In Boston, slugger Don Baylor commanded respect

  • Photos show Don Baylor as Arizona Diamondbacks batting coach in 2013 (left) and Chicago Cubs manager in 2001. Baylor, the 1979 AL MVP with the California Angels who went on to become manager of the year with the Colorado Rockies in 1995, died Monday. He was 68. Baylor died Monday, Aug. 7, 2017, at a hospital in Austin, Texas, his son, Don Baylor Jr., told the “Austin American-Statesman.” AP file

  • The California Angels’ Don Baylor hits a grand slam against the Milwaukee Brewers in the eighth inning of a game in Milwaukee on Oct. 9, 1982. Baylor died Monday, Aug. 7, 2017, at a hospital in Austin, Texas, his son, Don Baylor Jr., told the “Austin American-Statesman.” AP file

Monitor staff
Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The clubhouse door at Fenway Park burst open, and in rushed Dennis ‘Oil Can’ Boyd, his high-pitched, profanity-laced rant gaining steam and clarity as he neared Don Baylor.

Boyd, a skinny, emotional, talented pitcher for the Red Sox in the 1980s, had just learned he’d been left off the American League All-Star Team, and he wasn’t happy about it.

At that moment, Baylor, the slugging outfielder and designated hitter who died Monday at age 68, was sitting in front of his locker, pounding a baseball into his mitt, again and again, talking to me about leadership.

Boyd’s timing was perfect, fitting nicely into the narrative Baylor and I had already started.

“We’re a team, and that’s a concept of togetherness, not individual,” Baylor told me that day, July 10, 1986. “No one on this club is bigger than the team. He’s going to have to learn that.”

Baylor wouldn’t tell me if he’d lecture Boyd later, but I’ll bet $5 he did. That’s the kind of thing Baylor did during his career, because that’s the sort of thing leaders do.

That’s why his death hurt anyone who knows anything about baseball.

The cause was cancer. The effect was a tip of the cap from the baseball world.

More than anyone, Baylor would have been the player to calm down a zany pitcher like Boyd, set him straight, show him the bigger picture. I never forgot this unexpected, unscripted snapshot, a front-row seat to the kind of presence Baylor possessed.

The calm, pre-game rhythm in the clubhouse that day had been disrupted. Players rushed over to Boyd, frantically trying to calm him down while the media looked on.

Baylor never flinched. He simply turned his head to see what was happening, then turned back and kept pounding that baseball into that mitt, kept right on talking, his voice steady and deep.

“I think more in terms of survival,” Baylor told me. “Even back when I was a kid, I used to play with the older kids. If I wanted to play basketball, I had to push them around to get some respect.”

He earned it right away in Boston. Baylor was new to the Red Sox in 1986, when he helped them win the American League pennant, hitting 31 homers and driving in 94 runs.

He retired after the ’88 season with 338 homers and 1,276 RBI, and for front-page readers who don’t know a lot about sports, know this: Those are great career numbers.

But forget all that stuff. Let’s talk about the things Baylor brought to a team that had nothing to do with statistics. Leadership things. Tough things. Hard-nosed things.

No one slid into second base to break up a double play harder than Baylor. No one stood closer to home plate, daring the pitcher to hit him, than Baylor, who measured 6-foot-1, 210 pounds. And by time he retired, no one had been hit by more pitches, 267, than Baylor.

But you never felt sorry for Baylor, who never rubbed the spot in which he’d been hit. Instead, you felt sorry for the baseball.

Baylor, in fact, was so well-regarded by time the Red Sox got him from the Yankees that during spring training veteran outfielder Dwight Evans asked him to lead the team’s Kangaroo Court.

Baylor became the judge, handing out fines to anyone who committed a mental lapse. Forget how many outs there were? Make a base-running blunder?

You had to answer to Baylor.

“There’s a toughness on this team that started at the end of last year,” Evans told me the day I met Baylor. “Don Baylor and (pitcher) Sammy Stewart were the missing pieces to finish the puzzle.”

“He gets people riled up, and he won’t let them get down,” added relief pitcher Bob Stanley. “We call him the enforcer. The court is fun, but if you make a mistake, it’s going to cost you.”

And all-star third baseman Wade Boggs told me, “It turned us into a winner. It made us more disciplined.”

Obviously that was something Boyd was missing that day 31 years ago. And since hearing about Baylor’s death, I immediately wondered what role, if any, Baylor played in calming the clubhouse waters after Boyd went bonkers.

I bet he said something.

“Being a leader is the only way I know how to play the game,” Baylor told me.