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Baylor an MVP in fight against cystic fibrosis

When Don Baylor agreed to manage in the Venezuelan Winter League a year ago, a key to the deal was that he needed four days off in early November.

As much as he wanted to manage, hoping to rekindle the hopes of another big league opportunity, it was just as important to Baylor that he be able to get back to Orange County, Calif., to be a part of the annual 65 Roses Golf Tournament, which he started back in 1979 as a fundraiser for cystic fibrosis research and care.

"One day, I was sitting in the dentist's chair with my mouth open and [Dr.] Gene [Moses] asked me if I would help [with] fundraising for cystic fibrosis," said Baylor. "I wasn't in a position to say, 'no.' I didn't know anything about it. I didn't even know how to spell it. But I was looking for a way to get involved in charity work, and Gene thought this would be a good area."

It has been.

Thanksgiving is on Thursday, but for Baylor, the efforts for giving come 365 days a year -- looking for ways to raise money to find a cure for cystic fibrosis. It has grown into an obsession for the D-backs' hitting coach, whose baseball career included earning the American League Most Valuable Player Award with the Angels in 1979, and being selected the National League Manager of the Year with the Rockies in 1995.

"Once I said I'd help, I started going to meetings, started to get an understanding of cystic fibrosis," Baylor said. "My son Donnie was eight at the time, and back then, the life expectancy for a cystic fibrosis victim was eight. Donnie was born with amblyopia, lazy eye, which forced him to wear a patch over his left eye to correct the vision disorder.

"I'm thinking, 'Donnie and I can live with that.' These kids were fighting for their lives. That winter, I went to an overnight camp with the kids, and they were sitting around the campfire -- 8-, 9-, 10-year-olds -- talking about the fact they might not be back [for the trip] next year, so they were going to enjoy that trip. That's when it really sank in. These kids were so brave. They deserved better."

Things have gotten better over the years. Now, it's not unusual for someone with cystic fibrosis to live 30, even 40, years. Many also participate in normal youth activities.

Baylor, however, hasn't backed off his efforts.

"In 1979, the Angels won their first division title and our motto was, 'Yes We Can,'" said Baylor. "We adapted that to finding a cure for cystic fibrosis, 'Yes You Can.' I've told them I am with them until we find a cure, until we can say, 'Yes We Did.' We've made a lot of progress. We're within three to five years of finding that cure. They found the gene. There are exciting things going on."

For that research, fundraising is critical. It is privately funded.

On the first Monday of this November, Baylor was part of the 34th annual 65 Roses Golf Tournament in Orange County. Angels manager Mike Scioscia has assumed the organizer's role for the last 12 years, but Baylor is still very active in the tournament -- which has raised nearly $5 million for research.

Baylor also created a 65 Roses Club with the Angels back in 1979, where 65 people joined and pledged to donate $10 for each home run the Angels hit -- up to 100 -- and then $1 per additional home run.

"President [Richard] Nixon found out about it from [Angels owner Gene] Autry, and he contacted us and became one of the original members," said Baylor.

Shortly thereafter, the Texas Rangers created a similar fundraising group, then the New York Yankees. Before long, Baylor was overseeing 65 Roses fundraising groups for every Major League team. Over time, similar fundraisers were created by NFL, NBA and NHL teams. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation said that professional sports teams have generated more than $11 million in donations.

"When you get involved in working with something like this, it opens your eyes," said Baylor. "It impacted the lives of guys you played with and played against. Sammy Stewart has two kids with cystic fibrosis. Doug DeCinces has a grandson with cystic fibrosis. I saw Boomer Esiason on television talking about his kid who has cystic fibrosis.

"When I became the manager of the Rockies, [owner] Jerry McMorris and I were having lunch and I mentioned 65 Roses to him, and he told me his son Mike had cystic fibrosis. It was one reason Jerry and I bonded so strongly."

The devastation, said Baylor, impacts more than the children. It is a genetic disease, and the male is the carrier. Not every child will develop the disease. But when one does, there is often a guilty feeling on the part of the parents that becomes a challenge.

"When you see the families stay together, it's encouraging," said Baylor. "But when you've seen the divorce, that's the killer. There's such a strain."

The strain is eased by the progress Baylor has seen in finding a cure -- thanks to folks like Dr. David Hicks of Children's Hospital of Orange County, one of the first contacts Baylor made after committing to fundraising for cystic fibrosis.

"He had such a great manner with the kids," said Baylor. "He wore goofy ties that made the kids laugh, and he talked to them so that they could understand. That's where we got '65 Roses.' The kids had the disease, but didn't know how to say it. He taught them by having them say, '65 Roses.' It's easy for the kids, and it sounds similar."

Baylor has built off the foundation created by people such as Dr. Hicks in helping provide the funds to find the cure.

"Because of Don's support and the many people he has recruited around the country, that day [when a cure will be found] is fast approaching," said Michal Shumard, executive director of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

For that, Baylor is thankful.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for
Read More: Arizona Diamondbacks, Don Baylor