“I’m Not Lovable, And I’m Not a Loser”

Don Baylor is a few weeks into managing perennial losers the Chicago Cubs. Is the Austin native having fun yet? Would you be?

June 2000By Comments

Doom: no team attracts it like the Chicago Cubs, baseball’s lovable losers, who haven’t won a World Series since 1908 or even played in one since the end of World War II, when they lost their seventh straight. Much of the team’s modern history has been a horrifying comedy of fifth-place finishes, stupidity, and bad luck. They turned down Joe DiMaggio in 1936. They traded Lou Brock to St. Louis in 1964. They let Greg Maddux go to Atlanta in 1992. Their hottest property in years, fireballing pitcher Kerry Wood, who was the National League’s top rookie in 1998, blew out his elbow last spring and missed his entire sophomore year. The Cubs’ only redeeming player lately has been big gun Sammy Sosa. But even as he bangs homers—165 in the past three seasons—the team loses; two of those three years they’ve wound up in the Central Division cellar. And yet while losing is what the Cubs do, Wrigley Field in Chicago is always packed with people wearing shirts with slogans like “If It Takes Forever” and “Maybe This Millennium.” Losing for so long is like dancing with death: It’s noble and, well, fun. The Cubbies and their fans are in love with it.

Their new manager isn’t. “I’m not lovable, and I’m not a loser,” says Don Baylor, who at fifty is tall and sturdy, with unfashionably puffed-out hair. Sitting behind the desk at the team’s spring training stadium in Mesa, Arizona, he looks to be from another era, and he is; it’s one of the reasons he was hired to coach the hapless, inconsistent Cubs. Baseball is full of tradition, and so is Baylor, who talks fondly about his early days thirty years ago in the old-school Baltimore Orioles organization. “Playing for a fundamentally sound team like that gave you structure, gave you responsibility,” he says. “It taught respect for the game. You play the game right; you dress a certain way; you look a certain way. This is how it has to be done.”

This is how he wants his Cubs to do it. First came the rules. Down the hall, on the dressing room bulletin board, a sign is posted that reads “Appearance. Facial hair—moustaches are acceptable, beards are not recommended. Haircuts must be neat and clean. No earrings. Uniforms and caps must be worn properly.” With the rules came the workouts. Baylor’s preseason regimen was intense and, to most players, welcome. “His style is different from what we’ve had in the past,” says first baseman Mark Grace. “He likes to get runners in motion. He likes to hit and run. He likes to try and take extra bases, to be aggressive, which is in contrast to the past few years, when we sat back and waited for three-run home runs.” One of Baylor’s goals has been to make Sosa a more complete ballplayer—a fielder and a base stealer and not just a homer machine. But he’d like to do that with all the players: to get the pitchers hitting and the base runners running. Whatever it takes to win. “The first thing Don said when he got here was that he hates to lose—even in spring training,” remembers Wood, whose earlobe sports a hole where an earring has been. “The approach everybody has taken is totally different from last year.”

Grace, who has played for seven managers in twelve years with Chicago, is as optimistic as anyone can be, yet he speaks like a true Cub: “We’re like the rats following the Pied Piper, taking his lead.” Of course, the Pied Piper led the rats to oblivion, dancing all the way.

After nineteen years in the big leagues, Don Baylor holds only one record: He has been hit by more pitched balls than anyone in baseball history. This isn’t a sign of slowness or lucklessness or villainy. Crowding the plate, daring the pitcher, and refusing to get out of the way of a 95-mile-per-hour fastball is a sure sign of hardheadedness, of the will to get on base, to win, no matter how much it hurts. Baylor refused to get out of the way 267 times.

His other accomplishments are a bit more glamorous. He was called up to the majors by the Orioles in 1970 to play on a team that included future Hall of Famers Frank Robinson (his idol), Brooks Robinson, and Jim Palmer. At the time, the O’s were led by Earl Weaver, who demanded excellence at the fundamentals—hitting the cutoff man, bunting, not making mistakes—and knew how to motivate players and inspire their fear and loathing. Weaver, Baylor wrote in his 1989 autobiography, Nothing but the Truth: A Baseball Life, was the best manager he ever had. Under his guidance, and Frank Robinson’s, Baylor became a ferocious base runner and a patient hitter who rarely struck out.

