“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?

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

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