Rock­ies’ first man­ager dies at 68 af­ter long bat­tle with can­cer

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Patrick Saun­ders Den­ver Post file

Dur­ing his play­ing days, Don Bay­lor stood 6-foot-1 and weighed a rock-solid 201 pounds. He crowded the plate and dug in with me­nac­ing tough­ness. When he re­tired at the end of the 1988 sea­son at age 39, he had been hit by pitches 267 times, a ma­jor­league record at the time.

His New York Yan­kees team­mate Ken Grif­fey Sr. once joked that when Bay­lor got drilled, the train­ers would put the ball on a stretcher and carry it off the field.

When the ex­pan­sion Rock­ies took the field for the first time at New York’s Shea Sta­dium on April 5, 1993, Bay­lor was their man­ager. In 1995, he led the Rock­ies to the play­offs in just their third sea­son of ex­is­tence. He steered the Rock­ies for six sea­sons, his steely gaze al­ways steady, his de­meanor al­ways in­tense, as he sur­veyed the field from his post on the dugout rail.

But there was a gen­tler, softer side to Bay­lor, who died Mon­day at age 68 af­ter a 14year bat­tle with mul­ti­ple myeloma. Former Rock­ies re­mem­bered that side of Bay­lor as news spread through­out base­ball that the man af­fec­tion-

ately known as “Groove” was gone.

“Don Bay­lor, like no other man I ever knew, had this aura about him,” said Walt Weiss, a former Rock­ies man­ager and short­stop who played for Bay­lor in Colorado be­gin­ning in 1994. “Hear­ing about his death to­day was a punch in the gut.”

Todd Hel­ton, the Rock­ies’ long­time first base­man who be­gan his ca­reer un­der Bay­lor in 1997, was shocked to hear of Bay­lor’s death.

“Man, this is tough to hear,” Hel­ton said. “He was the first guy who ever gave me a chance in the big leagues. He was a class act. I never, ever, heard a bad word about him.

“Sure, he was tough. But I was very im­pres­sion­able as a rookie, and every time he had to sit me down, not play me, he would ex­plain why. He didn’t have to do that. And what re­ally set him apart as a man­ager was that he gen­uinely cared about his play­ers. He talked to you about a lot of stuff, not just base­ball.”

Slug­ger Dante Bichette said Bay­lor had a smile that could “light up a whole room.”

Weiss was a rookie with the Oak­land A’s when he first met Bay­lor dur­ing spring train­ing in 1988. The mem­ory re­mains vivid.

“It was the very first day of spring train­ing, and it was Groove’s last sea­son,” Weiss re­called. “He came over to me with that stern voice of his and said, ‘Son, come here. I need to talk to you.’

“I mean, I only knew him from watch­ing him on TV, but he told me all about the do’s and don’ts of be­ing a ma­jor-lea­guer. I just said, ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir.’ That mo­ment had a big im­pact on me.”

Weiss specif­i­cally re­mem­bers a piece of base­ball wis­dom Bay­lor im­parted.

“He said: ‘Don’t ever be in­tim­i­dated by that pitcher on the mound. I don’t care if you are fac­ing Nolan Ryan.’ ”

When Bay­lor died in his home­town of Austin, Texas, his wife, Re­becca, is­sued a state­ment that con­cisely summed up a pro­fes­sional base­ball life that lasted nearly 50 years.

“Don passed from this earth with the same fierce dig­nity with which he played the game and lived his life,” she said.

Over a pro­duc­tive 19-year ca­reer, Bay­lor played for the Ori­oles, Ath­let­ics, An­gels, Yan­kees, Red Sox and Twins. He was an all-star and won the AL MVP with the An­gels in 1979, when he led the ma­jors in RBIs (139) and runs (120). Bay­lor wore the uni­forms of 14 dif­fer­ent or­ga­ni­za­tions dur­ing his ca­reer as a player, man­ager and coach.

But Rock­ies fans will al­ways hold a spe­cial place in their hearts for the club’s first man­ager. Bay­lor also spent two sea­sons in Colorado as a bat­ting coach in 2009-10.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to Becky and the en­tire Bay­lor fam­ily,” Rock­ies owner Dick Mon­fort said in a state­ment. “Don was in­stru­men­tal in the creation of the Rock­ies and in his two stints with the club, he left an im­pact on each and every one of us. He was a big man with an even big­ger heart, a friend of so many. His per­sona will be a part of our club her­itage for­ever. This is a sad day in Colorado and for all of base­ball.”

