For Don Baylor, Baseball Is a Hit or Be Hit Proposition
Let there be basebrawl. Let there be beanballs, knockdowns, brushbacks and retaliatory bench-clearing melees. At least that's what the newspapers have been full of lately. Head-hunting pitchers and hotheaded batters seemingly have turned the national pastime into hot-weather hockey.
And then—to celebrate the triumph of reason over inflamed passions—let there be Don Baylor, the Boston Red Sox's designated hitter. Plunk the 6'1" 215-pound Baylor with a rock-hard, 90-mph baseball, and he doesn't lose his temper and charge the mound. He just smiles slightly and trots down to first base as if getting hit is all part of his game plan—which it is.
"My first goal when I go to the plate is to get a hit," says Baylor. "My second goal," he continues, "is to get hit." Indeed Baylor does the latter better than anyone in baseball history. It was on June 28, his 38th birthday, that he established a new HBP (hit by pitch) record when he got drilled—by Rick Rhoden of the Yankees—for the 244th time in his 17-year career. That eclipsed the old record held by Ron Hunt (1963-74), the scrappy, much-bruised, much-traded second baseman for five National League teams. Picking up a bat recently in the Red Sox clubhouse, Baylor demonstrates his record-shattering form. "When the ball is inside, I don't back away," he says, striding into an imaginary pitch. "Common sense says back away, but I guess common sense isn't that common. I just stiffen up and take the blow." Though getting hit by a pitch has started dozens of rallies and won a few games for Baylor, it's never cost him a day of work. Of course it has been hard on his fiancée, a flight attendant who sees (and winces through) most of his games, and his son from his first marriage, Don Jr., 14, who spends summers with Baylor.
Baylor has been hit so many times by so many different pitchers, he's become a veritable HBP connoisseur. "Change-ups and slow curves feel like a butterfly, a light sting," he says. "Fast balls and sliders feel like piercing bullets, like they're going to come out the other side." The worst, he says, was the time Nolan Ryan, fastball pitcher supreme, smote him on the wrist with a 95-plus-mph bullet in 1973.
It's neither masochism nor slow reflexes that make Baylor such an easy target. In the never-ending battle between pitchers and batters, being willing to get hit is what Baylor calls "an intimidation factor." As a power hitter, he likes to crowd the plate. "And getting hit is my way of saying I'm not going to back off," he says. When hit, Baylor never allows himself a comforting self-rub or even a quick "ouch"; he wouldn't give the pitcher the satisfaction. Besides, he gets awarded first base for his pains. And in trotting down there, he gets to inflict a little agony of his own. Baylor says he especially relishes getting clobbered when the count is 0-2. "Then I get hit and they just hate it," he says. "It drives 'em nuts."
According to the HBP king, there's considerable method to his apparent madness. Even method as in method acting. On close plays—let's say the ball ticks a hair on his forearm—Baylor has been known to assist the umpire. "Sometimes you can't hear the ball hit," he says. "It just goes breezing across your arm. When that happens I go right to first. I don't wait for a call." Often the bluff, uh, assist, works. A few other practical tips from the master for aspiring HBP champions: Avoid getting hit in cold weather. "Those tend to stick with you a little longer," he says. And try getting hit in well-padded places like the buttocks, back or fleshy part of the arm. "The shin, the wrist and the elbow really smart," says Baylor, who says he's been bopped on nearly every part of his anatomy, including his head. (His helmet has protected him so far, he says.) "And take a glancing blow rather than a direct blow," he adds. "I always tell guys, 'Stay away from direct pitches. Turn away if you can.' "
Of course Baylor is more than just a designated bull's-eye. Playing for five teams, the Austin, Texas, native has hit 330 home runs and has a .261 lifetime batting average. He has long been considered a clubhouse leader, a cum laude student of the game and prime managerial material. If he skippered his own team, would Baylor pass on his unsurpassed skills as the all-time HBP leader? "It's teachable," he says. "It's another weapon guys could use. But I won't be responsible for anyone's broken arms."
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