Rox in His Head?

Let's hear it for Don Baylor. The Rockies skipper has signed up for another two years' worth of 15-13 games at Coors Field. He's ready to endure another two years' worth of ulcers whenever he looks down at the bullpen and sees the reluctant warriors huddled there, praying they won't have to take the long walk to the mound. Baylor's got another 324 regular-season games' worth of lopsided baseball in front of him, the kind of good-hit, no-pitch stuff the fans seem to love when the club manages its fifth homer of the night in the bottom of the eleventh to squeak by 11-9 but hate when the blinded and battered Rockies relief corps gives up an even half-dozen runs in the eighth and ninth to blow another big lead.

Let's hear it for Don Baylor, glutton for punishment.
He's got a respectable 363-384 record in five years as the Rockies' only manager, but the burden he carries on his broad back is greater than ever, isn't it? In the first order of business, he's got to convince former shortstop and future second baseman Walt Weiss not to split for some needy club that will let him spend his twilight at short, where he belongs. Next Baylor's got to talk Weiss's fellow free agent, Andres Galarraga, out of measuring out his final days in the polyester pajamas with a team that will pay him big bucks to crank homers and drive in runs (290 of them in the last two seasons). Baylor's also got a Dante Bichette problem: What club will now be willing to give up an authentic pitcher for a 34-year-old best suited for designated-hitterdom? As usual, Baylor's got grotesque pitching problems.

Baylor's also got the expansion draft to worry about. Which hidden treasures (what size ring do you wear, Craig Counsell?) will wind up with the Devil Rays and the Diamondbacks? And he's got the Fighting Fish Effect to contend with. When the Florida Marlins, probably the fifth most likely of the game's eight playoff teams to win the World Series, won the World Series, that upped the pressure on the National League's other 1993 expansion team to strut some stuff, too. Little matter that Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga put out $89 million to "buy" a contender. No matter what the anti-capitalist Luddites of the game say, there are some things that money can't buy--like a league championship win over the best pitching staff in baseball. Messrs. Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz and Neagle spent late October munching Cracker Jacks on the couch, just like you and me, and it wasn't because Huizenga sold a couple of extra Ford Tauruses last year.

Let's hear it for Baylor. Against all the odds, he means to pursue Houston Astros starter Darryl Kile, who is 1-1 with an 0.68 earned-run average at Coors Field and has expressed a rare (lunatic, some would say) interest in pitching for the Rox. Of course, he's also interested in a three-year deal with his present team, San Diego or expansion Arizona. What do you think the chances are that this nineteen-game winner in 1997 will actually wind up in purple pinstripes? Really? You've got more faith in humankind's taste for abuse than I do.

What's the secret here? Why has Don Baylor signed up for two more years before the mast? Another two years in which the ghosts of Bill Swift and Bret Saberhagen keep sticking him in the ribs at three o'clock in the morning. Does he think Hideo Nomo is about to join a Kabuki theater troupe or that Barry Bonds is going to quit baseball and open a bar and grill on Union Square? Will Tony Gwynn go away, the Marlins drown at sea and the Braves take up croquet?

Does Baylor believe that general manager Bob Gebhard--a fellow who became about as popular in the Rockies clubhouse last season as a dose of the flu--is suddenly going to blossom into his best pal and a brilliant tactician in the trade/free-agent wars?

Is it the notion that Baylor will now have more to say about player decisions that's keeping him down on Blake Street? Or is it the encouragement he took when his club rose from the pit of hell in late July to finish with its second consecutive 83-79 record?

Who knows? Maybe our hero sticks to his task because he's used to taking hits. Baylor was, after all, struck by more pitches than any other player in major-league history--267 of them, to be exact, over a career of nineteen seasons. As an Oriole, an Athletic, an Angel, a Yankee, a Red Sock and a Twin, he was hit on the chin, in the ribs, on the shoulder, on the kneecap and even a couple of places it's not polite to talk about. In 1986 he was hit by pitches 35 times, an A.L. record. How did he react? Always, he picked himself up, caught his breath and trotted down to first base, more determined than ever to rip the cowhide off the ball in his next at-bat.

Is this a man who, like Napoleon, dares to brave the Russian winter, who can look into that sorry-ass bullpen of his and not blink away the disbelief? Sure looks that way. Is this a guy who can take the hits and the heat even when the most loyal fans in baseball finally begin to get the heebie-jeebies and take off for the realms of barbecue and mountain stream? Probably. Is this the guy who can talk Darryl Kile (or some other savior of the company bacon) into actually buying a place with a pool in Cherry Hills and stepping onto the shell-pocked mound at Coors Field every fifth day? Maybe. Is Baylor the man who won't bail, no matter what?

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