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Former Orioles slugger and MLB manager, hitting coach Don Baylor dies at 68

As Jim Palmer rehabilitated his shoulder in the Orioles’ Florida Instructional League in 1968, he met Don Baylor.

The team’s second-round draft pick a year earlier had a tenacity on the field that impressed Palmer from the start. Palmer didn’t want to go against him — even outside of baseball.

So, every Monday when the players had off and played flag football on the beach, Palmer requested to be on Baylor’s side. The two formed a friendship, much like Baylor did with his teammates throughout what would become a 19-year major league career.

Baylor, an Orioles player from 1970 to 1975 who later became a major league Most Valuable Player, manager and coach, died Monday from complications from multiple myeloma. He was 68. His son, Don Jr., first confirmed the death to Baylor’s hometown paper, the Austin American Statesman.

“He was one of those generational players where if you were across the field, you’d go, ‘Gee, I wish I had him on my team,’ ” Palmer said. “If you were lucky enough to have him on your team, you realized he respected the game, he played the game the right way.”

Breaking into the major league lineup for a team that had won at least 90 games in five of the previous six seasons was difficult, former Orioles second baseman Bobby Grich remembered. He came up through the minor leagues with Baylor, debuting the same season, and rooming together on the road in 1971 and 1972.

In spring training during one of their early seasons, Grich recalls a reporter asking Baylor about earning time in a crowded outfield. “If I get into one of my grooves, there’s no stopping me,” Baylor responded.

That’s how Baylor earned his nickname, “Groove.” While teammates teased him for the brash answer, they marveled at his ascent.

During his time in Baltimore, Baylor had a .274 batting average with 57 home runs and 229 RBIs. The production helped the club win three AL East titles, five times recording at least 90 wins.

“He was humble, he was polite, he was respectful,” said Grich, who estimated he played 16 seasons with Baylor from the minor leagues to the Orioles to the then-California Angels. “And yet at the same time, he was a tenacious competitor.”

That, combined with his prowess as an outfielder and first baseman, made Baylor a key trade commodity when the Orioles dealt him, Mike Torrez and Paul Mitchell to the Oakland Athletics in return for Reggie Jackson, Ken Holtzman and Bill VanBommell before the 1976 season.

When Baylor departed, Palmer remembers manager Earl Weaver’s proclamation to reporters: “Eventually, he’s going to be a Most Valuable Player.”

As a free agent the next year, Baylor signed with the Angels, the team with which he’d make good on Weaver’s prediction. In his six seasons with the franchise, he emerged as one of the league’s best power hitters. He was an All-Star and American League MVP in 1979 after leading the majors in RBIs (139) and runs (120) while playing all 162 games.

In seasons with the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins afterward, Baylor won three Silver Slugger awards and displayed his penchant for standing close to the plate. Baylor ranks fourth in major league history for getting hit by a pitch 267 times.

“He was fearless at the plate,” Grich said. “He dared somebody to throw a strike.”

Baylor reached the World Series in three consecutive years, with the Red Sox in 1986, the Twins in 1987 and the Athletics in 1988, winning the title with Minnesota.

Baylor has a career .260 batting average with 338 home runs and 1,276 RBIs.

After his playing career, Baylor manned the Colorado Rockies for six years, starting when the franchise began in 1993. The Rockies’ first playoff appearance in 1995 earned Baylor recognition as National League Manager of the Year. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Baylor is one of four people to receive both MVP and Manager of the Year. Frank Robinson, Joe Torre and Kirk Gibson are the others.

“His impact on the baseball world was just phenomenal,” Palmer said. “He was one of the great players of my era.”

After Baylor managed the Chicago Cubs from 2000 to 2002, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, according to his family, and began a 14-year battle against the cancer.

Baylor is survived by his wife, Rebecca, son, Don Jr., and two granddaughters.

“Don passed from this earth,” Rebecca said in a statement, “with the same fierce dignity with which he played the game and lived his life.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

ccaplan@baltsun.com

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