Freak injury shows Baylor's toughness
Angels players and coaches stunned by Opening Day accident
ANAHEIM -- Don Baylor, "Groove" to those inside the game, always has embodied the rare blend of immense physical power and personal grace. Nobody in Major League Baseball is more respected.
Angels players were just beginning to really get to know their new hitting coach when he went down in a stunning fashion on Monday night, fracturing his right femur and requiring surgery that will keep him out of uniform indefinitely.
Because he's such a formidable figure even as his 65th birthday nears, Baylor's collapse behind home plate as he tried to handle Vladimir Guerrero's ceremonial first pitch on Opening Night was shocking to his latest class of students.
In the voice and wide eyes of superstar Mike Trout before Tuesday night's game against the Mariners was pure, unmasked awe.
"He didn't even flinch," Trout said. "He had a broken leg, and he wanted to get up and walk to the dugout. When he came in here [to the home clubhouse], they told me he acted like almost nothing happened."
Baylor was on one knee, crouching, when the leg gave on him as he reached for Guerrero's delivery. He was assisted to the clubhouse and taken to the UC Irvine Medical Center for the diagnosis. Surgery was performed at about 1 p.m. PT Tuesday.
Angels players and staff were still trying to absorb the aftereffects.
"Awesome, a real stand-up guy," Josh Hamilton said. "He's somebody with a lot of experience as a player, manager, hitting coach. He's been around the game a long time. You can't replace that kind of experience."
Dave Hansen, Paul Sorrento and Rick Eckstein will work with the hitters in Baylor's absence.
The fraternity of players who competed with or against the man from Austin, Texas, across 19 seasons in the Majors with six clubs will vouch for Baylor's legendary toughness. It defined him, along with a winning attitude that enriched three World Series teams (1986 Red Sox, 1987 champion Twins, 1988 Athletics) in consecutive seasons.
"When he was on first base and I was playing shortstop," Angels coach Alfredo Griffin said, "I prayed to God, 'Don't let this guy hit me.' He came in really hard, like Frank Robinson. That's how he played the game. He was as tough as anybody."
Baylor played more games (824) with the Angels than any other team and was the franchise's first American League Most Valuable Player Award winner. Along with Nolan Ryan and manager Jim Fregosi, "Groove" led the 1979 outfit to the first postseason experienced by original club owner Gene Autry.
An outfielder who could fly in his youth, Baylor had career highs in homers (39), runs batted in (AL-high 139) and runs scored (league-leading 120) in his MVP campaign, dividing time between left field and designated hitter.
"I worked with him a lot in Spring Training," catcher Hank Conger said. "As the spring went on, we were really working with that 'short to it, long through it' approach -- staying really short and driving the ball up the middle with your swing pattern. I felt really confident with it.
"In the dugout during games, his presence, his demeanor, is really powerful. He stands up for us. He's not afraid to bark at umpires if he thinks you're not getting treated right. It's going to be a tough loss, a tough one to swallow."
Conger said he wasn't aware until after the game of Baylor's 2003 diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a cancer that attacks plasma cells in the bone marrow.
"He's such a big, strong guy," Conger said. "I was kind of in shock. It really hasn't set in yet."
Angels manager Mike Scioscia is confident Baylor will continue to exert an influence on his hitters "even if right now he isn't able to physically get to the ballpark," by watching video and making social media connections. Baylor, on the phone Monday night from the hospital, asked how his hitters had fared in a 10-3 loss to the Mariners.
"He wants to get back and help us get this thing done," Scioscia said. "One thing you can't replace is Donnie's presence."
Trout, who unloaded a two-run homer against Felix Hernandez and lashed a wicked single literally off reliever Charlie Furbush in the opener, took an immediate liking to Baylor during the spring.
"He's real hands-on," Trout said. "I like that. He tells you everything has a purpose. If you roll over, he's on you, telling you what you have to do to get it right. A guy like that, you know he knows what he's talking about."
Asked about Baylor's advice, Hamilton said: "Keep it simple -- and if you see something you like, go after it."
Baylor was a power hitter (338 homers) who made contact, striking out more than 100 times only once in a season. He had a career line of .260/.342/.436 in a pitching-dominated era. Baylor stole 52 bases in 1976 with the A's after leaving the Orioles, his original club, and only three players in history were hit by more pitches than his 267, leading the AL eight times.
"He'd stand right up on the plate," Grififin said, "and nobody could make him move. It didn't matter how hard you threw. He'd never complain, never feel any pain. Amazing."
Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon tried to connect with Baylor on Tuesday.
"I didn't have a chance to visit with him a lot today, but I went over to the hospital," McClendon said. "He was on his way in to surgery, but it was nice to see him. It seemed like he was in good spirits.
"That was tough to see. He's always been an idol of mine. I think he's going to be OK."