From the sane O’s, Baylor—who was married and had a young son, Don, Jr.—was traded in 1976 to Charlie Finley’s whacked-out Oakland A’s. After a year he became one of baseball’s first high-dollar free agents, signing with the California Angels for $1.6 million over six years (he had made $34,000 at Oakland). Though he sometimes played outfield and first base, he was having problems throwing because of a high school shoulder injury; so in 1977 he began the transition to designated hitter. In 1979 he hit .296, with 36 homers and 139 RBIs, and was named the American League’s most valuable player. After several years with the New York Yankees, Baylor finished out his career playing for three different teams—the Boston Red Sox, the Minnesota Twins, and for a second go-round, the A’s—each of which played in the World Series when he was with them. His lifetime stats: a .260 average, 338 home runs, 1,276 RBIs, and 285 stolen bases.

In 1993, five years after retiring, Baylor was picked by the brand-new Colorado Rockies to be their first manager. Following what he calls his blueprint—the aggressive, fundamentals-oriented baseball he had learned and played—he guided the Rockies to the playoffs in their third season and won manager of the year honors, only to be fired three years later after clashing with a top team official. Last season he served as the batting coach for the Atlanta Braves. For all his baseball smarts, what he really knows is hitting, and he has helped some of the best, from Colorado’s Todd Helton to Atlanta’s Chipper Jones, who hit .319 in 1999 and won the National League MVP award. “If you just look to change guys, they tune you out,” Baylor says. “Most of them already have great hand-eye coordination. But a lot of times, their approach is completely wrong. Once you get them thinking about what their body can do, you make adjustments.” Helton, the Rockies’ first-round draft pick in 1995, says, “I owe him so much. I’ll never be able to repay the man.”

As the 1999 season was winding to a close, Baylor was the hottest managerial candidate in baseball. After talking with Milwaukee, Anaheim, and Cleveland, he accepted the greatest challenge available: turning the Cubs around. He also became the first black to manage the oldest franchise in baseball. “I really didn’t think about accepting this job to be the first African American manager to sit in this office,” he says. “I don’t think in those terms. I’ve always thought about being the best qualified person. Just give me a chance.”

In 1871, five years before the cubs (then known as the White Stockings) began swinging their bats, the Sweet Home Baptist Church was founded in Clarksville, a new community of freed slaves in the hills just west of Austin. As Austin grew, it surrounded the enclave of small homes and small lots. The city, eyeing the valuable land, tried to pressure the black residents into moving by refusing to turn on utilities in Clarksville but offering them on the “colored” east side; in 1918 the school board even tried to close the Clarksville school. But Clarksville residents toughed it out and stayed. Austin’s city fathers ignored them for decades; while streets in affluent neighborhoods to the west were well maintained, most in Clarksville remained unpaved until the mid-seventies.

This is where Don Baylor was born, in 1949, to George and Lillian Baylor, a porter with the Missouri-Pacific Railroad and a school cafeteria supervisor, respectively. The three Baylor kids—Don has a brother Doug and sister Connie, both younger—grew up near Sweet Home Baptist, where George was a trustee and Lillian was the church clerk. The only playing field was on the elementary school grounds—now Mary Francis Baylor Park, named for Don’s aunt—though they found other places to play. “We played tackle football in the streets, in the rocks,” Doug remembers. Both he and his brother loved football, which they played in the fall. “UT was just over there on Guadalupe—we could hear the Longhorn fight song.”

In the spring and summer they played baseball. It was in Clarksville that Baylor learned the old-school game. “We had old folks who would teach—’No, boy, you don’t do it that way, you do it this way,’” says the Reverend H. A. Carrington, Jr., the associate pastor of Sweet Home Baptist. One of those teachers was Baylor’s father; another was his mother. “She was one of the best hitters I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Carrington, who coached youth baseball. “That lady could knock the ball all the way across Eleventh Street to my uncle’s yard. When she did that, Don came and stood on the fence and watched.” Baylor always seemed to be a little better than the boys his own age, so he often played with older kids. In Pony League and Babe Ruth League, he hit better than .500, played shortstop, and pitched, once throwing a no-hitter. “He could throw a baseball,” Carrington recalls. He could also clobber it. “Every ball he hit went three hundred feet,” says his cousin, RuthAnn Brown. Clarksville was the source of other knowledge too—”Things that were instilled by our parents: how you live, what you did,” Carrington says.

In 1961 Baylor got a chance to prove how he lived. Historically, black kids in Clarksville had been forced to go to East Austin for junior high and high school. White kids in West Austin went to O. Henry Junior High and Stephen F. Austin High. That year Baylor and other Clarksville children were given a choice: go to your neighborhood school or go across town. For twelve-year-old Don, there was nothing to think about: “My mom gave me the opportunity to walk to school or to take the bus and take two transfers and go to East Austin.” Also, O. Henry had tennis courts, a spacious cafeteria, and a lush green football field. Baylor and two other black youths—Lewis Chambers and Lenore Higgins—integrated O. Henry. Baylor remembers just one ugly name-calling incident; he chased and tackled the bigot and never heard the offending word at school again.

