Don Baylor, who had been seeking a managerial breakthrough the past four years, found the opening he was looking for yesterday in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
The ex-Oriole, whose hard-nosed reputation preceded him at seven major-league stops, was introduced as the first manager of the expansion Colorado Rockies at a late afternoon news conference in Denver.
"To me this is a thrill, a chance to build something from scratch," said Baylor. "There will be a lot of young players, and I want to teach them how to win."
"I am very pleased with the selection of Don Baylor as manager of the Colorado Rockies," NL president Bill White said. "I am gratified one of the National League expansion teams, through an extensive interview process, has chosen a man who has demonstrated strength, leadership, knowledge of the game and all the other qualities we talk about when we discuss hiring managers."
Regarded as a tough, no-nonsense leader during a playing career that spanned 17 years, Baylor has been regarded as a prime managerial candidate since retiring after the 1988 season. While coaching with the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals, Baylor was on the short list for several jobs.
A lack of dugout experience had been considered the major drawback in Baylor's previous interviews. But that was not a deterrent for the Rockies, who begin play next season.
Not that Baylor isn't looking for some success early.
"Just because you're an expansion team doesn't mean you have to look at 100 losses," Baylor said. "I want to go out and be competitive. We're going to be setting goals and No. 1 is attitude -- the way we play and the way we act."
Will he have the patience to deal with a younger team?
Baylor smiled and said, "I still have a teen-age son, you know."
Baylor wasn't much older than a teen-ager when he began his major-league career with the Orioles at age 20. Even though he played only four years here, he has always regarded the Orioles as the team with which he is most closely identified. As the age of free agency dawned, he was sent to the Oakland Athletics in the Reggie Jackson deal shortly before the 1976 season.
After one year with the A's, Baylor signed with the California Angels, where he became the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1979. He went to the New York Yankees in 1983, the Boston Red Sox in 1986, the Minnesota Twins in 1987 and finished in Oakland in 1988. He concluded his career by going to the World Series the last three years, playing on his only championship team in 1987, when he had 49 at-bats with the Twins.
Through it all, Baylor maintained his ties to the Orioles and his appointment yesterday drew a widespread endorsement from those most closely associated with him.
"He's strong-willed and strong-minded," said Orioles assistant general manager Frank Robinson, who was a teammate of Baylor's briefly in 1970 and 1971.
"He's a very intelligent and detailed guy who will listen and learn," said Robinson, who became the first black manager with Cleveland in 1974. "He'll get the attention of people, and he'll get their respect without having to demand it."
It was the presence of Robinson in the Orioles outfield that delayed Baylor's big-league debut by at least a year. And when )) the Orioles felt they no longer could delay Baylor's advancement, it triggered the trade of Robinson to the Dodgers after the 1971 season.
"Even as a young player, he had that air [of leadership] about him," said Robinson. "And the big thing was that he was willing to accept the [leader's] role. A lot of people don't want that added burden."
Earl Weaver was the manager for the four years Baylor played with the Orioles. He echoed Robinson's views.
"I'm elated," Weaver said from his home in Florida. "Any time people that played for you or worked with you go on to manage, it makes you feel good. I think this makes six for me -- Donnie, Frank, Billy Hunter, George Bamberger, Jimmy Frey and Rip [Cal Ripken Sr.] -- and I'm very proud of that," said Weaver, who also managed current Orioles boss Johnny Oates. "As far as a baseball person who knows the game, I don't think they [the Rockies] could have picked a better person."
Former Orioles manager Joe Altobelli managed Baylor for three of his four minor-league seasons, and Ripken was his manager in the other.
"I'm so glad he got a chance," Altobelli said from his home in Rochester, N.Y., where he served last year as the general manager for the Orioles' Triple-A farm club.
"I still remember a play he made in Bluefield [the Orioles' Rookie League team]. We were playing Salem and [former Pirates slugger] Richie Zisk hit a screaming line drive to left field.
"Donnie overran the ball, but reached back and caught it with his bare hand. And, I'm telling you, that ball was smoked," said Altobelli.
A high school football shoulder injury, which left him with a weak throwing arm, ultimately reduced Baylor to the role of full-time designated hitter. He disliked it immensely because he felt the inactivity played havoc with his legs and curtailed his base-stealing ability.
A powerfully built man (6 feet 1, 215 pounds) whose speed was deceptive, Baylor averaged 30 stolen bases and 12 home runs his first eight seasons. His game changed dramatically after that.
Six times he hit 25 or more home runs, three times exceeding 30. He finished with a .260 batting average, 1,276 RBI, 338 home runs and 285 stolen bases. In his last nine years, he hit 241 homers, but had only 46 stolen bases.
"The only drawback he had was that he couldn't throw -- but he worked hard to try and improve himself," said Ripken. "He loved to play and went out every day and did a job. He worked hard to get to the big leagues and when he was finished as a player, he worked hard to get a manager's job. And he'll work just as hard now that he's got it."