Angels hitting coach Don Baylor breaks leg on ceremonial first pitch

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports
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Angels hitting coach Don Baylor breaks leg on ceremonial first pitch

ANAHEIM, Calif. – The season began in ceremony, as they all do, though in this case with the hitting coach in a trembling heap at home plate, which they very rarely do.

And, well, damn, Los Angeles Angels personnel on Monday night loaded 64-year-old Don Baylor into an ambulance, which would ferry him to a hospital, where he would be treated for what the team initially believed was an injury to his lower leg, and by appearances not a minor one. His wife Becky was at his side.

By the seventh inning, the Angels announced Baylor had broken his right femur – the thighbone – and would undergo surgery Tuesday. Baylor was diagnosed 11 years ago with a cancer called Multiple Myeloma, which creates soft spots in – and therefore weakens – the bones, and he'd carried on.

"It just kinda sucks," Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick said. "The first day, that's not how we want to start the season. …A lot of the guys here, they love Groove. To see something like that happen to a good person like Groove, it's tough."

If you didn't know about Baylor's cancer, it's probably because of that; he carries on. Town after town. Job after job. Season after season. He returned to the Angels, for whom he'd played six seasons in the late 1970s and early '80s, this winter as hitting coach. Another town, another job, another season.

Because he would not succumb. Because that is who he is, and what he does. He coaches ballplayers, soothes hitters, leads them.

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On an unusually cool evening at Angel Stadium, it is why, presumably, he agreed to take part in the ceremony that would open this franchise's 54th season. He would catch a lobbed pitch from Vladimir Guerrero, the 2004 MVP to the 1979 MVP, the way baseball likes to link generations like that, and the two of them would shake hands. That would be that. And if the folks here wanted to run that out a little farther, to the 22-year-old at the dugout rail, to Mike Trout and what his future might bring, then they could. Opening day, after all, is just the time and place for those kinds of visions.

They list Don Baylor at 6-foot-1, 190 pounds. Maybe it's how he carries himself, how he talks low and gruff, how he won't suffer fools, but, as they say, he plays bigger. Still the guy, 25 years later, who could turn a fastball and an inning with a swing. Or a glare.

"I'm sure he'll be back," Trout said. "He's a great dude. He knows what he's doing. I hope for him the best. Just a freak accident. Scary. I didn't like looking at it. I didn't want to look."

You have to know the Angels to understand. Stuff happens here sometimes. Going on four years ago, for one, when they'd been to six of eight postseasons and were rolling along as an organization, they carried Kendrys Morales from the same spot where Baylor lay Monday night. Morales had hit a walk-off home run against the Seattle Mariners (the same Mariners who were in town for this season's opener), arrived at home plate and wrecked his leg. Some would say his career.

The Angels wouldn't make the playoffs that season, or in the three since. Morales is long gone and in qualifying offer hell. And the Angels still are working through the process of finding their way back to relevance. They've certainly thrown enough money at it.

So they tried to start over again Monday night, to paddle away from third place and 84 losses. Instead, they'd lose to the Mariners and Felix Hernandez in some of the same ways they did last season, with a Trout home run and a shoddy bullpen. But what was left in the air here was the image of Baylor, strong and proud, trying vainly to stand and get on with it. To carry on. A person nearby said there was no pain in his face, only frustration. In the clubhouse, there with Becky and trainers, waiting on an ambulance, he was said to have been in good spirits.

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The accident, whatever it was, came so innocently.

Guerrero, a beloved figure here, had signed a one-day contract so that he would retire an Angel, then he took the ball and positioned himself some 15 paces from home plate, behind which Baylor took a knee.

Guerrero lit up the place with a smile, and Baylor held up a glove, and the pitch came in a little low and a little wide and a little hot, and the glove was a little slow.

You have to know the Angels to understand, because first came an uneasy murmur from the crowd as Baylor stabbed at the ball and toppled over his right ankle and Guerrero came forward to help Baylor to his feet. Except Baylor wasn't getting up. When Guerrero gave another tug, Baylor's right leg went off in a rather grotesque direction, which alerted the trainers something horrible had happened, and Baylor left with a man under each arm.

He is not a player anymore. But he is one of them, one in the group that would try to turn them. He stood among them. With them. In a couple months, he'd earned that.

"Groove's a pretty tough guy," Kendrick said. "He was struggling. You know it's got to be pretty bad."

So he'll have that surgery Tuesday and then he'll do what he does, which is to carry on. It's always worked before.

Warning: Video of Don Baylor's injury is graphic and not suitable for all viewers.