When the Colorado Rockies became baseball’s 27th franchise in 1993, they sought out baseball’s toughest player to take on the game’s most difficult job: managing an expansion franchise.
Of course the challenge of taking an expansion franchise from the depths of the National League West to the top of a division replete of Dodgers and Giants, paled in comparison to the challenge the former American League MVP and National League Manager of the Year would face when he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2003.
The diagnosis did not keep Baylor out of baseball, it didn’t even slow him down. As a player Baylor was considered one of the toughest players in baseball as his penchant for standing fearlessly close to the plate would often lead to him getting hit by a pitch. Over the course of his career he led the American League in the Hit By Pitch category eight times and retired from baseball having been plunked 267 times by opposing pitchers. That modern-era record stood for 17 years before Craig Biggio broke it in 2005. It was that same toughness that Baylor used to take on his cancer diagnosis.
“Don passed from this earth with the same fierce dignity with which he played the game and lived his life,” said Baylor’s wife Rebecca in a statement in regard to Baylor’s passing on August 7 at the age of 68.
From 2003 to 2016 Baylor found different rolls in the game he played for 19 seasons with six major league teams. He served as manger of the Chicago Cubs from 2000-2002 and went on to be bench coach and hitting instructor for the New York Mets, Seattle Mariners, Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks before ending his career as hitting coach with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2016.
It was his time with the Rockies, however, that the managerial Baylor enjoyed the most success.
Without a doubt the early going was not easy for Baylor, whose toughness can only be matched by his humility. He was dealt the unenviable task of managing a professional baseball team in conditions that no one in Major League Baseball was really familiar with: playing baseball at 5,280 feet. For his part, Baylor managed the difficulties with aplomb, even leading the original Blake Street Bombers to a wild card berth in the strike-shortened 1995 season. The Rockies record of 77-67 that season brought on the franchise’s first postseason appearance and first playoff series at Coors Field. It also garnered Baylor his first recognition as a manger that of National League Manager of the Year. That recognition cemented his status in baseball lore as it made him only the second MLB player at the time to win both an MVP and Manager of the Year award along with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. Hall of Fame Joe Torre would become the third player and manager to win both awards a year later in 1996, while former Arizona Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson became the fourth player to win both awards in 2011. Though the Rockies did not reach the postseason again under Baylor following that upstart ‘95 season, he went on to manage the team for three more years finishing with a 440-469 record and one postseason appearance.
Upon his passing many baseball chimed in to remember the native Texans toughness, which according to them was only surpassed by his heart.
“As a manager, coach and friend, Don Baylor will forever be a part of the fabric of the Colorado Rockies,” tweeted the Rockies organization upon receiving the news of his passing.
Said former Rockies’ center fielder and mentee of Baylor, Dexter Fowler, “My heart is aching. You were my first big league hitting coach and mentor. You took me under your wing and now you’re an angel in heaven.”