Baylor touched hearts as a manager, 'mate

Bichette, Weiss, Helton among those in Rox community mourning beloved 1st skipper

Baylor touched hearts as a manager, 'mate

DENVER -- Even before Dante Bichette became one of the Rockies' earliest stars, manager Don Baylor knew how to ignite the outfielder's underlying confidence.

In the early 1990s, Baylor told Bichette he had the talent to "run the league." After becoming Colorado's manager for the inaugural 1993 season, Baylor made sure the club acquired Bichette, put him in the No. 3 spot in the batting order and watched him blossom into a four-time All-Star.

But it was another confidence-building session that told Bichette more about Baylor, who passed away early Monday from complications from a 14-year battle with multiple myeloma, a cancer that weakens bones.

Rockies first manager Baylor dies at 68

"I was with Milwaukee, and we had a game in Boston," Bichette said. "I had gone to a Gold's Gym, where I met a woman. Then when I went to hit behind the Green Monster, I told [Baylor], 'I met a woman that I think I could marry.'

"And [Baylor] said, 'Well did you ask her out?' I said no, and he made me go ask Mariana out. She eventually became my wife."

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The stories about Baylor on and off the diamond resonate deeply, especially with those connected to the Rockies. Baylor managed them from 1993-98, through a fast rise to contending status and popularity in a region starved for baseball. He returned as hitting coach under Clint Hurdle and Jim Tracy in 2009-10.

Baylor was forceful yet soft-spoken, demanding about baseball but understanding in life. He worked through the illness until leaving as the Angels' hitting coach after the 2015 season. Baylor returned to his childhood home of Austin, Texas, led a committee to restore the church in which he grew up and kept up with baseball. Many in the game didn't know how ill he had been.

Don Baylor passes away at 68

Todd Helton, who was drafted by Colorado in 1995, debuted in '97 and never left, admitted to being shocked. The news brought Helton back to the beginning, when Baylor understood and appreciated his sweet swing, which took a while to produce home runs. Baylor would simply group Helton with Bichette, Vinny Castilla, Larry Walker and other power hitters in batting practice, letting him learn that way.

"[Baylor] was a pull hitter, and he liked for people to be able to pull balls," said Helton, who learned to pull enough balls into a jet stream in right-center and become one of the top power hitters in the early 2000s. "But he told people to leave me alone, let me be who I was, which was huge for me. It gave me a lot of confidence in my swing. It meant a lot for a guy with his pedigree, also being the manager, to do that and say that."

But Helton loved the occasional talks in Baylor's office.

"'Groove' [Baylor's nickname] was a great manager but a better person. He talked to me about more things than just baseball, and with me being a rookie, that meant a lot to me," said Helton, who himself would love to work with young players in similar ways. "He talked to me about the rigors of a baseball season. He talked to me about in-game stuff, and he talked to me about marriage and how hard it is to have relationships being in the big leagues. He really helped me out."

Walt Weiss played with the Rockies from 1994-97, and he appreciated the club identity Baylor established.

"It was, 'We're coming at you, guns a-blazin'," recalled Weiss, who was with the 1996 club that was the first in MLB history to exceed 200 home runs and 200 stolen bases in the same season.

First win in Rockies history

But Weiss recalled Baylor mostly for his presence, which he experienced in 1988, Weiss' rookie Spring Training with the Athletics. It was Baylor's final one as a player.

"On Day 1 of my rookie Spring Training, Groove pulled me [aside] after stretch and he went on for 10-15 minutes," Weiss said. "He did all the talking. He knew that there were questions, because we were going to go with a rookie shortstop, and whether we could be successful. He took the time to talk to me, one-on-one. To this day I remember some of what he said.

"Even being a rookie, he impressed upon me that being the shortstop, I should be the captain of the infield. And he told me to never let a pitcher intimidate me. 'When you step on the field, don't let anyone, Nolan Ryan or anyone, intimidate you.' It was like a father-son talk. Him doing that gave me credibility and gave me a lot of confidence."

Like Weiss, outfielder Ellis Burks was a young player that Baylor mentored -- in 1987 with the Red Sox -- and brought in as a key to early Rockies clubs. Burks will never forget Baylor's unfailing honesty, especially when Burks made a faster-than-expected comeback from a wrist injury in 1995.

Reflecting on Baylor's passing

"I agreed with [Baylor] most of the time, but sometimes I didn't. But he always explained to me why he felt what he was doing was best for the team," Burks said. "He was starting Mike Kingery in center field. I wasn't helping the team as much, because I couldn't really perform like I needed. So for a month, it was what was best for the club; I came off the bench and contributed, then I was back in the lineup by the end.

"Then I was playing for San Francisco, and he was managing the Chicago Cubs. He stopped me one day and said he hoped there were no hard feelings about what he said in the office. I told him no, it was best for the team. A lot of people thought I was mad, but he did the right thing for the team."

Royals vice president of communications and broadcasting Mike Swanson handled media relations for the Rockies in their early days.

"The day before we announced [Baylor] as manager, I told him we were going to do a massive P.R. tour," Swanson said. "We got up at 5 in the morning and hit all the radio and TV stations in the Denver area.

"One of the coolest parts was we were at a stop light and some guy jumped out of his car and ran to the passenger's side, the right side of my car. He hands [Baylor] a real estate card, and says, 'I'm so happy you are our manager.'"

Smith on Baylor's importance

Swanson said he admired the respect that others granted Baylor at the ballpark, and their friendship continued beyond their Rockies days. Swanson and his wife, Renee, and daughter, Rachel, would visit Baylor and his wife, Becky, in Palm Springs, Calif.

Swanson especially cherishes some time away from the ballpark in the early days of the franchise, when Swanson and Renee went with Baylor and his wife to a charity golf event in Aspen, Colo.

"I'm a little ol' P.R. guy, and he asked me to come," Swanson said. "We drove separately but followed the Baylors. About halfway up, [Baylor] turns on his blinkers and we pull off the road. Then walked about 75 feet to a little creek, put down blankets, had wine and cheese and just talked for an hour.

"It's not just me, but one of the best-kept secrets in our little world is the P.R. guys for most clubs spend more time with the manager than they do with their actual families, and it's up to the P.R. guy and the manager how close you get. Don came in and we instantly, and fortunately, hit it off."

Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb and like his Facebook page. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.