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YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsDon Baylor

Jim Murray

He's Worn This Badge Many Times

October 25, 1987|JIM MURRAY

MINNEAPOLIS — Guess what? The guys in white won. They'd never get to write "Casey At The Bat" with these two nines. There's joy in Mudville every game.

The shark gets the swimmer back in warm water. The spider gets the fly in the parlor. Francis Marion gets the British in the swamp. The Russians get Napoleon and the Germans in the snow. The Celtics get you on the parquet in the Garden. The riverboat gambler has his seat near the mirror and his own deck. The Minnesota Twins have their air bag.

The St. Louis Cardinals had about as much chance as a guy going to the electric chair.

Listen! You know how baseball is a slave to its superstitions? How it has this unwritten body of shibboleths that no one dares transgress?

You know how they are: Never make the first or third out on third base; play to win on the road and tie at home; never put the winning or tying run on base; with two on and none out, bunt.

And, of course, you bring in a left-handed pitcher to pitch to a left-handed batter. That's written there on Page One. In gold. Abner Doubleday wrote that one first.

So, the Cardinals bring Ken Dayley in to pitch against a big, free-swinging left-hander for the Twins in inning six of the World Series Saturday. Kent Hrbek has this terrible time hitting guys who pitch from the south side of the mound. In fact, he's batting .216 against them. That's on a scale of 1.000. He hit 34 home runs in the regular season. He hit 6 of them against left-handed pitching.

Well, make that 7. Because he hit Ken Dayley's first pitch into the center-field seats Saturday. He knocked The Book--and the ball--439 feet. He also knocked the Cardinals right out of the tree. The bases were loaded at the time.

But one of the guys who was on base at the time was an interesting old party who is as American and baseball as buying some peanuts and crackerjack or stretching in a seventh inning.

Kent Hrbek put the game out of reach Saturday. But Donald Edward Baylor put it in reach.

It's an old habit of his. You may remember last year. Don Baylor was a member of another cast of characters then--the Boston Red Sox. Perhaps you will recall they were trailing the Angels, 5-2, with one out and one on in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the playoff series. The Angels were one strike from the World Series when Don Baylor took a 3-and-2 pitch from Mike Witt and parked it in the left-field seats at Anaheim Stadium.

That hit cost the ballgame and the pennant so far as the Angels were concerned. Because, with the score narrower, the manager took pitcher Witt out and his successor promptly hit a batter, then another pitcher gave up a two-strike homer to someone named Dave Henderson.

Baylor is like that character, Paladin, in the old television series. Have Bat, Will Travel.

Don Baylor brings more than a bat to a lineup. He brings an attitude. Don Baylor is like a grizzled old top sergeant in a war, or the four-striper of a beat-up old destroyer in a task force.

Baylor would be a good part for John Wayne. He never gets excited. He's as unafraid as a dozing lion.

If you're on a team and you look up and see Don Baylor standing there, you tend to feel everything is going to be all right.

For a lot of teams for a lot of years, it has been. Don Baylor has been kicking around this game since he showed up as a 16-year-old in Bluefield, Va., in 1967 and hit .346 and 8 home runs. He never batted under .300 in his minor league career.

Just standing there, Don Baylor looks like a home run about to happen. He's big, calm, matter-of-fact. The guy you'd want with you in a lifeboat, storm, shipwreck, foxhole--or just a World Series.

This is the sixth team Don Baylor has played for to make a championship series and the second to make the World Series.

His team--like the Red Sox in Anaheim last year and other teams other years--was hanging by a thread Saturday. The St. Louis Cardinals, who had won three straight, were leading, 5-2, and had their ace on the mound, John Tudor, when the sixth inning opened.

Two hits had scored a run when Baylor came up. Teammate Gary Gaetti was on second and the game was on the line.

Baylor, typically, was not excited. He batted against John Tudor before when the pitcher was in the American League. He thought he knew what to expect. He got it. A high changeup.

Baylor knew what to do with it. What he did with Witt's breaking ball. What he's done to 334 pitches in his big league career. He hit it out.

The score was 5-5. The score was tied. So, to all intents and purposes, was the World Series.

"That," said Don Baylor, matter-of-factly after the game, "is what they get me for--to hit left handers."

They also get Don Baylor for his steadying influence. A Don Baylor doesn't beat himself.

An imposing figure in that batter's box, Baylor came up in the next inning with runners on second and third and one out.

Pitcher Bob Forsch and the Cardinals' strategists said, No, thanks. They walked Baylor on purpose.

That meant another run when St. Louis changed to a left-handed pitcher and the left-handed batter, Hrbek, hit it out for a four-run home run.

That, too, is what they get Don Baylor for. He scares you, just being there. Pitchers feel their palms sweat, their eye twitch and their infields and outfields back up when Don Baylor steps in.

He doesn't give an inch. He leans so far out over the plate to take the curve away from the pitcher that he has been hit by a pitch more times than a guy in a carnival--255 times a ball has thudded into a part of Don Baylor's anatomy.

Three hundred and thirty-four times, it has thudded in the outfield seats.

He's the baseball version of the gunfighter they hire to save the town, the marshal they get to bring law and order to the territory. He's at his best when it's high noon and it's a shootout between him and the varmints who came to take his badge away. Wyatt Earp was never any deadlier.

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