Baylor kept bond to Angels through charity
From first stint to return, connection rooted in fight against cystic fibrosis
ANAHEIM -- Thirty-one years had elapsed and 13 stops had been made since the last time Don Baylor wore an Angels uniform.
After serving as their designated hitter for the last time in 1982, and before becoming their hitting coach last month, Baylor went to New York, Boston, Minnesota and Oakland to finish out his playing career and traveled through Milwaukee, St. Louis, Colorado, Atlanta, Chicago, Queens, Seattle, Colorado again and Arizona in an exhaustive trek as a manager and coach.
But through it all, there's been one constant: the charitable golf tournament he's maintained in Southern California for the last 35 years, a platform that has helped him raise more than $5 million in the fight against cystic fibrosis.
It's why leaving the D-backs for the Angels was such an easy decision, even if it wasn't for a promotion.
It's why his ties here are so strong, regardless of the other places he's been.
"It's all encompassed," Baylor said. "The fans, they were great to me. They kind of put me on the map early, when I became a member of the first two championship teams in '79 and '82, won the MVP there. It's all together. The charity work is a big part of it. That means I have to do a lot more now, because I'm there now. I'm not long distance. But that's OK."
Baylor welcomes it. Charity work is something he's long embraced.
"I kind of grew up that way," he said. "My mom was a church worker, my dad was a deacon. We've always given back. That's kind of all I knew, really."
Baylor admits he didn't even know how to pronounce cystic fibrosis when he first got involved in 1978, at the urging of his dentist.
The very next year, Baylor was named the American League's Most Valuable Player, becoming the first in franchise history to win the award, and the Angels marched to their first division title under the motto "Yes We Can." Baylor took that phrase and spun it towards finding a cure for cystic fibrosis:
"Yes You Can," until they can finally say, "Yes We Did."
Sixty-five businessmen pledged $10 for each home run the Angels hit up to 100, then $1 for every additional one. (They hit 164 that year, tied for fifth most in the Majors.) President Richard Nixon personally wrote checks, the Yankees and Rangers also got involved, "And then the next thing you know, it kind of exploded all over Major League Baseball," Baylor said. "Everybody wanted to be a part of that cystic fibrosis 65 Roses Club."
The name "65 Roses" came from his doctor friend, who used the term to help children pronounce the disease they were born with.
When Baylor first heard about the genetic disorder, which most critically affects the lungs and digestive system, he thought about his own son, Donnie, who was 8 at the time. And when it first hit home, he was at an overnight camp for kids around Donnie's age, listening to them talk about the troubles they faced with cystic fibrosis.
The golf tournament would become Baylor's answer. It grew bigger every year, and Baylor made it a point to attend no matter where his career had taken him. He missed it while playing in the World Series each year from 1986-88 -- with the Red Sox, Twins and A's, respectively -- so he then pushed it back to the first week of November.
Through the years, several Angels luminaries have taken an active role, from Bobby Grich to Wally Joyner to Marcel Lachemann to the current co-host, manager Mike Scioscia.
"He's a great auctioneer," Baylor said of the man he'll now work under. "I'm the straight guy, and he's the guy that slams them over the head and gets the money."
This year's tournament in Buena Park, Calif., raised over $250,000 and came immediately after the three-day Ultimate Golf Experience in Newport Beach, Calif., which brought in more than $600,000. Since Baylor got involved, life expectancy for the disease has gone from 8 years old to 41. Eradicating it entirely, he says, "is coming close."
This Thanksgiving will be Baylor's first without his father, who passed away in April. More than 60 family members will gather in his hometown of Austin, Texas, to give thanks, and Baylor will look forward to the start of Spring Training three months later. He's already touched base with several of his new hitters, including Josh Hamilton, his most important project.
"I told him I kind of know what you've gone through, because I had to go through the same thing my first year in Anaheim," Baylor recalled. "I said, 'You've gone through the hardest part. Now you can relax and be who you are.' I expect him to be that."
Baylor came to the Angels as a heralded free agent in November 1976 and batted .220 in his first three months, hearing boos while suffering through a losing season. But then he turned it around, built a sparkling five-year career in Anaheim and, along the way, established the life-changing foundation that has always been at the forefront.
Now he's back in the place he considers his second home.
"I never really left the Angels in my heart," Baylor said. "It was always there. I might have been gone for a while, but I always watched what the Angels did. When they won the championship [in 2002], I said, 'I wish I was there.'"
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.