Don Baylor, baseball's preeminent jurist, is in deep deliberation now, studying the remains of the ham sandwich in question. It was found in the locker of Red Sox outfielder Dwight Evans unacceptably close to game time. The customary fine in Boston's kangaroo court for such an offense is $5. But Evans objects. He contends that coach Rene Lachemann, a known pregame nosher, planted the evidence. This, muses Judge Baylor, is a case without precedent.
Baylor seeks the truth. That is what he has always sought, whether as a child volunteering to desegregate an all-white school in Texas or as a 16-year major league veteran trying to find someone in Yankee management man enough to tell him why he was being shunted into a platoon role. He is a member of the Red Sox now, though, and here Baylor weighs the evidence, all but smelling the mustard on Lachemann's fingers, but also hearing the coach's denial. Baylor acts firmly. With the necessary thumbs-up approval of the other Boston players assembled in the Fenway Park clubhouse, he fines Lachemann $5 for a combination of perjury, sabotage and, presumably, having eaten the half of the sandwich that is missing. In kangaroo court, Baylor rules, digestion is nine tenths of the law.
"Every day around here, there's a new law," he says with a smile.
Before every Sunday home game, Boston's newly acquired designated hitter cum chief justice opens his blue spiral notebook and reads off the latest offenses. His teammates laugh, argue and learn the necessity of hitting the cutoff man. Life is different with Don Baylor around. The Red Sox didn't have a kangaroo court until he came over from the Yankees in a March 28 trade for Mike Easier. But they didn't have a man quite like him, either: a physically imposing, established leader who could eat up the Green Monster with his dead-pull swing and change the whole character of the team just by walking into the clubhouse. Boston's reputation for aloofness and apathy, for having 25 players head off alone to dinner in 25 different cabs, suddenly vanished. The Red Sox found that this fellow Baylor could make them into winners, and into a team.
And, ah, what a team! As of Sunday, Boston had the best record in the American League, 37-18. Baylor, who got off to a slow start, nevertheless already has 13 homers and 40 RBIs. Nine of those home runs have either tied the game or put the Bosox ahead. And as if to mock the Yankees for having platooned him, 12 of the homers have come off righthanders. Last week he hit two homers as his new club stayed three games ahead of the Orioles.
Wielding his bat or his gavel, Baylor is a formidable presence. He comes from the Frank Robinson school of kangaroo justice—which is to say he learned from the best—and he would sooner hang you than see you strand a runner at third base. Robinson, an MVP in both leagues, was a kind of John Marshall of baseball's kangaroo courts, building their respectability with his strong, high-profile leadership. He ran the court of the mighty Orioles when Baylor made his first appearances for Baltimore in 1970 and '71, and he introduced the intense young outfielder—a Minor League Player of the Year who was already touted as Robinson's successor—to a sharp-edged version of the Socratic method.
"Don was so competitive on the field he would get very upset if he didn't get a hit," recalls former Oriole shortstop Mark Belanger. "In court we would egg him on and get him so mad he'd swear at someone, and then get fined for that." Judge Robinson presented Baylor with his first major league trophy, a toilet seat painted red, for losing his composure and not acting like a big league ballplayer. "I got that a lot," he says.
Baylor smiles at the memory. He is 36 years old now, divorced, a veteran of five teams and nine managers and owners with names like Finley and Steinbrenner and too many nagging injuries that he shouldn't have played through but did for the good of the team. Not acting like a big league ballplayer. Funny, now. His place in baseball history will be as a leader—maybe the foremost of this era—and as a ballplayer managers dreamed of managing and other players hoped to play alongside.
"The minute he retires, he'll have teams beating down his door trying to get him to manage," White Sox skipper Tony La Russa said recently.
"If he retired, I'd hire him as my general manager," says Hawk Harrelson, the White Sox' executive vice-president.