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?

Probably. The Rockies are damn lucky to have him, and so are we.

Think the Carolina Panthers will be asking their moms if they can sleep with the night-light on? Certainly, they'll be haunted for a while by that classic tale of horror, The Picture of Darrien Gordon. Not once, but twice in the first quarter of Sunday's game at Mile High Stadium, this wraith in navy blue fielded a Ken Walter punt, shot through the snowflakes and a tangle of Panther defenders, and styled his way into the end zone. If you were there, you saw that Gordon appeared to grow younger with every stride.

Thus did the Donks get a 14-0 lead almost before John Elway snapped on his chin strap. Their 34-zip demolition of one of the tougher clubs in the NFC served notice that the letdown at Oakland was a fluke, that the unholy beating Biff and company gave New England was the real thing and that there's no sense sweating about the way Shanahan's boys sometimes have to slip by mediocre outfits like Buffalo and Seattle.

This Sunday horror show, this nightmare the Broncos laid on Carolina, was just the tonic Denver's previously questionable defense needed to fuel a run through the playoffs. After giving up huge rushing yardage to some bad teams and taking a lot of heat for it, defensive coordinator Greg Robinson and the guys on the field have finally said, "Enough." The Broncos yielded only 34 yards on the ground (a Carolina franchise low) and 113 in the air--numbers with a Super Bowl aura about them. It may sound odd that a 9-1 team is having its coming-out party this late in the season, but that's what the sideline looked like Sunday--a celebration of potential fulfilled. Second-class Broncos no more, the defensive players whooped and shouted and held their heads high.

The sparkling "D" was highlighted by a 27-yard Tyrone Braxton interception return for a touchdown. And the offense did its part. Shannon Sharpe caught eight passes for 174 yards, and Terrell Davis added another 104 yards to his rushing total, which now stands at 1,273. It will be a damn shame if he can't raise that to an even two grand over the next six games. And the ageless wonder? Elway managed fifteen completions, 233 yards and a touchdown Sunday, but once again he receded happily into the background of a group portrait that no longer needs him in the front row quite so often.

As for The Picture of Darrien Gordon, it's a horror the Broncos will be happy to rerun at their soonest convenience. Sunday afternoon in Kansas City would do. Or Monday Night, November 24, at Mile High Stadium, when the Raiders come to town to take what could be one of the great revenge beatings of all time. Think Messrs. Shanahan, Gordon and the rest of the boys wouldn't like to give Al Davis nightmares for, say, the rest of his life?


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