Don Baylor left his mark in baseball through strength and leadership

Don Baylor made three trips to the World Series and won an AL MPV during his 19 seasons in the MLB. (USA TODAY SPORTS)

It’s unjust, and frankly wrong to say that Don Baylor was one of the greatest gentlemen to ever put on a baseball uniform.

When you say that, you’re short-changing the man.

Baylor, you see, was one of the finest, kindest souls to walk the face of this earth, gracing everyone by his presence.

The passing of Baylor, 68, who battled multiple myeloma for years, shook the entire baseball world on Monday.

"Don passed from this earth with the same fierce dignity with which he played the game and lived his life,”  Baylor’s wife, Rebecca, said in a statement provided by the Angels.

Sure, we knew he was struggling and in pain.

His legs were broken from lymphoma, but he still vowed one day to walk out of the hospital.

He never made it, but man, did he ever try.

Baylor broke the color barrier among athletes at Austin High School in Texas, and he would have been the first African-American athlete at the University of Texas until he rejected a football scholarship and turned professional with the Baltimore Orioles.

He was a strong, powerful man, not just in physical nature, but in his belief and strength. When Baylor talked, you ran to the batting cage to listen.

He was a tremendous ballplayer, the 1979 American League MVP, leading his team to the postseason seven seasons. He was hit by 267 pitches, fourth-most in baseball history, and never once winced in pain.

He will always be remembered as one of the greatest clubhouse leaders the game has ever seen, and it transcended into the clubhouses he managed.

Baylor was the first manager in Colorado Rockies history, leading them into the playoffs in 1995 and earning NL manager of the year honors.

He was the first African-American manager in Chicago Cubs history, spending three seasons there, and later became a coach with the Atlanta Braves, New York Mets, Seattle Mariners, St. Louis Cardinals, Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks.

The man could scout, too. He was the first to tell me about a youngster named Mike Trout, who was playing on his team at the Futures Game. The Angels were looking for help at the trade deadline, and Trout’s name was being bandied about in baseball circles.

“If they trade him,’’ Baylor said, “they will regret it forever.’’

Trout stayed, and it’s the best decision the Angels made.

Baylor tried to hide his pain and anguish from the disease for years, but when he was unable to make it to the Minnesota Twins’ 40-year World Series reunion, and couldn’t make Claire Smith’s Spink Award induction at Cooperstown last weekend, everyone knew the magnitude of the disease.

Really, we knew something was wrong back in 2014, when he squatted behind the plate to catch a ceremonial first pitch from Vladimir Guerrero, like Baylor an Angels MVP winner, in 2004. Baylor squatted down and his leg buckled simply trying to catch the ball. He immediately had surgery to have a plate and screws inserted into the leg.

 

 

He had been diagnosed with the disease since 2003, with a cancer that weakens the bones, but it was the first time we realized the severity.

Now, he is gone, far too soon.

He’s at peace now, the pain is gone, and he’s our angel in the sky.

The rest of us are heartbroken, knowing for many of us, we never got a chance to say good-bye.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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