Remembering Groove: 25 years ago Don Baylor got the Rockies off on the right foot

This story originally appeared in Mile High Sports Magazine. Read the full digital edition.

The ambiance and anticipation of Spring Training was a new and special experience for fans that followed the Colorado Rockies to Tucson, Ariz. in the spring of 1993 for the expansion team’s first spring session.

The Rockies at the time were a team of names gathered through free-agency signings and the expansion draft earlier in the winter, and for the first time the players were on the field for all to see. For the long-waiting fans for Major League Baseball, they could finally see players on the field in uniforms that identified them as their team.

For most of the fans, as well as those of us from the Denver and local media, those early days at Hi Corbett Field 25 years ago provided an introduction to manager Don Baylor.

Baylor wasn’t a baseball stranger. Most everyone knew of his long and distinguished playing career from a distance, but now he was just a few feet away in a Rockies uniform, working to get his team ready for its first season in the National League.

Bob Gebhard, the Rockies’ first general manager, had good reasons for putting Baylor in the manager’s chair even though it was Baylor’s first baseball experience as a manager.

“I think our team will play the game hard all the way – just like Don played the game,” Gebhard told all of us watching the preparations at Hi Corbett. “I don’t think our team will fade at the end as other expansion teams had done.”

Baylor promised a team that would concentrate on fundamentals.

“I think it can mean a dozen more victories if we just throw to the right base, hit the cutoff man, and keep the double-play in order by throwing to the right base,” Baylor said.

Baylor had his words for those who theorized that expansion teams were destined for 100 losses in their first season.

“There’s nothing that says that just because it’s an expansion team that it has to lose 100 games,” Baylor said, while making it clear that this wasn’t a subject to dispute. “I don’t know whoever wrote that rule or why we’re still talking about it.”

Gebhard remains active in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. When contacted, he gladly took time out of his Spring Training duties to reminisce about his first Rockies manager. It still was difficult for him to accept that Baylor had died Aug. 7, 2017, at 68 years old, from cancer.

“Don not only was our first major league manager, but he brought a lot more to the table,” Gebhard said. “The fans really took to him, and he definitely was the on-field face of the organization. He was intense, and he had a tremendous desire to win.”

Baylor was four years removed from a 19-year major league playing career when he took the helm for the Rockies. The player at times overruled the manager. When Spring Training progressed to the preseason schedule, Baylor often kept the media waiting for postgame comments while he paced and fumed if the Rockies lost. It was as if it had been a World Series game.

“It was Don’s first managerial job and we knew it would take some time to adjust from being a player,” Gebhard said. “That was one of the reasons we brought Don Zimmer on to the coaching staff.”

Zimmer was a baseball veteran and Gebhard hoped he could help Baylor to better make the transition.

Baylor’s first coaching staff consisted of Zimmer, Jerry Royster, Amos Otis, Ron Hassey and Larry Bearnarth. Rick Mathews was brought up from the minor-league area during the season to become bullpen coach. However, Matthews went back to the minor-league operation before the season ended and was replaced by Bill Plummer, a former manager of the Seattle Mariners. Other members of the media who had been involved with an expansion team told me that the first few years would be among the career highlights. They were right.

One of the favored memories concerned first baseman Andres Galarraga, who was thought to be washed up around baseball circles. Gebhard brought in Galarraga as a free agent and Baylor, who had been Galarraga’s hitting coach the year before in St. Louis, went to work. Baylor had Galarraga adjust to a more open hitting stance at the plate and the Big Cat went on to lead the National League in hitting at .370. It was the first time that a player on an expansion team had been the top hitter in a league.

“Don Baylor had a lot to do with Andres’ success,” Gebhard said. “Galarraga trusted him from their experience in St. Louis.”

Baylor was under a microscope as a rookie manager as the Rockies’ first Spring Training opened. He had ignored opportunities to manage in the minor leagues, noting that players such as Pete Rose had walked right from the playing field to a manager’s chair in the big leagues.

Those early days in Hi Corbett Field were a little tense. Manager, coaches and players were basically strangers. The players wondered where their careers were going. Most of them had not been protected from the expansion draft. One day early in the spring, reserve catcher Danny Sheaffer, who had not said more than a couple of words before, stepped forward to break the ice. During the mid-day break, Sheaffer suddenly hollered: “There are worms in the chili!”

Outfielder Daryl Boston picked up the prank, grabbing a waste can and faking a barf that was heard throughout the clubhouse.

The tension melted and the first Rockies team was assembled. Baylor became “Groove” to his players, a nickname given to him as a player.

As that first season continued, Baylor became more comfortable with functioning as a manager instead of as a player. Early tension between the manager and some members of the media was smoothed over and pretty much forgotten by the next season.

Baylor managed the Rockies for six seasons, compiling a 440-469 record (.484 winning percentage). In the strike-shortened 1995 season, the Rockies won a Wild Card berth in the playoffs. The Rockies lost the first-round, best-of-five series to the Atlanta Braves 3-1. But it was the fastest trip to the payoffs for an expansion team and Baylor was selected as NL Manager of the Year.

Coors Field opened that year as one of the highlights of Baylor’s managerial career. But none of us would ever forget the first major league game played in Denver. The date of April 9, 1993, is a landmark in Denver’s sports history. A crowd of 80,227 jammed into Mile High Stadium to usher the big leagues into the Rocky Mountain region. Second baseman Eric Young set the stage with a home run to left field leading off the bottom of the first inning. Baylor started veteran right-hander Bryn Smith, who came through with seven scoreless innings, and the Rockies won 11-4.

Baylor was replaced as manager after the 1998 season by Jim Leyland. However, he returned to the Rockies as hitting coach for two seasons, 2009 and 2010, reaching the playoffs again with Colorado in 2009.

The early days of the Rockies franchise still command a prominent place in Gebhard’s baseball memories.

“Absolutely Don Baylor was the right person to be our first manager,” Gebhard said. “We started with a list of about 12 candidates. We brought the top four in for interviews. We were sure Don Baylor was our manager.”