Memories remain: Baylor's '79 Angels magical
Slugger's big season gave club division flag, first taste of playoffs
ANAHEIM -- Even now, Don Baylor can hardly walk around this city without being stopped by fans eager to chat with him, take a picture alongside him or simply say they met the man most responsible for their first taste of postseason baseball more than 30 years ago.
In 1979, Baylor -- now the Diamondbacks' hitting coach -- led an 18-year-old Angels franchise to its first American League Championship Series with an MVP performance that made him a legend of sorts in Southern California.
But the beginning of Baylor's Angels tenure was hardly uplifting.
Desperate to achieve a palpable level of success, then-owner Gene Autry funded a facelift for his team's lineup during the 1976-77 offseason, the first year of free agency after the reserve clause had been struck down by an arbitrator.
Shopping in an open market for the first time, Autry signed three stars, all in a matter of eight days: Baylor to be the designated hitter, Joe Rudi to play left field and Bobby Grich to be the shortstop (he would return to second base in 1978).
But Grich hurt his back and didn't play past June 8, and Rudi broke his hand and missed the last three months of the season. So there was Baylor, hitting just .237 through the first four months, watching his team lug through an eventual 74-88 season and experiencing an array of boos from an Angels fan base that expected more out of its new slugger.
"I was the lone soldier out there by myself," Baylor said, "and I took some abuse."
Baylor had come up with the Orioles, was dealt to the Athletics for Reggie Jackson a year before free agency, then signed a six-year, $1.6 million contract with the Angels mostly because of the ties he had with several members of the organization -- general manager Harry Dalton had been the GM in Baltimore, Grich came up with him through that system and Rudi shared the same agent.
Baylor came in with the nickname "Groove," but early on, he was having a hard time finding it.
"In Baltimore, I just kind of was coming into my own with the club I came up with, but now you had to prove yourself all over again, and that's what I had to do in Anaheim," Baylor, now 62, said. "I didn't flip anybody off, I didn't throw anything in the stands or nothing. But it was hard. As a professional player, it was tough. No doubt."
In the ensuing 1978 season -- which ended tragically with the September murder of young star outfielder Lyman Bostock -- the Angels turned it around, going 87-75 to finish five games behind the AL West-champion Royals. Baylor himself posted career highs in homers (34) and RBIs (99) -- and would use those stats as a motivating tool for next season.
"That offseason," Baylor said, "I just told myself, 'Thirty-four and 99 no one remembers, at all. Thirty-five and 100 they do.'"
A couple of trades with the Twins, which brought right fielder Dan Ford in December and first baseman Rod Carew in February, went a long way in helping Baylor improve those numbers and gave manager Jim Fregosi enough firepower to complement a pitching staff that included Nolan Ryan, Frank Tanana and Dave Frost.
Then, just before the All-Star break, a thrilling three-game home sweep of the mighty Yankees put the Angels at 55-38, gave them a two-game cushion of first place and served as a defining moment for the club and its fans.
"That turned the '79 season around for us," Baylor remembers. "We had a lot of heroes that Friday-Saturday-Sunday. It was just unbelievable. You look out on the freeway -- that's when you could look over out on the left-field and center-field fence and you can see the freeway out there -- just people dying to get into the ballpark. They wanted to see the Angels play."
Long before Barack Obama used it to spark his presidential campaign, Angels fans deployed the term "Yes We Can!" as a rallying cry. And they translated "RBI" into "Runs Baylored In" as a testament to the great season the cleanup hitter was having.
Baylor posted a .296 batting average, hit 36 home runs, swiped 22 bases, led the league with 120 runs and 139 RBIs, and played in every single game en route to becoming the Angels' first AL Most Valuable Player after leading them to a then-franchise-record 88 wins.
What impressed teammates most about Baylor wasn't the way he achieved success, but how he persevered through struggles -- like the ones that prompted harsh treatment from fans before they had come to adore him.
"I learned a lot by just watching Don and the way he carried himself," said Ike Hampton, an Angels teammate who was up and down in the Majors for six seasons and now oversees Major League Baseball's Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif. "I think what probably stood out most in my mind was that he never made excuses. It was all about going out, taking care of business and giving it 110 percent."
But the 1979 Angels were no match for Earl Weaver's Orioles, who limited Baylor to a .188 batting average while taking the best-of-five ALCS in four games, bringing an abrupt end to what had been an uplifting season in Anaheim.
"They just kind of had the mojo going, really," Baylor said. "I don't know if they had a better club, but we were young and really not ready to win at that time."
The Angels would return to the ALCS in 1982, losing to the Brewers in five, and Baylor finished his six seasons in Anaheim batting .262 with 141 homers. Eventually, he would get his World Series ring -- with the Twins in '87 -- and would finish his career with 338 home runs in 19 seasons.
But perhaps, in all those years, no one season mattered to the locals more than the 1979 campaign did for those success-starved Angels fans.
"They were into it," said Baylor, who still holds his 65 Roses Golf Classic for cystic fibrosis in Orange County. "It was a tremendous year. I'll never forget it. It was pretty special for me, going back to a little guy from Austin, Texas, who made an impact all the way out west. It was pretty special."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.