Don Baylor, 1979 MVP, Rockies and Cubs manager dies at 68

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Sad news from Austin this morning, as the Austin American-Statesman reports that Don Baylor, the 1979 American League Most Valuable Player and former big league manager has died. He was 68 and been suffering from multiple myeloma.

Baylor was a multi-sport star from Austin who was offered a football scholarship from the University of Texas but turned it down to play baseball. If he had gone to UT he would’ve been the school’s first black football player. Instead he was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the second round of the 1967 draft. He broke into the bigs in 1970 but played sparingly that season and the next due to being blocked by Frank Robinson and Don Buford, who starred for an absolutely loaded Orioles squad. Robinson would be traded following the 1971 season and Baylor would become a fixture in the corner outfield spots for Baltimore for the next four seasons, hitting .275/.348/.433 while stealing 117 bases. He’d steal 52 in 1976 after being traded by the O’s to Oakland in the Reggie Jackson deal. Even the graying among us remember Baylor mostly as a power-hitting DH in the second half of his career. It’s sometimes easy to forget the fact that he was an athletic and well-rounded player in his early days.

He was certainly a more valuable player later, however. Quite literally, actually, winning the AL MVP in 1979 as the California Angels’ DH. That year Baylor hit .296/.371/.530 with 36 homers and 139 RBI while leading the Angles to the AL West crown. Curiously, that year Baylor was “only” hit by 11 pitches, one of his lower season totals. Baylor was otherwise famous for getting plunked, leading the league eight times in his career. He’d retire as the all-time leader in that category in the post-deadball era with 267. Craig Biggio would later pass him.

After leaving the Angels, Baylor would continue to have productive years in New York with the Yankees and in Boston with the Red Sox, winning three Silver Slugger Awards between 1983 and 1986. His teams made the postseason seven times, though he’d only get one World Series ring with the 1987 Twins. That was an odd year for Baylor, as he wasn’t traded to Minnesota until September 1 and was a non-factor in the season’s final month. He’d hit .385/.467/.615 in five World Series games, however. He’d retire after one more year back in Oakland in 1988, finishing with a career line of .260/.342/.436, 338 homers, 1,276 RBI and 285 stolen bases over 19 seasons. He was on three World Series teams in his final three seasons: Boston in 1986, Minnesota in 1987 and Oakland in 1988.

Baylor would serve as the hitting coach for the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals before being named the Colorado Rockies’ first ever manager before the 1993 season. He’d manage the Rockies for six seasons, making the playoffs as the NL’s first-ever Wild Card winner in 1995 and finishing with a record of 440-469 in Colorado. After one season as the Braves hitting coach in 1999, the Cubs would hire him as their skipper. He’d go 187-220 in two full years and a partial 2002 season. After leaving Chicago he’d serve as the Mets bench coach in 2003-04 before hitting coach stints in Seattle, Colorado, Arizona and Anaheim.

As is evidenced by both the eagerness of teams to hire him and the word of mouth from people who knew him well, Baylor was an almost universally respected and beloved figure within the game. He was also a great player and a fine manager. He will be missed.

The 2017 Yankees are, somehow, plucky underdogs

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There’s a lot that has happened in the past year that I never, ever would’ve thought would or even could happen in America. Many of them are serious, some are not, some make me kinda happy and some make me terribly sad. I’m sure a lot of people have felt that way in this oddest of years.

There’s one thing in baseball, however, that still has me searching my feelings in a desperate effort to know what to feel: The New York Yankees are the postseason’s plucky underdogs.

This is not about them being lovable or likable — we touched on that last week — it’s more about the role they play in the grand postseason drama. A postseason they weren’t even supposed to be in.

None of the three writers of this website thought the Yankees would win the AL East or a Wild Card. ESPN had 35 “experts” make predictions back in March, and only one of them — Steve Wulf — thought the Yankees would make the postseason (he thought they’d win the division). I’m sure if you go over the plethora of professional prognosticator’s predictions a few would have the Yankees squeaking in to the postseason on the Wild Card, but that was nothing approaching a consensus view. Their 2017 regular season was a surprise to almost everyone, with the expectation of a solid, if unspectacular rebuilding year being greatly exceeded. To use a sports cliche, nobody believed in them.

Then came the playoffs. Most people figured the Yankees would beat the Twins in the Wild Card game and they did, but most figured they’d be cannon fodder for the Indians. And yep, they fell down early, losing the first two games of the series and shooting themselves in the foot in spectacular fashion in the process. Yet they came back, beating arguably the best team in baseball and certainly the best team in the American League in three straight games despite the fact that . . . nobody believed in them.

Now we’re in the ALCS. The Astros — the other choice for best team in the American League if you didn’t think the Indians were — jumped out to a 2-0 lead, quieting the Yankees’ powerful bats. While a lot of teams have come back from 0-2 holes in seven game series, the feel of this thing as late as Monday morning was that, even if the Yankees take a game at home, Houston was going to cruise into the World Series. Once again . . . nobody believed in them.

Yet, here we are on this late Wednesday morning, with the Yankees having tied things up 2-2. As I wrote this morning, you still have to like the Astros’ chances given that their aces, Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander, are set to go in Games 5 and 6. I’m sure a lot of people feel still like the Astros’ chances for that reason. So that leads us to this . . .

It’s one thing for no one to have, objectively, believed in the Yankees chances. It’s another thing, though, for the New York Yankees — the 27-time World Champions, the 40-time American League pennant winners, the richest team in the game, the house-at-the-casino, U.S. Steel and the Evil Empire all wrapped into one — to officially play the “nobody believed in us” card on their own account. That’s the stuff of underdogs. Of Davids facing Goliaths. Of The Little Guy, demanding respect that no one ever considered affording them. If you’re not one of those underdogs and you’re playing that card, you’re almost always doing it out of some weird self-motivational technique and no one else will ever take you seriously. And now you’re telling me the NEW YORK FRIGGIN’ YANKEES are playing that card?

Thing is: they’re right. They’ve totally earned the right to play it because, really, no one believed in them. Even tied 2-2, I presume most people still don’t, actually.

I don’t know how to process this. Nothing in my 40 years of baseball fandom has prepared me for the Yankees to be the David to someone else’s Goliath and to claim righteous entitlement to the whole “nobody believed in us” thing.

Which, as I said at the beginning, is nothing new in the year 2017. I just never thought it’d happen in baseball.