'Hey There, Sugar Bear'

From The Toy Department Catching Up With ...

July 01, 2009|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

It happens every time Bowie hosts New Britain (Conn.) in Double-A Eastern League game. Someone in the stands points out the visitors' stubby hitting coach and the cry goes up.

"Hey there, Sugar Bear!"

Floyd Rayford smiles, saunters over and signs autographs.

More than 20 years after he last played for Baltimore, he remains a fan favorite.

"Orioles fans never forget," he said.

How could they? In the 1980s, few players won more hearts than Rayford, the roly-poly, self-effacing utility player who looked like he had never met a push-up.

Yet he stuck in the big leagues for seven years, six of them with the Orioles, who could plug him into four positions - first base, second, third and catcher - without missing a beat.

"I never had a great body, but it was suitable to play everywhere," Rayford said. "I liked catching best. I was too busy back there to be nervous. It wasn't like playing third base. There's no time to get butterflies when you're catching."

His hitting was unremarkable, save for 1985, when he hit 18 home runs and batted .306.

The reason?

"I got divorced in midseason," Rayford said. "I thought, 'Hell, I've got to pay her every month so I better start hitting.' Alimony can be a tremendous motivator."

At 5 feet 10 and 210 pounds, Rayford had power. The "Sugar Bear" nickname refers to his resemblance to a cartoon mascot on a cereal box.

If Rayford resembled the guy next door - OK, maybe two guys - he was worth his weight to the Orioles. At Triple-A Rochester in 1981, he helped a young Cal Ripken Jr., who was struggling at the plate.

"Cal complained that [manager] Doc Edwards, who threw batting practice, was too slow," Rayford said. "He asked if I'd come out early and throw to him."

That Rayford did, two hours a day for much of that summer.

"Cal had a great year, thanks to me," he said.

A year later, with the Orioles, they roomed together. For Rayford, those road trips were exhausting.

"Every morning when he woke up, Cal wanted to wrestle and throw you around the room," he said. "Once as he leaned over my bed to see if I was awake, I opened my eyes and punched him right in the chest."

Ripken's response?

"He got back in bed and went back to sleep."

Fittingly, perhaps, it was Rayford whom Ripken replaced at third base for a 1982 contest that marked the start of the Iron Man's streak of 2,632 consecutive games.

The Orioles cut Rayford in 1987. Now 52, he has knocked around the bushes ever since, teaching kids how to hit. Do they listen? New Britain, a Minnesota farm team, leads the Eastern League in batting.

Married, Rayford has a daughter in graduate school at Maryland and a home in Silver Spring. He has fond feelings for the people of Baltimore.

"Even when I was going bad, the fans treated me good," he said. "They liked me. I didn't have the greatest body type, but I was out there trying to do it."

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