I never shared this story with Don Baylor.
I thought it would be weird since I was a professional baseball writer and he was, at any given time during my career, a manager, a hitting coach, a TV analyst.
Sportswriters like to think of ourselves as being above fandom – we take our work seriously and try never to blur the line between personal and professional.
But we all started out as wide-eyed kids who fell in love with sports along the way.
So, I’m sharing a personal story today about Baylor, the former Oriole who played 19 seasons in the majors and won an AL MVP with the California Angels in 1979. He died early Monday morning after a lengthy battle with multiple myeloma.
Baylor was my first favorite athlete.
I suppose Brooks Robinson could claim that title, but I really inherited fandom of Robinson from my older brothers and sisters.
Baylor was mine solely, because of a tremendously weird interaction back in the early 1970s – 1973 or 1974, I believe.
My mom, who passed away in 2011, was a character. She loved her family, and she always had a crazy idea or two swirling around her brain to make our lives more fun or interesting.
I was the subject of one of those back when I was styling and profiling as a preschooler. My Mom wanted to get me on Romper Room, the syndicated children’s TV show that originally filmed in Baltimore.
Somehow, she was successful, and for a week in the early 1970s, I hung out with Miss Sally and Do-Bee, the now-disturbing, gigantic bumblebee that flitted around the set.
My show biz debut was an inauspicious one. About halfway through the first show, I looked into the camera and, in a voice that could be heard clearly, I said, “When are we getting the donuts, that’s the only reason I came on this show?”
I’m not kidding. My mother was aghast. Miss Sally laughed it off. When we got home from the studio, there were baked goods on our porch from neighbors who were watching, and felt sorry for the little kid who was confectionary-sugar deprived.
That line is legendary in my family. And it apparently made the TV producers laugh. Because when my week of fame was up, they invited me back for another week, which was unheard of back in the day – a continuing gig on Romper Room.
My brush with childhood stardom lasted two weeks; then I was done.
But those were two pretty cool weeks – though I only really remember them because we had boatloads of pictures and even one reel-to-reel video of that magical time. Among the guests during my tenure on Romper Room were a zookeeper, an offensive lineman for the Colts and an outfielder for the Baltimore Orioles.
That player was Don Baylor. And he was looking for a volunteer on the show to swing a bat and use a glove. I was more than willing to be the living model. We bonded, for 10 minutes or so.
I came home from that experience positive I’d be a professional baseball player. And Baylor immediately became my favorite Oriole. The family story goes that every time Baylor was shown on TV during Orioles games from that point forward, I would announce that that was my friend, Mr. Baylor. Apparently, I was a name-dropper from the get-go.
I remember being angry that the Orioles traded Baylor in 1976 for Reggie Jackson, and was torn when Baylor won the AL MVP over Baltimore’s Ken Singleton in 1979. I wanted Baylor to win, but I couldn’t tell anyone that deeply rooted secret. I’ve kept it buried until now. Sorry, Kenny.
As I continued up the ranks in my own failing athletic career, I often wore the No. 25, which was Baylor’s Orioles’ number.
Years later, I interviewed Baylor several times, mainly about his interest in managerial or hitting coach vacancies with the Orioles, which were plentiful during those dark days of the 2000s. He always seemed to be a good fit because he had experience, success, and an Orioles pedigree (he was selected in the second round of the 1967 draft, debuted with the Orioles in 1970 and was a key outfielder for them from 1972 to 1975).
He never got those jobs. And I never told him about our time together on the Romper Room set. Strangely, it just never came up in conversation.
I’m sure he would have laughed about it, though. He was an exceptionally nice man, who always returned my calls and was always thrilled to talk baseball.
His death was felt by many in and out of the sport today. He touched so many, whether it was as the Colorado Rockies first manager or a long-time player and hitting coach.
My interaction with him was brief. And, really, sort of bizarre. But it made a positive impact on me as a child, and one that I carried with me a little as I grew older.
And isn’t that one of the best things about sports?
The connections that you make that remind you of a simpler time.
When I think about Don Baylor, I think about a tough, talented baseball man who left this world too soon.
But I also think about my late mom, about Miss Sally, about free donuts and about some odd human bumblebee.
And I smile a little.