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Don Baylor: The toughest -- and gentlest -- of baseball's giants

Claire Smith honored Don Baylor during her Hall of Fame induction speech, displaying a painting, done by her father, of the 1979 American League MVP. Smith called Baylor one of her "top go-to guys" as a reporter. National Baseball Hall Of Fame and Museum/Jean Fruth

How is it that one person can be known as one of the most intimidating players to ever wear a major league uniform and as one of the game's all-time gentle giants?

Both descriptions fit Don Baylor perfectly, seamlessly, throughout his 19-year playing career and beyond. For the former All-Star and 1979 American League Most Valuable Player was both tough and tender, as teacher and teammate, leader and legend during a career in which he wore 14 different major league baseball uniforms as either a player, coach or manager.

How he touched hearts, influenced minds and helped lead team after team to the postseason became patently clear today as countless salutes and remembrances echoed around the game following the news that Don had died at age 68 after a 14-year battle with multiple myeloma.

In testimony after testimony on social media, former teammates, coaches, fellow managers and members of the media grieved without apology for the man almost everyone simply called "Groove."

He was celebrated for once throwing a temper tantrum and tipping over the food table with the postgame spread. Why? A young Angels rookie had a bad game in the field, in a bad loss, and was surrounded by the media. Don wanted, needed to pull the media to him. He told me that's what veterans, team leaders do. So he stagecrafted his way into an impromptu state-of-the-team scrum with reporters, pulling attention away from the kid.


"Groove."

Frank Robinson gave Don Baylor that nickname after the highly touted, but precocious, high school multisport star secured his first invitation to the Baltimore Orioles' major league camp.

Interviewed by a local paper in Florida, Don acknowledged he had landed in a prospect-rich system. Still, he shrugged off the odds against making it to the majors and sticking. Most notably, he said he'd do so because when he was in his "groove" at the plate, he could hit major league pitching.

The next day, when he arrived in the Orioles' clubhouse, Don found copies of the paper piled in his locker. "Groove" had been underscored. And Frank Robinson -- the future Hall of Famer whom Don would eventually succeed -- christened Don with the nickname "Groove."


Don once told me that one never should show pain when hit by a pitch -- which he was, early and often, eventually retiring with the then-MLB record (267) for HBPs.

One of his Yankees teammates, Ken Griffey Sr., used to joke that when Don was hit, the trainers would put the ball on a stretcher and carry it off the field.

Don's mantra? "Never rub," he would say. And he admitted to doing so only once, when nailed by a Nolan Ryan fastball. So I was quite surprised when, in his final season, with the A's, he was hit by a pitch in a game at Yankee Stadium and rubbed his hand as he trotted to first.

I sought him out after the game to ask if he'd been hurt.

"Numb," I thought I heard him say in a near-whisper.

"Numb?"

"No, nub. It hit the nub of the bat," he said, his eyes twinkling.

Baseball, a game of inches, and misdirects.


Don Baylor and Dusty Baker weren't just like brothers. They were brothers.

Both were also known during their careers for being notoriously tough and not shy when it came to baseball brawls.

So, during an A's-Yankees game at the Stadium, Dusty was in town with Oakland. Neither he nor Don was in the lineup that day, so neither was visible in the dugout when the game began.

Can't remember how it started, but the A's and Yankees pitchers started brushing hitters back. Some hitters might have gotten plunked, and the game was getting chippy.

Sure enough, two warriors got suited up and were soon making their presence known in the dugouts. Dusty had a bat on his shoulder. Don was top-stepping, elbow crooked on his knee as he glared across to the third-base dugout.

After the game, I checked in with both. They laughed at the theatrics:

"Ah, Donny wasn't going anywhere..."

"Dusty wasn't going to do anything!"

They so enjoyed the old-school games, but enjoyed their friendship even more.

Brothers, to the end.

ESPN editor Claire Smith was presented the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the top honor for a baseball writer, during Hall of Fame Weekend in Cooperstown in July. Smith wrote "Don Baylor: Nothing but the Truth: A Baseball Life" with Don Baylor" in 1989.