We knew this day was coming, but the tears still trickled down our cheeks.
We knew the pain he was in, but we still didn’t want him to leave us.
We knew that cancer was destroying his body, but we wanted to believe he could beat it.
We lost Don Baylor at the age of 68 on Monday morning. His size and strength were dwarfed by the enormity of his heart.
“You try to prepare for this,’’ Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan said, “but it still hurts so bad, and is shocking. He was a pretty special guy. People that didn’t know him, didn’t know how special he was.
“He was a guy who always cared more about everyone else but himself. He kept a lot of that pain inside, and didn’t tell anybody how he was hurting.’’
Baylor was the 1979 American League MVP and the 1995 NL Manager of the Year, but his baseball accolades hardly begins to tell you the magnitude of the man.
This is a man who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma 14 years ago. When he was first hospitalized with the disease, Rocky Mountain News columnist Tracy Ringolsby wrote about it.
The next day Baylor angrily called him from the hospital room.
“What are you doing?’’ Baylor said. “Ever since you wrote that, I’m getting all of these flowers delivered to my room and all of these phone calls. Don’t you think these nurses have things better to do than taking time out of their day carrying flowers around?’’
Baylor, who played, coached and managed for 14 organizations, had that kind of impact on everyone who came into contact with him.
Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker, who succeeded Baylor as manager of the Chicago Cubs in 2003, was one of the last to recently speak to him.
He called the hospital over the weekend, and Baylor’s wife, Becky, put the call on speaker phone, placing it on her husband’s chest.
Baylor, who barely talked the last few weeks, listened to Baker’s strong voice, and Baker told him how much he loved him. Baker put the phone down, and wept.
“He was just such a leader of people’s lives, and impacted so many people,’’ said Minnesota Twins third base coach Gene Glynn, who coached eight years on Baylor’s staff in Colorado and Chicago. “When people first met him, they were probably in awe by his size. But if you were lucky enough to know him, you saw the impact that he made on everyone. Everyone just gravitated to him.
“There was no one like him.’’
Bonnie Downing, a 16-year survivor of multiple myeloma, shared her own battle with Baylor after his diagnosis, finally meeting him in person a few years ago in spring training. Yet, while Downing was a spokesman for the disease, Baylor chose to silently fight the battle.
“He was so selfless,’’ Downing said, “that he didn’t want to be a spokesman about his own illness. He wanted to instead talk about his work with Cystic Fibrosis. He said, “I can’t leave these kids.’ He was more concerned about them than himself.
“I thought I would be ray of hope for him, and he gave me his strength.’’
Claire Smith, who wrote Baylor’s biography in 1990 – Don Baylor: Nothing But The Truth: A Baseball Life, called Baylor the most honest person she’s ever met in baseball. If he couldn’t tell the truth, he would simply not answer.
Baylor was trying everything possible to be at Smith’s July 30 induction speech into the writers’ wing of the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y. Yet, his legs broken by the disease, he couldn’t travel. So Smith, wearing a pin of Baylor during the Hall of Fame weekend, brought a portrait of Baylor to the stage, and then took the speech to him last week in Austin.
Jeremy Kapstein, Baylor’s first agent, who remained close to him for 44 years, said: “Don had the heart of a lion and true champion who always put others before himself as he gave so much to so many in and out of baseball. He was the definition of a true angel.’’
It’s only fitting that Baylor will always be identified as an Angel, putting the California Angels on the map when he joined the franchise as a free agent, leading them to their first postseason berth in 1979. He won the AL MVP award that season, scoring 120 runs and driving in 139 runs – still a franchise record.
He will be remembered as one of baseball’s strongest leaders, a powerful force in the players union, and the man who was the Colorado Rockies’ first manager, leading the franchise to the playoffs in 1995. He is one of only four men in baseball history to win an MVP and Manager of the Year award.
“He was certainly the right guy to bring an expansion team together,’’ said Bob Gebhard, the Rockies’ inaugural general manager. “He laid the groundwork on what professional baseball needed to be in Denver, and his impact still resonates with that franchise today.’’
Baylor was also a pioneer, one of three kids who integrated public schools in Austin. He was the first African-American athlete at Stephen F. Austin High School, and would have been the first African-American football player at the University of Texas, too, until he rejected a football scholarship by Darrell Royal to join the Baltimore Orioles.
“He opened a lot of doors for African-Americans in baseball, always trying to help,’’ Morgan said. “When he became the manager of the Rockies, and had the success he did, he made it possible for others to get a managerial opportunity.
“And when they succeeded, he was happier for them than himself.’’
Baylor concealed his pain and anguish from the disease for years, refusing to let anyone worry about him.
“He may the toughest guy I was ever around,’’ Tigers and Dodgers World Series hero Kirk Gibson said. “How he endured with what he had….Nobody would out-loyal Don Baylor.’’
Now, the pain is all gone, he is at peace, and we are left with indelible memories that will be cherished forever.
This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.