Don Baylor may not have been the best manager in Major League Baseball history.
But Connie Mack, Casey Stengel, Sparky Anderson, Tony LaRussa – not even Joe Maddon – could have done a better job guiding the expansion Colorado Rockies in the three-year period from 1993-95.
“He was perfect for that time because we took it to people,’’ said Dante Bichette, who along with Andres “Big Cat” Galarraga, Larry Walker and Vinny Castilla and later Ellis Burks formed the Blake Street Bombers. “We played fearless. Maybe some people thought we were too aggressive, we got ourselves in trouble.
“We had to be. We had to intimidate. We had to put pressure on teams. Even if we looked foolish sometimes, we weren’t good enough to not play like that. We were the only team in history to have 200 homers and 200 stolen bases (in 1996). That’s aggressive.’’
Baylor, who managed the Rockies through their first six seasons, died Monday at 68 years after a long battle with multiple myeloma.
“We lost a good friend today,’’ said Bob Gebhard, the Rockies’ first general manager who took a chance and made Baylor his first manager even though, “Groove” had no prior managerial experience in the minors or majors. “I talked to him several months ago. I knew he had this disease but he was a fighter and he didn’t want to talk about it. “I’m fine,” and all that. So like Don Baylor. He wanted to talk about baseball and he asked how the family was doing.’’
Some perspective is needed here. Anyone younger than 30 years old may never understand the phenomenon that was the fledgling Colorado Rockies of the early to mid-1990s.
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An expansion team in 1993, the Rockies were horrible – although thanks to the credibility and aggressive managerial style of Baylor, not as bad as they might otherwise have been – yet a strong case can be made they were most rabidly popular team in sports history. Not just Major League history. All of sports.
They drew 26 crowds of at least 60,000 in 1993, including nine of at least 70,000. The opener at old Mile High Stadium drew a record gathering of 80,227 that likely will never be topped in baseball history.
The Rockies drew 4,483,350 fans in all that year, an average of 55,350 per game, both still-standing records, all for a team that finished 67-95. George Steinbrenner, the iconic owner of the New York Yankees, said the Rockies’ attendance was the biggest story in baseball.
The kicker: The Rockies would have broken most of those seemingly unbreakable attendance records in 1994 if not for the players strike. Still well below .500 at 53-64 when the season was cancelled, the Rockies had already drawn 12 crowds of at least 70,000 and were averaging 2,220 more than their 1993 record output.
The move to Coors Field in 1995 started a three-year sellout streak of 203 games and the Rockies improbably making the playoffs as a National League wild card when only four teams from each league qualified for the postseason. Baylor was named National League Manager of the Year.
“A big reason for that is he gave the franchise instant credibility because of his reputation in the game,’’ said Walt Weiss, the Rockies’ shortstop from 1994-97. “I mean you can’t find a person on this planet that doesn’t respect the man. The team had instant credibility because of ‘’Groove.’’ That’s crucial for an expansion franchise. That’s critical. We felt that as players. I think that had a lot to do with the early success we had as a franchise.’’
Credit Gebhard for shocking the baseball world when he hired Baylor, the 1979 American League MVP as a slugging left fielder for the California Angels, on Oct. 27, 1992.
“When I was interviewing different candidates, Don stepped out even though he had zero managerial experience,’’ Gebhard said. “You knew he could bring a lot to the party and he certainly represented himself and the entire organization very well.
“He knew the game and had been involved in so many ways as a player. A tough player and that brought a level of teaching to our players -- play the way I played and we’ll be all right. I think so many of our players that we acquired in various ways took on a lot of Don’s traits and that was play the game hard.
“He didn’t make many big speeches in the clubhouse but his presence and his experience and the respect he drew was tremendous for all of us.’’
On a personal level, Weiss remembered his rookie year of 1988 – which would be Baylor’s final season as a player – with the juggernaut Oakland A’s. Weiss entered the season as the A’s only question mark.
“And he knew that and he knew that I was hearing that,’’ Weiss said. “So, the very first day, our team stretch was over with, he pulled me aside and you could tell he meant business. He was stern. And he went on for about 10 or 15 minutes and gave me the dos and don’ts of how to be a major-league player and how I was expected to be a leader as a shortstop even though I was a rookie. I was expected to take charge in the infield.
“I remember him telling me to never be intimidated by any pitcher on the mound. When I step in against Nolan Ryan he said you better not be intimated by him. It went a long way with me because he took the time to have that type of conversation with me on Day 1. And he was instrumental in getting me over to Colorado when he was the manager. I think he talked Geb into getting me over here.’’
Baylor even helped play matchmaker for Bichette and his wife Mariana. Baylor was the Milwaukee Brewers’ hitting coach and Bichette and up-and-coming right fielder who after batting practice at Fenway Park one day badly wanted to ask out a girl he’d seen working at Gold’s Gym on the other side of the Green Monster, but was too shy to approach her.
Baylor ordered Bichette to leave the Fenway Park grounds and ask her out. Dante and Mariana have been married 24 years and have two boys, both of whom are playing in the minor leagues.
“I loved the guy, personally,’’ Bichette said. “If there’s one person in my life who believed in me and gave me an opportunity it was Don Baylor. I owe him so much. Without that guy, I don’t achieve anything. I saw him a couple years ago (at the 20 year reunion of Rockies’ 1995 wild card team) and I got a chance to tell him that which I’m really glad I got that chance. He made it fun.’’