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Diane Pucin

Don Baylor Looking Forward, Not Back

March 29, 2000|Diane Pucin

MESA, Ariz. — Don Baylor could have been the Angels' manager. He wanted to be. He took the chance, made the move, let it be known that managing the Angels was something he wanted to do.

The Angels didn't call. The Angels had other things to do last fall. Hiring a general manager came first and then it was too late. Don Baylor already had been hired as manager of the Chicago Cubs.

So on a recent spring training day, where the lines of people around the field are three deep, Baylor was not going to talk about the Angels. Baylor is too polite to say that, but it's what he means when he says, "I'm talking about the present and I'm very happy to be where I am."

Baylor is an impressive man. He stands straight as a foul pole. He speaks in a voice of distinction. Loud but not too loud. Loud enough to make you listen, but not so loud that you tune him out.

There is a sense of optimism around the Cubs. More than there is around the Angels. But that shouldn't be so. Many preseason polls that rank all the major league baseball teams, top to bottom, put the Cubs below the Angels. And the Cubs have Sammy Sosa so that means the rest of the team is really bad. But the Cubs had Sammy Sosa last year too and they were terrible, just as terrible as the Angels.

Here they were, then, in Mesa last week before they took off for Japan, everybody smiling and Baylor standing behind home plate saying that he is a positive person and that he is positive he will make the Cubs better than last year.

"Absolutely," Baylor says.

"Don Baylor, he brings us a positive attitude," says Sosa. Sosa knows about positive attitudes. Sosa always has a positive attitude. Sosa is the one player who has acted as if he's enjoying himself in Japan where the Cubs and Mets are opening the season.

"How can you not respect Don Baylor," Mark Grace says. Grace, who grew up in Tustin, knows about respect. Grace has played for the Cubs forever. "Well, maybe not forever," Grace says, "but it seems that way. What you see with Don is a man who played the game, played it well, played it for a long time and he knows how to be a major league ballplayer."

Several Cubs have noted this spring that many Cubs last year didn't exactly know how to be major league players. That there was too much worry about "me" and not enough about "team."

Funny, that's what they were saying about the 1999 Angels too.

There has been some grumbling among the Cubs that Sosa is too concerned about hitting home runs and not enough about being a good outfielder, smart baserunner, savvy situational hitter. Heck, there have even been complaints about how loud Sammy plays his boom box in the clubhouse.

So it's not hard to understand why Baylor would prefer not to talk about the job he doesn't have. He has plenty of problems with the job he does have.

Mike Scioscia may become a very good manager with the Angels. He is young and enthusiastic, optimistic and energetic. He had, same as Baylor, a distinguished playing career. But Baylor was the Angel as a player and so it is a pity he is in Chicago. For Baylor is more than a former Angel. He is a good man.

When he was an Angel, Baylor started a charity called the 65 Roses Sports Club of Anaheim. Baylor started the club because he once met a little boy, a sick little boy who couldn't say the name of his disease. The way the little boy told Baylor that he had cystic fibrosis, it sounded to Baylor like the little boy was saying "65 roses." All during his playing career Baylor would visit hospitals, all over the country, helping spread the word about his own charity.

You don't see behavior like that much among baseball players. This big, strong man who would cut the sleeves off his shirt no matter how cold the weather is also not afraid to have humanity, to behave as a good man should behave. Baylor doesn't preach about morals, he is just moral. He doesn't preach about how to act like a major league player. He just acts like one, even now.

Baylor did set some rules with the Cubs. Dump the cell phones in the clubhouse, on the field, in the workplace, Baylor has said. And keep out the friends, the families, the celebrity guests, the agents too. If this edict seems aimed at Sosa, who has become a worldwide dignitary, that's not the case, Baylor says. It's just aimed at professional behavior.

Around Baylor, you have to be optimistic. He has been an American League MVP (with the Angels); he played in three World Series (with the Red Sox, Twins and Oakland); he was National League manager of the year (with the Colorado Rockies). So he has done it, done everything, done it well. Why won't Baylor be a success at his new job?

The one in Chicago, not in Anaheim.


Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address:

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