In a different scenario, former Orioles Bobby Grich and Don Baylor might have met for the first time on a football gridiron, most likely as featured players in a marquee bowl game.
Grich was headed to UCLA to play quarterback, and Baylor, who was a key player as high school sports were integrated in Austin, Texas, was a halfback recruited by University of Texas, where he would have become the first African-American football player. However, both ended up pursuing baseball.
So instead they crossed paths for the first time in a Orioles minor league clubhouse in Bluefield, W.Va., where they formed a bond and became roommates on the road, potentially the first African-American and white players rooming together in both the minor and major leagues.
"I had held out for a couple weeks and was late getting to Bluefield," Grich said, "and he was the first player I met. I was sitting at my locker and saw a guy with this big toothy smile walk over, stick out his hand and say, 'Hi, Bobby Grich, heard a lot about you, I'm Don Baylor, welcome to the Baltimore Orioles.' I could tell instantly this was a special guy."
After a long, sometimes agonizing 14-year battle with multiple myeloma, Baylor died early Aug. 7 at 68, and nobody felt the loss more than Grich.
Grich was the Orioles' first-round draft choice, the 19th player overall, and Baylor the second-round pick, 39th overall, in the 1967 draft. It was only the third amateur draft in baseball history and suffice it to say, the Orioles have never had a better 1-2 result -- on or off the field.
"He was the best," Grich said. "As a person, as a friend, as a teammate -- there was nobody better. He was the absolute best. We were teammates for 15 years, [16 if you count the year Baylor was traded at the end of spring training in 1976]. We were roommates -- I'm not sure, but we might've been the first black/white roommates in Major League Baseball. He was like my brother. You could not find a more loyal friend."
As news of Baylor's death spread Aug. 7, much of the talk centered around his toughness, his competitiveness -- but also his gentle side. "He was so polite," Grich recalled. "He was polite to everybody. … I wish there were more people like him, and I wish more people could've gotten to know him [as I did]."
Hank Allen, now a scout with the Houston Astros and a familiar face at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, was a teammate of Baylor and Grich in 1970 with the Rochester Red Wings, and instantly recognized the connection between the two.
"Baltimore was just loaded [with talent] then," Allen said, "and there was nowhere for these guys to go, but you never heard them complaining -- they just went out and played. As a player, I gravitated to people with outgoing personalities -- and these guys were just fun to be around. They laughed a lot, and you could tell they just enjoyed each other's company. And, really, you couldn't find a nicer person than Don."
Nobody played the game harder or took punishment better than Baylor -- he was known for his hard, aggressive slides to break up double plays and the number of times he was hit by pitches (267, second all-time in modern baseball). Getting hit an average of 19 times a season (without padding) would lead to countless suspensions today, but Baylor never flinched, and he doled out as much punishment sliding into second base -- all without incident.
The only time you ever saw Baylor on the field in a confrontation was as a peace-maker. Harold Reynolds, on MLB-TV Aug. 7, talked about a time he found himself on the field in proximity to Baylor during one of those skirmishes. "He looked at me and said, 'What are you doing out here?' picked me up and pulled me out of there."
Personally, one of my favorite images (and many were shown the day after he died) of Baylor is watching him get hit by a pitch, toss the bat aside and jog to first base -- without so much as a glance at the pitcher. In my mind, I'm sure he did that 267 times without visible reaction. Once he even picked up the ball and casually tossed it back to the pitcher.
It was the same when he broke up a double play: hard but clean slide and jog off the field. There was never a confrontation because infielders respected how he played the game.
I was a new kid on the block during Baylor's years with the Orioles, and one of the first stories I wrote was that his emergence from the minor leagues was the real reason the Orioles traded Frank Robinson after the 1971 season.
"Man, you're putting me under a lot of pressure," he said, but not in a way that would suggest he was intimidated by the expectations. There was a reason for that.
Baylor's slash line for that 1970 season at Rochester was .327/.429/.583 with 22 home runs and 107 RBIs. His line for 1971: .313/.422/.539, 20 home runs, 95 RBIs -- also at Rochester. You think maybe it was tough to break into the lineup in those days?
To this day I've often wondered what would have happened had the designated hitter rule come into effect in 1972 rather than a year later. With an opening in the outfield, even with Al Bumbry on the way, would the O's have kept Frank rather than making a deal for convenience rather than necessity? Having those two on the same team for another year or two would've presented an interesting dynamic.
The work habits Allen saw in his brief time as a teammate of Baylor's (Grich went through the same ordeal with numbers equally impressive) resonated a couple of years later with Doug DeCinces.
"I was aware of the battles he had making the Orioles' team," DeCinces said, "so he was somebody I watched in my first spring training camp, seeing how he approached things, his work ethic, and I felt like he accepted me right away. As somebody who was coming behind Brooks [Robinson] at third base, I figured he was somebody I could emulate."
DeCinces wouldn't become full-fledged teammates with Baylor until they played together on the California Angels.
"I saw all the things I had seen with the Orioles," he said. "Believe me, we had a cast of characters on that 1982 team [that lost to the Milwaukee Brewers in the American League Championship Series) -- four MVPs, two Hall of Famers, but anytime anybody got out of line it always came back to one guy -- Donny was the man."
Baylor played for six teams during his career -- and, ironically, the New York Yankees were the only one that didn't go to postseason play. He went to the World Series his last three years as a player, all with different teams (Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins and Oakland Athletics), the only player to do that, and then settled in as a highly respected coach/manager/mentor (one of the last images of Baylor in uniform was of him engaged in conversation with Angels star Mike Trout).
He coached or managed with eight other teams before finishing with the Angels as a hitting coach two years ago. But even though he never campaigned for it, you always had the feeling Baylor would've loved the opportunity to finish his career in an orange and black uniform, and there were times it appeared he would be a perfect fit -- much like Frank Robinson had been years before.
In some instances, Baylor might not have gotten the same acceptance as a coach or manager as he did as a player because he didn't accept those who couldn't, or wouldn't, do things the right way -- the only way he knew. He was a compassionate guy, as many will attest, but only if you had the right approach. He did not deal with others lightly. "Some guys just don't get it," he said more than once.
Away from the diamond, Baylor's compassion was probably displayed best by his involvement with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, an effort he took throughout MLB, and one reason he won the 1985 Roberto Clemente Award, baseball's highest off-the-field honor.
"He has been personally responsible for raising more than $10 million," said Grich, who is partnering with DeCinces to continue the 65 Roses Golf Tournament -- an event founded by Baylor -- as the Don Baylor Memorial Golf Tournament, which will be held next month in Irvine, Caif., on a course built and run by DeCinces.
"It will be the 39th [annual tournament] said DeCinces, "and it will be a fitting memorial and tribute for Don."
Had it not been for the shoulder injury he suffered while playing high school football, Baylor may have made his mark at the University of Texas (few would doubt he had All-America potential as a running back). That injury led him to baseball, even though it severely hampered his throwing ability (he still broke in with the Orioles playing all three outfield positions) and led to a designated hitter role for most of his career.
But it didn't affect the impact he had on or off the field, and baseball is the better for it. He is not a Hall of Famer (though he'd be a nice addition to the O's Hall of Fame). There were better players, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a better person.
Don Baylor "got it."
That's the legacy he leaves behind. R.I.P., my friend.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox