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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Toronto Sports History: Bob Bailor. He just wanted to play.

Bob Bailor was one of the first Toronto Blue Jays to make an impact. He didn't last long with the team, but for the first two years of the franchise he could be considered their best and most successful player.
 He was born Robert Michael Bailor on July 10, 1951 in Connellsville, Pennsylvania. In high school he played basketball but not baseball. 
 The odds were against Bailor making it as a professional baseball player. There aren't many major league players who didn't play high school baseball. Spring in Connellsville is so cold that many schools did not field baseball teams. His high school,  Geibel High was one of those schools, and the 5'10" Bailor made his athletic reputation there as an all-state basketball player.

 However, he played American Legion baseball and his coach on that team had ties to the Baltimore Orioles organization. In 1969, at age 18 he was signed as a free agent by the Orioles.

It’s very unusual for a baseball player to make it to the major leagues who never played high school baseball, but that is exactly what Connellsville native Bob Bailor did. However, it was a long road and in the end luck played a heavy role in making it happen.

Bailor started at rookie league Bluefield in 1970, moving to short-season Aberdeen in 1971. He made AA Asheville in 1973. He also got a brief look that year at AAA Rochester.

He garnered some attention by hitting .340 with a .423 on-base percentage and 50 RBI in 68 games at low-A Aberdeen at age 19. The following year (1972), he led the Class A California League with 63 stolen bases, nearly double the 32 steals of runner-up Jerry Remy. Bailor also hit .290 that season for Lodi, though he mustered only 21 extra-base hits. He was a .288 hitter with a .359 slugging percentage in parts of 7 minor league seasons in the Baltimore organization.

He debuted in Baltimore as a September call-up in 1975. He got into five games, getting one hit in seven at bats. He returned for nine more games in 1976, serving as a backup for an extended period.

 “We were kind of backed up when I started progressing through the farm system,” Bailor stated. “I played the infield - all the infield positions, but they had Brooks Robinson and Mark Belanger and Bobby Grich so Earl Weaver asked me to go out in the outfield and they had Don Buford, Paul Blair and all these gold glove outfielders so it was tough. But you just had to keep grinding and try to make a name for yourself.”

Bailor was originally an infielder, but at the time the Orioles had the tandem of Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger and Bobby Grich, so there was no way he was going to crack the lineup and remained a minor leaguer for 7 years. All three of those players were all stars and had been there for a very long time. By 1976, it appeared Bailor's career was going nowhere. Even though he had made the Orioles in 1976 as the backup shortstop to Mark Belanger, he wanted to play. He actually asked to be sent down to Rochester, the AAA affiliate to get some playing time. That would pay off when it came time for the Blue Jays to draft their new team.

 "I asked to be sent down to Rochester about the middle of last (1976) season. It became a question of whether I wanted to play or be in the big leagues. I figured I could DH in Rochester and play a bit. All of a sudden being in the big leagues didn't mean that much to me. I just wanted to play."

 He remained in Baltimore's talent-heavy farm system until the Blue Jays took notice of him as they began to select players to build their first year expansion team for 1977.

"He was the best shortstop available," Toronto GM Peter Bavasi told The Canadian Press of Bailor's selection. "We've said all along we'll concentrate on building strength up the middle. That's why we picked him."

  In 1977, Bailor got his big break as The Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners were added to the league.

The Blue Jays made him their first pick in the expansion draft and he primarily played outfield for them for two seasons. Immediately he was a starter and one of the best hitters in the league.  That first season, 1977,  he led the team with a .310 batting average and as a leadoff hitter he was known as one of the toughest batters to strike out in the league.

  Best known for his speed and for being difficult to strike out, Bailor holds the record at 51 at-bats with the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays at the start of his major league career before striking out for the first time. 

Kansas City's Dennis Leonard, one of the top pitchers in the league at that time and  the pitcher who most consistently stopped Bailor, said,

 "I struck him out five times on really tough pitches, sliders that were low and away. He rarely goes after a bad pitch. He's an intelligent hitter, a good, scrappy player."

 He was named the Blue Jays player of the year for the first two years. By the third season his production declined drastically. Bailor's .310 average in 1977 was followed in 1978 when he  hit .264. His average fell even further in 1979, hitting .229. He stayed with the Blue Jays through 1980 when he was traded away after that season to the New York Mets for Roy Lee Jackson in 1981 before the start of the fourth season. Being a small town boy, the trade to the Mets was a shock to him.

“It was kind of a shock to me,” Bailor explained. “I lived in Manhattan and going there as a visiting player - you knew you were going to leave in three days, but coming from Connellsville and then living in New York City was kind of a shock.”

 Bailor played for the Mets until 1983 when he was sent to the Los Angeles Dodgers along with Carlos Diaz for Ross Jones and Sid Fernandez.
He went on to play for the Dodgers before retiring in 1986 at the age of 34. He had played parts of 11 seasons in the major leagues from 1975-1986.

 During his career, Bailor played shortstop, second base, third base as well as all three outfield positions.  This flexibility as a position player led to Bailor's reputation as a very versatile player and kept him in the big leagues for longer than he might have otherwise lasted.

“Later when I was managing in the minor leagues sometimes kids would get upset about moving around and I would use myself as an example. You learn other positions and you are more valuable - there’s nothing wrong with moving around if it keeps you in the big leagues,” Bailor stated.

 Bailor also enjoyed fishing and hunting and took a liking to Ontario because of that.

 That's why I think Toronto is such a nice city. It's expensive, but there's a lot of good fishing. Southern Ontario's got salmon, and an hour north there are pike." Bailor so enjoyed the local fishing that early last season (1977) he regularly arose before dawn and headed for the lakes, spitting tobacco juice into a cup as he drove along with the sun roof open on his Cordoba. Idyllic, yes, but tiring. "It got to be too much," he says. "I found you can't fish all day and hit all night, so I decided to quit fishing. But I still fish on off days. I caught a 20-pound salmon in Ontario, and next winter I'm going to Alberta to hunt moose. I met a guy at a banquet who invited me to go up there."

 After his playing career, Bailor went on to manage teams at the minor league level. At first he was reluctant to manage, but got to like it after he started.

 “I managed one year in A ball in Dunedin, FL and I spent four years at Syracuse, which is their Triple, A club,” Bailor stated. “I enjoyed managing, but when they talked to me about it I wasn’t too sure I wanted to do it. As I kept going on and on I really enjoyed it.”

 The Toronto Blue Jays organization hired him in 1987 to manage the Dunedin Blue Jays. Bailor later went on to manage the Syracuse Chiefs from 1988 to 1991. From 1992 until 1995, Bailor served as a coach with the Toronto Blue Jays. He was the first base coach on the Blue Jays World Series teams.

 “The first two-years I was there we won World Series,” Bailor gushed. “We beat Atlanta and Philadelphia. Getting two rings was something - it was a long wait. I think it would have meant more to me as a player, but getting it as a coach and part of an organization it was exciting and it still is looking back on it.”

 Bailor left the Blue Jays two years later when Toronto fell on hard times and changed the coaching staff. He retired at that point from baseball.

 He now lives in Tampa, Florida and  does a lot of fishing and hunting. . He still has a house in Connellsville and a hunting cabin in a nearby County. It was a long road but Bob Bailor achieved his dreams and ended up where he started.

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