In time, he fit in with the children of the city’s elite, such as Sharon and John Connolly III and made friends. “But they came from a different life than we did,” he says. “A friend’s dad owned a car dealership. He got a new car every six months. We didn’t have a car until I was in the seventh grade.” In his sophomore year at Austin High Baylor became the first black player on the varsity baseball team (he batted .345). The next year, he got his first good coach too—Frank Seale, a disciplinarian who loved the fundamentals. By his senior year, Baylor was hitting .500 and attracting the attention of pro scouts. He also played forward on the basketball team, averaging fifteen points a game, but he shined brightest on the football field. Playing tight end and safety, he made all-District his junior year and all-State (honorable mention) his senior year; unfortunately, he also injured his shoulder, which would haunt his future. Universities came calling with scholarship offers, including UT, which offered a full ride. “He was an outstanding prospect,” remembers Darrell Royal, the Longhorns’ coach back then. It was 1967. The Southwest Conference had been integrated for a year, and UT had yet to cross the color line. Being a Longhorn had been Baylor’s dream since hearing “Texas Fight” as a child. Still, he turned Royal down.

Why would a born fighter pass up the opportunity to make history? (Leon O’Neal, Jr., would be the first black to get a UT scholarship, in 1968.) In his biography Baylor wrote that UT had offered a football scholarship but that he wanted to play baseball and basketball as well and that Royal insisted he play only football. Royal, wrote Baylor, would allow a football player to play baseball only if he was a pitcher, and Baylor had given up pitching after the shoulder injury. Royal remembers it differently: “We allowed dual athletes to be dual athletes. I allowed guys to play baseball in the spring and miss spring football practice. It was my definite belief that an athlete matured faster under competition than he did under practice. Don might have been confused about that.” Baylor now says, “It was not the time for integration at UT, so I ended up signing with the Orioles.” His father remembers, “He felt a little bit bitter and decided he’d better play baseball.” Everyone agrees that Baylor chose correctly—nineteen-year careers in football are rare. “Obviously, he made the right choice,” says Royal.

Whatever the reason, when Baylor left Austin and began his baseball odyssey, it cut him off from the hometown glory that is reserved for UT sports alumni such as Earl Campbell, Roger Clemens, and Spike Owen. “You never completely dismiss your roots,” says Baylor. But will he ever get recognized in his hometown? He pauses, begins to speak, and pauses again. “I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he finally says. Baylor stays in touch with old friends like Ben Crenshaw and former UT assistant coach Dean Campbell (both O. Henry graduates). Though he and his second wife, Rebecca, have a place in northwest Austin (as well as one in La Quinta, California, and another in Chicago), his only sweet home in the city is his church, which he still attends when he’s in town and which his family still travels to on Sundays. (The Baylors were evicted from Clarksville in 1969 when the Loop 1 expressway came through. George, Doug, and Connie live in northeast Austin; Lillian died eleven years ago.)

The Clarksville of Baylor’s youth has changed dramatically. It’s now mostly white, many homes have been colorfully rehabbed—and sell for as much as $300,000—and all the streets are well paved, including the one in front of Sweet Home. “One of the biggest problems most people have is they forget where they came from, so how you gonna know where you’re going?” says Carrington. “When you get there, you don’t know what to do. You get lost.”

“Donnie doesn’t have that problem,” Brown says. “He knows where he comes from.”

If only the cubs could figure out where they’re going. During the month of April, they were 10-17 and at the bottom of the power-hitting Central Division. In baseball the winning—and the losing—is in the details, and the Cubs left too many men on base, hit into too many double plays, and made too many boneheaded mistakes. They aren’t playing aggressive, fundamentally sound baseball. After getting swept by the New York Mets in a three-game series late in the month, a furious Baylor launched into a foul-mouthed tirade, accusing the team of expecting to lose. While some fans are pinning their hopes on the return of top pitchers Wood and Ismael Valdes (who’s been out with tendonitis), others say it’s already too late to save the season. Which is too bad, since Baylor’s players seem to genuinely like him and want to win for him. “He supports us one hundred percent,” says second baseman Eric Young. “He expects us to play hard for him every day. The respect is mutual.” After the club had lost six of its first nine games, Grace said, “[Baylor] is a good man. I just wish we were playing better for him.”

In Colorado it took Baylor three years to turn an infant franchise into a winner. How long could it take to do the same for a 125-year-old one? If it takes forever, Cubs fans say, but that may be too long even for a man accustomed to putting himself in harm’s way. Just because he takes the hits doesn’t mean he likes them.

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