DENVER — Don Baylor was a players’ manager, but, even more important, a man’s man.
He never backed off or backed down from anything or anyone. He didn’t quit on a pitch or cancer.
Baylor was the best. He was one of only four men in the history of baseball to become both an MVP and Manager of the Year.
So sadly, it was announced today that Baylor, the Rockies first manager (for six seasons) passed away, battling to the end just as it did for all 68 years of his life.
I always will remember three conversations that revealed the man.
"I will never go off the record with you,’’ he once told me during the Rockies’ first spring training camp of 1993. I was taken aback. All other coaches and managers I’ve ever covered would go "off the record" and talk about a player, a situation, a potential trade, even their bosses. "I may not tell you everything I know, but what I do tell you will be honest."
He was no B.S. artist, egomaniac or gossip monger. He was straight on.
He protected his players just as he protected the plate. When Baylor retired after 19 seasons as an honored, respected player in the major leagues, he had been hit by a pitch a record 267 times. He never backed away.
Baylor was 6-foot-1 and weighed 190 pounds, but he loomed larger in life. He seemed so big, so intimidating and so strong, especially to opposing pitchers and to reporters and even to his own players, but, in truth, he was nice to fans, kind to kids, friendly to everyone in and around baseball, and was a gentleman and a gentle man.
In a second conversation that first season, Baylor said to me: "We’re not a great team. We are an expansion team. But we will be a good team, a team that plays hard and correct, and I guarantee you we will not lose 100 games."
On Sept. 8, 1993, the Rockies were 37 games out of first place with a 53-87 record and were destined to lose 100 games or more. I had witnessed about 125 game up until then and wrote that day about how dreadful the Rockies were. Baylor approached me and said: "It’s a long season." I remembered one of my favorite all-time baseball books, "The Long Season," written by major league pitcher Jim Brosnan, detailing the 1959 season. (I was 13 then, and Baylor was 10.)
"There are ebbs and flows, and you can’t just overreact to five or six games. We still have a lot of season," he told me.
The Rockies won eight of their next nine games and finished with season with 14 victories in 22 games.
The inaugural record was 67-95.
Don Baylor had been right. The Rockies refused to lose 100.
When I mentioned I had been wrong, Baylor smiled behind his moustache. And I’ve never forgotten the ebbs and flows, and try not to judge on one long road trip or a bad steak.
In 1994, baseball had a major strike interruption, and the Rockies played only 97 games. They were 53-64. The impasse between players and owners carried into the following season, and the Rockies played 144 games.
They won 77 and lost 67 in their first season at Coors Field and became a wild card team in in the postseason in just their third year of existence. Baylor had done a remarkable job and was runaway for manager of the year in only in his third season as a manager.
In 1996 and 1997 the Rockies posted identical winning records of 83-79. With great expectations, the Rockies fell to 77-85, and Baylor was fired. Maybe it was time. Perhaps he had taken the Rox as far as he could.
But Baylor still remains the first and best manger the Rockies ever had. And he would return briefly as their hitting coach.
He had taken a bunch of castoffs and misfits and some kids – Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette, converted shortstop Vinny Castilla (who became an All-Star third baseman), an Eric Young and Charlie Hayes – and a pitching staff that was erratic at best and horrible at worst – and turned them into a real major league team – not that "Major League" fictional team in Cleveland or the old expansionist New York Mets.
I go back to the short playoff series against the Atlanta Braves. Baylor got stuck in the sixth inning of a close game and pinch-run for Castilla. In the ninth the manager was left with no position players to pinch-hit, so he was forced to send a pitcher to the plate. And the Rockies lost a game they could have won. I butchered Baylor afterward. He didn’t care. He told me so. "You have a job. I have one. We both do our jobs."
But catcher-captain Joe Girardi wasn’t accepting. In the clubhouse the day after he was all over me, screaming and hollering and poking his finger in my chest as the other players watched and waved him on. I took it.
Outside the clubhouse, Girardi came up to me and apologized. "I had to do that for the players, but I really wanted to do that for Don.
"He is a great manager and a great man, and he didn’t deserve that. I always will stand up for him."
Girardi would go on to become a successful manager. Baylor would go on to manage the Cubs from 2000-2002 and spent most of the rest of his life serving as a coach and battling cancer. From 1970-2015, he played, coached and managed with 16 major league franchises for more than 5,000 games.
Don Baylor was the manager and the man.