Altobelli still cheering for Baylor

John Steadman

October 28, 1992|By John Steadman

Rejection. Frustration. Hurt. A reason to ponder and to wonder. Yet never a word of protest. Don Baylor carried the disappointment within. No crying, cheap alibis or denunciations. He had become conditioned to being interviewed for major-league managing vacancies, but the result always came back the same.

Prospective employers would call to tell him they were impressed with his credentials, had enjoyed the opportunity to get to know him but, no, they had decided to go in a different direction. This meant Don Baylor was passed over. . . again.

But now the chance to fulfill a profound ambition has finally been achieved. He is the manager of an expansion team, the National League Colorado Rockies, and the man who is leading the cheers with gusto and pride is the first manager he ever knew in the minor leagues. The name? Joe Altobelli.

Baylor reported to the Bluefield Orioles of the Appalachian League, where he was making $500 a month, got $2 per day meal money and found a bargain in rent, $100 a month with two other teammates sharing the room. Only they had two beds and the one who was coming off a bad game had to take a mattress and sleep on the floor.

That year of 1967 saw Baylor lead the league in batting average (.346), total hits, runs scored, stolen bases and triples. Yes, Altobelli knew he had a gem. If there was a negative it was that his shoulder had been injured in a high school football game in Austin, Texas, and he had what was termed a "left fielder's arm."

But for 19 years he played in the American League as one of its most respected competitors. What thoughts come back to Altobelli, now general manager of the Rochester Red Wings, as he rejoices over the attainment of Baylor?

"To me, Don was a great manager's player," said Altobelli, "He never gave you any kind of a problem. Now I believe he's going to be a great players' manager. He's going to do well. Of course, patience is required but you always need that regardless of the kind of team you have. He has an expansion club and not too much will be expected but, then again, I believe the new expansion teams are going to be more competitive than any time in the past."

Altobelli was to manage Baylor at every level of his baseball education -- Stockton in the California State League, Dallas/Fort Worth in the Texas League and then Rochester of the International League. They climbed the ladder in the Orioles' farm system together, Baylor as an impressive prospect and Altobelli as a farm-club manager.

What was Altobelli's first impression? "I thought he was built like a college fullback," he answered. "Oh, I'll never forget a catch he made against Richie Zisk in Salem, Va. It was well-tagged, looked to be trouble and Baylor took off. He was in full stride and so intent he overran the ball. Then, in a flash, he reached back across his body and made the catch -- bare-handed."

Do other mental pictures of Baylor swirl into view? Altobelli was quick to reply: "Yes, he was a good low-ball hitter right from the start. Most kids can handle high pitches but they usually take time to hit the ball that's down. Not Don. He ate it up. It didn't take any genius to see he'd make the majors. My only worry was he ran the bases and slid so hard that I was afraid he might hurt himself."

Then there was 1971 and Altobelli was managing at Rochester, the Orioles' top affiliate. Baylor was optioned, along with infielder Bobby Grich, from the parent club. Both had performed impressively but the Orioles had a glut of talent and it was decided Baylor and Grich would repeat the previous year by returning to Rochester.

"I remember the day they came back." Altobelli said. "We sat down and talked. They were unhappy not to stay in the majors. But I told them it was no reflection on their ability because there were at least 10 big-league clubs they could have made -- except the Orioles were loaded with quality players. Both of them never complained. They just went out and played like professionals. Then they went up to stay."

Altobelli said Baylor never had a personality problem with a manager or another player.

"He was just great," Altobelli said. "I'm so happy for him. How will he do now that he has been picked to manage? Well, as a coach he was halfway there and knows what needs to be done. He has the disposition to handle players well and also the media. Managing the game, strategically, is relatively easy. I have such a nice feeling about him getting this job. I was hoping it would happen."

Now Baylor arrives at his destination. He may have thought, deep within, that being black had somehow delayed an earlier appointment, but he never leveled any such charge. Don Baylor won't fail because the commitment he made to himself isn't measured by wins and losses but rather in the nature of the challenge this soft-spoken, hard-charging man put before himself.

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