To honor their first man­ager, the Rock­ies will hang a Bay­lor jersey in their dugout be­gin­ning with Tues­day night’s game at Cleve­land. The club is plan­ning a trib­ute to Bay­lor next Mon­day when the Rock­ies host At­lanta.

When Bob Geb­hard was named Colorado’s first gen­eral man­ager, one of his first ma­jor de­ci­sions was hir­ing a field man­ager. Bay­lor, the hit­ting coach at St. Louis at the time, had never man­aged be­fore, but Geb­hard thought he was the per­fect man for a dif­fi­cult job.

“I talked to him in the lobby of a ho­tel in St. Louis, and he went right to the top of my list,” Geb­hard said. “I could tell, in­stantly, that there was a lot of fire there. The longer we talked, the more I knew he was the guy.”

“He was tough and had this in­ner fire. We were able to get Don Zim­mer into Colorado as his bench coach, and we got down to busi­ness. We had to deal with about 60 play­ers that first spring train­ing, but that team even­tu­ally be­came the Blake Street Bombers.”

Bichette, who thrived un­der Bay­lor, said Bay­lor was the best man­ager he ever played for, ad­ding, “He’s a man I owe a lot to.”

In 1995, Bichette led the Na­tional League in hits (197), home runs (40) and runs bat­ted in (128).

“Don was my guy, the guy who gave me an op­por­tu­nity, and I loved him for it,” Bichette said. “In 2015, when we had our 20th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion of the ’95 play­off team, I wanted to make sure he knew that I re­ally, re­ally, cared about the guy. I made sure and told him.”

Bay­lor, the player, was ag­gres­sive. He had 285 ca­reer steals, most of them early in his ca­reer, post­ing a ca­reer-high 52 with Oak­land in 1976. Bay­lor, the man­ager, was equally ag­gres­sive. In 1996, the Rock­ies be­came the first team in ma­jor-league his­tory to hit 200 homers and steal 200 bases in the same sea­son.

“Groove used to put all of us in the last group of bat­ting prac­tice, be­cause the vis­it­ing team would come out right then to start stretch­ing,” re­called Bichette. “So their pitch­ers would be out there, and they had to watch us. We could re­ally clob­ber the base­ball, es­pe­cially dur­ing bat­ting prac­tice. That could be a lit­tle bit in­tim­i­dat­ing for pitch­ers com­ing into Coors Field.”

Com­mis­sioner Rob Man­fred is­sued a state­ment on Bay­lor, say­ing: “Don used power and speed to earn Amer­i­can League MVP hon­ors with the An­gels in 1979 and con­trib­uted to three straight pen­nant win­ners in a great 19-year ma­jor-league ca­reer. He then be­came the first man­ager in Rock­ies his­tory, guid­ing them to their first post­sea­son in just their third year of play. Through­out stints with 14 dif­fer­ent ma­jor-league teams as a player, coach or man­ager, Don’s rep­u­ta­tion as a gentle­man al­ways pre­ceded him.”

As for the nick­name, it was be­stowed upon him by Hall of Famer Frank Robin­son in 1970, the year Bay­lor made his big-league de­but with the Ori­oles. Ac­cord­ing to the book “Once They Were An­gels” by Rob Gold­man, Robin­son asked a room of full of prospects how many of them ac­tu­ally ex­pected to crack Bal­ti­more’s tal­ented, veteran lineup.

“Once I get in a groove, it doesn’t mat­ter who is out there,” Bay­lor said.

Robin­son shot back: “Pretty brash words for a rookie, don’t you think?”

Bay­lor didn’t back down, and fi­nally Ori­oles short­stop Mark Be­langer said: “Groove — I like it, boys. That name is go­ing to stick.” And so it did.

“Groove is go­ing to be missed,” Weiss said. “He was one of the most im­pres­sive men I have ever known.”

Don Bay­lor leads the Rock­ies around Coors Field af­ter se­cur­ing the Na­tional League wild-card berth in 1995.

Den­ver Post file

Bay­lor watches from the dugout dur­ing his sec­ond stint with the Rock­ies — as hit­ting coach — in 2010.

As­so­ci­ated Press file

Don Bay­lor hits a grand slam for the Cal­i­for­nia An­gels in Game 4 of the ALCS vs. the Mil­wau­kee Brew­ers in 1982.

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