Thank you, Don Baylor

Over the weekend Todd Frazier had a great at bat and made a great base running play that helped the Yankees win and certainly merits further discussion.  Then quite unfortunately, news that Phillies great Darren Daulton passed away and then with barely any time to reflect, news of Don Baylor’s passing broke.  My original intention was to have a 3 pronged blog today, touching briefly on each of the above, but it turns out I had a lot more to say about Don Baylor than I realized.  Below are my thoughts and memories of Don Baylor, and I’ll do my best to revisit Darren Daulton and Todd Frazier soon.  Daulton, because despite being a Phillie great, I do have some memories of him that are relevant to today’s game and my writings.  And Frazier, because it’s only fair to give a guy his due for good play when you’ve been all over his bad play.

Maybe players passing away hits closer to home as I age, or perhaps both Darren Daulton and Don Baylor passing about a day apart made it more disconcerting.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I see players who I watched for a good chunk of their career pass away, it definitely causes me to reflect more than it used to.  Here’s what I’ll remember about Don Baylor:

On a personal, “fan” level I’ll always remember, quite obviously, Baylor getting hit with a ton of pitches.  Far more memorable however, was how he never – not once – winced or rubbed the spot where he was hit, and not once did he have a word or a look for the pitcher or umpire.  He would drop the bat as if he was just intentionally walked and trotted to first, every time.  It was part humorous, part disconcerting.

And I remember him batting 5th, sometimes 4th, on what might be my favorite Yankee team of all time, the 1985 group.  That team had Rickey Henderson, Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield in their primes, with Baylor batting right behind them.  After I wrote that sentence I needed to pause and think again what it was like watching Rickey and Mattingly at their best in the same lineup.  With some good seasons from supporting players and very good seasons from Ron Guidry and Phil Niekro, they were a handful for other teams and were damn fun to watch.  They won 97 games, losing the division to Toronto who won 99.  Under today’s format, they would’ve hosted the wild card game against the Tigers, who they were 13 games better than.  But specifically to Baylor, I remember him as the guy the other team seemed to forget about.  After you deal with Rickey, Mattingly and Winfield you look up and realize – “Oh look, here’s a former MVP who drove in 91 runs this season at the plate.”  He was a big part of a very good team that was fun to watch as well.

Speaking of RBIs and a former MVP, Baylor is a great example of a) how we know more now than we did when he played, and b) how MVP voters place far too much value in RBIs as a player evaluation tool (Baylor led the AL with 139 that season).  Among a long list of questionable, ahem, MVP winners, his win was one of the more ridiculous choices, frankly.  I hope this doesn’t sound harsh as being critical of the recently departed because it isn’t him I’m criticizing, it’s the voters.  And unfortunately, Baylor is a reminder of voter incompetence for me.  I liked Don Baylor, he was a very good player, fun to watch and acted with professionalism.  But he was nowhere near MVP level.

Baylor finished 24th in Wins Above Replacement in 1979 with 3.7.  That’s less than half the totals of Fred Lynn, George Brett and Darrell Porter in ‘79.  Baylor was actually 3rd in WAR on his own team behind Bobby Grich and Brian Downing.  I’ve already somewhat diverted from the topic at hand once, so I’ll cut this short, but ponder this:  Fred Lynn in 1979 led the American League in batting, on base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, WAR and OPS+.  He hit 39 home runs, drove in 122 and won a Gold Glove playing center field in Fenway Park.  He finished 4th in the AL MVP voting.  Talk about a tough crowd.

Sorry.  Again, I don’t mean this as a criticism of Baylor, he was a very good player in his career and in ‘79 specifically.  I’m only thinking about how far the game has come (in a good way) and how Baylor’s 1979 season reminds me of that.

But in spite of his HBP, his time on the Yankees, and his MVP, I’ll remember Baylor for being (not) part of one of the most bizarre and memorable game endings in baseball history.

Top of the 8th inning, game six, 1986 World Series, Bill Buckner batting for the Red Sox who were leading the Mets 5-3.  There were two outs and runners on 1st and 2nd bases.

Mets Davey Johnson brings in Jesse Orosco, the Mets best reliever and one of the best lefties in baseball, to face the lefty and badly slumping Buckner.  Johnson, despite the pitcher’s spot in the order coming up next inning, does not double switch with Orosco, meaning the Mets are using their best reliever for only one batter – if they’re lucky.

No to be outdone on the “What?!?” front, Red Sox manager John McNamara did not pinch hit Don Baylor for Bill Buckner.  Baylor who had been the Sox’ DH that season wasn’t playing in game six because there was no DH in the National League park.  As mentioned, Buckner had been struggling, Orosco was one of the best lefty relievers in baseball and Don Baylor a righty, had 31 HR that season for Boston.  I don’t know if McNamara keeping Baylor on the bench was as odd as Johnson not hitting for Orosco, but it was close.

We all know the game had a happy ending for the Mets, so no need to go there, but let’s review the context:

Had Johnson double switched when bringing in Orosco, Kevin Mitchell would have entered the game and Mookie Wilson who had just batted, would have come out.  Had McNamara hit Baylor for Buckner, Buckner would have exited the game.

Because of these two crazy managerial decisions within the span of a few minutes, both Mookie Wilson and Bill Buckner remained in the game.

And Don Baylor, with bat in hand and helmet on head, watched the rest along with us, as a spectator.

It was fun watching you play, Don.  I’ll remember a player who acted with class and professionalism while driving in a lot of runs.  It’s OK to say ouch, rub the bruises and ask WTF was McNamara thinking, now.

 

 

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