilla, and Walker also belted over 30 home runs each, with Ellis Burks providing plenty of offense when he was healthy. The pitching also improved mightily, helping the Rockies secure the first-ever Wild Card postseason slot, making them the fastest team in MLB history to reach the postseason at the time in just their third season.

Walker’s performance in particular quieted concerns about the Rockies' payment for his services. “It wasn’t my money (that signed Walker),” Baylor said. “But money well spent is right.”

The team would fall to the Atlanta Braves in the division series after a tight battle, but Baylor would be named the National League Manager of the Year after leading the team to the postseason and finishing just one game behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the division. “You like winning. Nothing beats it,” Baylor said, “That’s what this organization is about... This is an award we all share as an organization.”

Down from the Mountain

Unfortunately, the Rockies as an organization would continue to slide after that magical ‘95 season. Despite one of the most fearsome offenses in baseball, including an MVP season by Larry Walker in 1997, the pitching just couldn’t keep up as the team finished no higher than third in the division over the next three seasons.

The key to the offense’s success was Baylor’s influence and managerial style. He infused the team with an aggressive brand of baseball, letting his runners take off on the basepaths if they felt they had a chance to steal. He advocated for plate discipline and quality contact, the same qualities he had as a player.

Following a fourth-place finish in the 1998 season, the Rockies parted ways with Baylor as the manager as they began to usher in a new generation of Rockies players and personnel in an effort to shake things up and get back to winning games. He ended his Rockies career with a 440-469 record over the course of six seasons. The Rockies tried to keep him in the fold as a club vice president, but he turned the offer down, instead opting to become a hitting coach again with the Atlanta Braves.

“He was certainly the right guy to bring an expansion team together,’’ said Gebhard, “He laid the groundwork on what professional baseball needed to be in Denver, and his impact still resonates with that franchise today.’’

The Final Innings

In 1999 he received rave reviews for helping Chipper Jones develop into an MVP candidate. That helped him receive a new chance to manage in 2000, heading to the Chicago Cubs for the next three seasons. His crowning year with the Cubs was a third-place finish in 2001 with 88 wins, but he would be fired in 2002 after a disappointing loss in early July, ending his managerial career with a 627-689 record.

From there he would bounce around from team to team in various roles, but mainly as a hitting coach. He worked with the New York Mets (2003-2004), Seattle Mariners (2005), and the Washington Nationals as a television analyst (2007), before returning to the Rockies as their hitting coach for the 2009 season.

The Rockies again reached the playoffs in 2009, two years removed from their first World Series appearance, thanks to the breakout seasons by Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, and the guidance of veteran Todd Helton. He spent one more season in 2010 before leaving to join the Arizona Diamondbacks for the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

Baylor joined the Los Angeles Angels in 2014 and finished serving with the team until decided to retire after the 2015 season.

Remembering Don Baylor

In 2003, Baylor had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a disease he battled quietly until it would claim his life in 2017.

As was expected from the course of his life and career, the baseball world mourned the loss of their friend, while celebrating his legacy.

“He may be the toughest guy I was ever around,’’ Tigers and Dodgers World Series hero Kirk Gibson said. “How he endured with what he had….Nobody would out-loyal Don Baylor.’’

Jeremy Kapstein, Baylor’s first agent, who remained close to him for 44 years, said: “Don had the heart of a lion and a true champion who always put others before himself as he gave so much to so many in and out of baseball. He was the definition of a true angel.’’

Bonnie Downing, a 16-year survivor of multiple myeloma, shared her own battle with Baylor after his diagnosis, finally meeting him in person in spring training. Yet, while Downing was a spokesman for the disease, Baylor chose to silently fight the battle.

“He was so selfless,’’ Downing said, “that he didn’t want to be a spokesman about his own illness. He wanted to instead talk about his work with Cystic Fibrosis. He said, “I can’t leave these kids.’ He was more concerned about them than himself.”

Gene Glynn, who worked on Baylor’s coaching staffs in Colorado and Chicago said, “When people first met him, they were probably in awe by his size. But if you were lucky enough to know him, you saw the impact that he made on everyone. Everyone just gravitated to him.

“He was a guy who always cared more about everyone else but himself.” said Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, “He kept a lot of that pain inside, and didn’t tell anybody how he was hurting.’’

“He opened a lot of doors for African-Americans in baseball, always trying to help,’’ Morgan said. “When he became the manager of the Rockies and had the success he did, he made it possible for others to get a managerial opportunity. And when they succeeded, he was happier for them than himself.’’

Frank Robinson, the man who had been a mentor and friend that shaped Baylor’s career, spoke at his funeral, “I wasn’t too friendly with too many people in baseball,” Robinson said, “and I don’t say too many nice things about them. But there’s nothing I can stand here and say bad about our friend Don Baylor.

“This is a tough time for me because I became very close with Donnie, not from when we were seeing each other every day, but in my heart. ... I cherished the man’s friendship, and I cherished him as a person.”

Don Baylor may no longer be with us, but his legacy continues to live on through the people he touched. His influence on the Colorado Rockies is inseparable. He helped the team carve a path in the early days of its existence and showcased the bright potential of the organization and its players when they come together. He had a sincere sense of quiet humanity, evidenced by his charity work and personal interactions. He was a strong individual, evidenced by his morals and battle with cancer.

He had spent time with 14 different organizations over the course of four decades in baseball, making an impact wherever he went. Don Baylor was not only a model baseball player and inspiring coach, but more importantly, was a model human being.

Information for this article was provided in part from the following resources:

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Bard honored to represent Team USA again |

Daniel Bard first helped Team USA win the World University Baseball Championship in 2004, and now nearly two decades later will represent Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. He will help anchor a strong bullpen for Team USA, perhaps as the closer even.

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