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Catching Up With ... Don Buford

BaseballBaltimore OriolesWorld SeriesMilwaukee BrewersMemorial StadiumNew York Mets

His manager, Earl Weaver, called him "the best leadoff man in the game," and who's to argue? In five years with the Orioles, Don Buford batted .270, ran the bases with ferocity and helped the club reach three World Series.

It's no coincidence that, one year after Buford crashed the lineup, the Orioles won 101 games and the first of three straight American League pennants (1969-1971). Twice, he hit .300 or better in the postseason.

In 1969, Buford made history as the first player ever to lead off a World Series with a home run, connecting off the New York Mets' Tom Seaver. A year later, he batted .328 in the playoffs as the Orioles defeated the Cincinnati Reds for the crown. And in 1971, Buford homered twice against Pittsburgh in a seven-game World Series loss to the Pirates.

Moreover, in the 15 World Series games in which he played, Buford — not famed for his glovework — was error-free in left field.

"Remember me as an individual who played hard every game and who loved to win," Buford, 76, said from his home in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

Statistics bear him out. In 10 seasons, the switch-hitting Buford grounded into 34 double plays in 4,553 at-bats, making him the toughest baserunner to double up in big league history, according to the Society of American Baseball Research.

"I see guys today who don't run hard to first base. If you can't do that four times a game, you shouldn't even be out there," he said. "People like to see you play hard, and umpires are human beings. Hustle all the time and, on any close play, maybe you get a little favor from them. That was my psychology."

It's a maxim Buford now preaches as manager of Major League Baseball's Urban Youth Academy, a state-of-the-art complex in Compton that offers free clinics to inner-city kids in southern California.

"We send caravans to elementary and middle schools to entice children to play sports and get an education," he said. "Our goal is to impact their lives. Not everyone can get to the big leagues, but we sure can help them get to college and improve their life skills."

Married 53 years, Buford and his wife, Alescia, have three sons: Don Jr., an orthopedic surgeon and onetime Oriole farmhand; Daryl, an attorney; and Damon, who played 2-1/2 years with the Orioles and who now runs several tanning salons in Arizona.

"I've got pictures of me playing ball with the kids on Father's Day at Memorial Stadium," Buford said. "Those years with the Orioles were the most memorable of my career."

There was the game against the Cleveland Indians in which he homered from both sides of the plate; his four-hit spree in the playoffs against the Minnesota Twins that helped clinch the 1969 American League Championship Series; and the game in which Buford poled a grand slam home run against the Milwaukee Brewers, who'd walked slugger Boog Powell intentionally in order to pitch to the 5-foot-7 Buford.

That was one sweet moment in the Oriole All-Star's life.

"I just wanted the Brewers to know that they'd walked the wrong guy," he said. "When you walk someone to get to me, you've got to pay the price."

He'd joined the Orioles in 1968, a lightweight utility player in a deal that brought pitchers Bruce Howard and Roger Nelson from the Chicago White Sox. Buford proved a bargain, once Weaver became Orioles manager in mid-season and made the spunky outfielder a starter.

Buford homered in Weaver's first game as boss. Had to, he said.

"I wanted to make sure it wasn't a fluke, that I'd be in the lineup for more than one night."

Aggressive to a fault, he was the first Oriole ever to strike out five times in one game. That effort in 1971 cost Buford some dough in the club's Kangaroo Court, a good-natured postgame session of barbs and banter presided over by outfielder Frank Robinson.

"Frank was the judge. He wore a robe with a mop on his head," Buford said. "Many times, court lasted until 1 o'clock in the morning. Once, I was fined for having signed autographs for too long after a ball game."

Good times, all.

"Day in and day out, it was fun," he said. "We went to the park, knowing somebody would come through and that we'd pick each other up."

Buford left after the 1972 season, when his average slumped to .206.

"The Orioles wanted to cut my salary by $10,000 and I said, 'No way,'" he said. "So they sold my contract to a team in Japan, which doubled my salary [to $100,000]."

He later returned to Baltimore, managed in the minors, served as the club's farm director and as a coach on Robinson's staff in 1988.

In 1993, Buford was enshrined in the Orioles Hall of Fame, calling it "an honor I didn't expect. I was just another player who did his best there in a short span of five years."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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BaseballBaltimore OriolesWorld SeriesMilwaukee BrewersMemorial StadiumNew York Mets
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