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Mike Shalin's Working Press: 'Special' man cut large figure in '86

By MIKE SHALIN
August 07. 2017 11:23PM
Don Baylor talks to the Angels' Reggie Jackson during the 1986 American League Championship Series. (File)

Anyone who ever played with — or against — Don Baylor knew exactly how wonderful the man they called “Groove” really was.

“He was pretty special,” a subdued Dwight Evans said by phone Monday, after learning his friend had lost his battle with cancer at age 68. “He’s probably one of the best teammates I ever played with and to have him in ’86 when we made that trade (for Mike Easler) to New York to get him, immediate … his presence was immediate on the whole club and he carried that on and off the field. Just a tremendous guy. Great baseball man and for me a great friend.

“I ended up working with him in Colorado as a hitting coach … knew him well. Probably the best teammate I ever played with.

“He was a team player and mostly in ’86 I hit behind him and he was fun to follow because he wanted to get on base for the guy behind him, as I did. He’d work the count, or, don’t know how many times he got hit that year, 26 to 30 times (actually 35) that year. He had a way of just turning towards the catcher and just taking it. He’d get on base. He’d walk, get on with a hit, he’s working the count trying to get on for me. I greatly appreciated that as a teammate.

“He’s gonna be missed but not forgotten, and his tremendous presence that he had, and the way he played the game I will always remember. He was a great example.”

Evans said he got a call from Baylor’s wife, Becky, just last week saying her husband had fallen while working in church and was back in the hospital, and that she didn’t know if he would be coming out. He lost his fight against the hateful disease, a day after former Phillies and Marlins catcher Darren Daulton lost his at just 55.

“Sad day. Sad day,” Marty Barrett said by phone from Las Vegas.

“I remember playing against him,” Barrett said. “He was so intimidating, just this big ol’ bad dude that stands on the plate, dares you to throw it inside and he’s not gonna move. Next thing you know we grab him and I’m like, ‘wow, this is unbelievable.’ And then you find out he’s just like a gentle giant, just a sweet guy that knows a lot about baseball and obviously he made our lineup incredibly better and we all benefitted from it that year.”

“Really one of the greatest, one of the best men I ever met and a perfect teammate,” Bruce Hurst said from Arizona. “Really a great guy. Sad day.

“I knew he had cancer but this caught me by surprise. I didn’t know how serious it was and that really hurts me.”

Reminded it’s easy to lose track of people, even with social media, Hurst said, “I shouldn’t have with Don. I really shouldn’t have. To me personally he was only good to me. He went out of his way to be good to me and help me and I have the utmost respect for him.”

Evans remembered Baylor not only as a player and teammate, but also as the judge in the team’s Kangaroo Court.

“He was the judge and, let me tell you something, he got your attention,” Evans said. “Whatever fine I had been given I would never fight it. You could fight it and then there would be a jury and then either the thumbs were up or the thumbs were down. The thumbs were down, you paid double. But you wouldn’t challenge because you know. Uou know if you missed your cutoff man, you missed a sign or something like that, or you did something, you ran past the third base coach or you messed up … you’re bound to mess up, not move a guy over, things like that. Why would you fight it? Unless you really thought you had a good case.

“And he was the judge, he was the judge,” Evans said with a laugh.

Barrett recalled something funny about Baylor, whose two-run homer set the stage for the Dave Henderson heroics in Game 5 of the ALCS in Anaheim that year.

“He had a funny thing.He used to yell out at other players, ‘get an (umpires’) indicator,’ like if they started bitching about a strike call or something like that, or whether they were safe or out,” Barrett said. “He’d yell out, ‘get an indicator,’ he was always saying that.

“Just a great guy. Great teammate. Just a true gentleman. Went about his craft truly professionally. I think that’s why he was welcomed in the game for so many years after he left as a player. He left his mark on the game and everyone is going to miss him. “

Barrett said “oh, yeah” when asked if he knew something different had arrived as soon as Baylor walked into the clubhouse.

“He brought a presence,” he said. “Jim Rice was always a big presence, too, and when on came in and added to that presence, it was just like, ‘Wow.’ We had a big team anyway so we felt like if we ever got in a fight with anyone, we had a pretty good chance. He was a big guy – he and Evans, and Tony Armas, Dave Hendu … big guys.

“It was just nice. Hard player. Knew a lot about hitting. It was nice to see how he went about his business, so professionally, and I think that rubbed off on us, too.

“He was a good clutch performer. He did so well with the Twins the next year. That was amazing what he did, and then to be on the Oakland A’s the year after, that was amazing. He was almost a magnet for World Series play.”

From Florida, Wade Boggs tweeted: “Saddened to hear I’ve lost another teammate in Don Baylor fierce competitor and huge piece of the puzzle in 86 RIP Groove”

When you’re working on a book on the Red Sox and Fenway Park, it’s pretty obvious 1986 will be prominent. And when you’re talking about 1986, you remember Baylor was prominent.

So, I needed to talk to Baylor, always conversant on all things baseball, and always pleasant about it.

I didn’t have a phone number and knew my friend Claire Smith — yes, the Claire Smith who just won the Spink Award and is forever part of the Hall of Fame — because I knew she had a special relationship with Baylor. She gave me an email address for Becky, who wrote back to me and let me know, without saying it specifically, that Don wasn’t doing all that well.

She left the door open for a chat with her husband, either on the phone or through questions I submitted via e-mail. I figured anything from this powerful human/baseball voice would be an addition to “Hometown Team,” the book I’m working on with photographer Steve Babineau that will be out in March.

But I didn’t get the answers to my questions and now Don Baylor is gone.

Horrible, vicious cancer took both Baylor and Daulton entirely too young.

The tributes for both were pouring in all over social media Monday. In Baltimore they talked about the young Baylor on his way up, a guy who couldn’t throw because of a football shoulder injury but could really hit. The LA Times ran a piece that proclaimed Baylor, the 1979 American League MVP who made the Angels relevant in southern California. The Phillies lamented the loss of Daulton, noting he joined Dallas Green and Jim Bunning as members of their Ring of Honor to pass this year.

Even though he had indeed left the game after so many years as a player, coach and manager, it was hard to imagine baseball without Don Baylor.

“He’d just left the game after all those years, he was enjoying his grandchildren and he was trying to move away from the game and just try to be a human being there a little bit,” said Evans. This guy was in the game for (so long). He had two granddaughters and he loved being around them. He did.

“A pretty special guy.”

Mike Shalin covers Boston pro sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His email address is shalinmike@yahoo.com.


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