Don Baylor is optimistic that his career as a major League manager isn’t finished.
The former field boss of the Colorado Rockies and the Chicago Cubs wants the hot seat once again. Someday.
“But I have a job here to do first,” Baylor said.
That job is the Seattle Mariners hitting coach. Judging by last season’s disaster, it won’t be easy. Yet, if anyone appears ideal to handle the task, Baylor might well be it.
“He’s a no-nonsense guy,” Mariners manager Mike Hargrove said. “He has a good sense of humor, but when it’s time to work, it’s time to work. Don brings credibility with the career he had and the successful hitter that he was. It’s an instant credibility with these hitters.”
No nonsense is right. As a player, Baylor was a menacing figure at bat. His brawny arms and shoulders made the bat look as light as balsa wood when he waggled it back and forth, anticipating the pitch. Baylor generated even more force with his powerful thighs and backside.
He wore a scowl that would frighten a baby and took his stance virtually on top of the plate, daring pitchers to throw inside. He still holds the major league record for getting hit by pitches. It happened to him 267 times.
Baylor played 19 years in the majors, with six teams. He hit 338 homers, had 1,276 RBI and 285 steals. He won the American League MVP with the California Angels in 1979, when he finished with a career-high 36 home runs and 139 RBI.
Intimidating? Writers still talk about the time in the mid-’70s, when Kansas City pitcher Dennis Leonard buzzed one up around Baylor’s head. Suitably ticked, Baylor charged the mound – and Leonard ran for his life into his own dugout.
It wasn’t advised to mess with Baylor when he played and you don’t question his judgment now.
“He’s a guy who, when he speaks, you’re obviously going to listen to what he has to say,” M’s catcher Dan Wilson said. “He’s helped me already with things he’s noticed about me right out of the chute. He’s a tremendous asset to the team.”
Hargrove and Baylor go back to 1977 when Baylor played for the Angels and Hargrove for the Texas Rangers. Later, they would play on a postseason tour with the Major League All-Stars in Japan. That’s when they got to know each other. Hargrove always liked the way Baylor played. In Japan, he got to know Baylor even better. Wanting to hire Baylor wasn’t the problem.
“My biggest question was whether he would turn us down,” Hargrove said.
Serving the last two seasons as hitting instructor for the New York Mets, Baylor was looking for a job after that regime was fired. Over the years, Baylor already knew Hargrove, M’s bench coach Ron Hassey, third-base coach Jeff Newman and bullpen coach Jim Slaton.
“And Seattle’s always been a great place to be, really,” Baylor said.
Now that he’s here, Baylor’s job is to jumpstart a Mariners offense that was last or next-to-last in most categories. To illustrate the team’s offensive problems in 2004, more than once the coaching staff has pointed to the fact that leadoff hitter Ichiro Suzuki had a Major League record 262 hits, but scored just 101 runs.
“That’s a glaring number to me,” Baylor said. “That tells me that some guys behind him didn’t have good years. He’s got to score between 150 and 170 runs for us to be successful. He has to get more help.”
To that end, the Mariners spent $114 million in the off-season to sign Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Adrian Beltre, who led the majors last season with 48 home runs, and Randy Sexson, a 6-foot-8 first baseman from the Arizona Diamondbacks, who swatted 45 homers for Milwaukee in 2001 and 2003.
Baylor isn’t bursting onto the scene and changing the swings of every player. He is, however, noticing flaws and correcting them. And he’s working their minds.
“I don’t do any special tinkering unless I absolutely see something,” Baylor said. “If a guy’s struggled for a year, a year and a half on something, we try to look at the mental part of the game: not to give away at-bats. Every at-bat is important. Once we take that approach every single day, we can say we went at it every single day at the end of the year.”
Baylor teaches hitters to hit their pitch and not the pitcher’s pitch. Two strikes open up the strike zone a bit and a 2-0 count should boost a hitter’s aggressiveness.
“On a 2-0 fastball, I don’t want you to be timid at all,” Baylor said. “I want you to drive the ball and let it go where it may. When you’re ahead in the count, you shouldn’t panic. A lot of guys panic when they get guys on base. They don’t get a good ball to hit. They hit a pitcher’s pitch. I don’t mind guys swinging at the first pitch. If it’s right there, go ahead and take a swing at it.”
Baylor won’t chase his players into the dugout if they give away at-bats, but he does have the Mariners’ attention.
“Any time you talk with a great hitter, you respect what he says,” Wilson said. “He had a great career and he got instant respect from the guys the day he got here.”