ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — At the time, those of us who covered the team wondered why the Red Sox would swap Mike Easler for Don Baylor in a rare Yankee-Red Sox trade. The Red Sox thought they needed a righthanded bat, though Easler’s lefthanded stroke was made for Fenway Park.
But when Baylor arrived at Winter Haven, Fla., late in spring training in 1986, it was pretty clear why he was there. It was general manager Lou Gorman making one of those “character” moves as much as it was about righthanded power. Baylor was 36 years old, on the back nine of his career, but everything that Gorman hoped would happen in terms of his effect on the team happened.
Baylor, who died Monday at age 68 from multiple myeloma, brought that “it” to the Red Sox. He was the glue that brought a mostly homegrown team together. He came from outside the Red Sox family, but he was a veteran with an incredible track record as a unifier — not to mention that he was the 1979 American League Most Valuable Player while with the Angels.
He was the player we as media would go to for a comment on anything under the sun. Baylor could always put things into amazing perspective, which is probably why he became a manager twice. He was the Colorado Rockies’ manager for the first six years of their existence, and he managed the Chicago Cubs for two-plus seasons. He probably should have had a third chance, but it never came.
“He was truly an angel,” said his friend of 44 years, Jeremy Kapstein, who is now a consultant to baseball operations with the Baltimore Orioles.
In the days when Kapstein was the preeminent baseball agent, Baylor was one of his first three clients, along with Bobby Grich and Johnny Oates.
“I wish everybody had a chance to meet Don Baylor,” said Kapstein. “He was an amazing, special person who impacted a lot of lives.
“We kept in touch quite often. He was a great friend. I will never forget him.”
Baylor had that type of impact on people. He had that impact on the Red Sox. The Sox had the incredible Roger Clemens in 1986, and Jim Rice also had a great year. But they needed a leader, one with a strong voice that neither Rice nor Bill Buckner could quite provide because of their quiet natures.
Baylor was a gentle person, but tough as nails. He was hit with a pitch 35 times in 1986, and 267 times in his career.
Baylor led the ’86 Red Sox with 31 home runs and drove in 94 runs.
In Game 5 of the AL Championship Series, with the Red Sox trailing three games to one, it was Baylor’s two-run homer off Angels starter Mike Witt in the ninth that set the stage for Dave Henderson’s heroics later in the inning. The Red Sox won, 7-6, in 11 innings to stave off elimination. Baylor hit .346 in that seven-game series.
In the clubhouse, Baylor was very much behind the formation of the kangaroo court, assessing fines for whatever he deemed transgressions. In Clemens’s 20-strikeout game that season, Baylor fined Clemens $5 for giving up a single to Spike Owen on an 0-and-2 pitch.
It was June 2010 when I interviewed Baylor about a possible third shot at managing. The lack of African-American managers in the majors was a hot-button issue.
Baylor had been battling multiple myeloma for years by that point, but he didn’t want that used as an excuse for why he wasn’t hired.
“The cancer that I had was multiple myeloma, a blood disorder,’’ Baylor said at the time. “Mel Stottlemyre has it. Geraldine Ferraro has had it. It’s something you live with and go on.
“I’ve had control of it the last four or five years. So I’m going to take that excuse away from them, because my doctor’s told me if he has to write something for me, he would.
“When you’ve managed for nine years or so and when you’ve been the Manager of the Year in the National League, there are no other issues whatsoever. None.’’
Nor would he use racism as an excuse.
“I grew up in racism, and I’ve never used it as an excuse. Never once,’’ he said. “And I don’t like to get into that.
Baylor loved Claire Smith of ESPN, this year’s winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, and wouldn’t have missed the ceremony in Cooperstown for the world. Except that by late July, he was really sick.
And on Monday, his 14-year battle with multiple myeloma finally cost him his life.
“Don passed from this earth with the same fierce dignity with which he played the game and lived his life,” said his wife, Rebecca.