Singleton, 32, and Baylor, 30, seem just now to be approaching the potential predicted for them a decade or so ago. Singleton was drafted in 1967 by the Mets following his freshman year at Hofstra University on Long Island. After three-plus seasons in the minors, he joined the parent team in 1970, an unpropitious time, as it turned out. "They had just won the world championship," Singleton says, "so they stayed with the people who had won it for them. I was used to playing every day, so I was disappointed." After hitting .245 in 298 times at bat in 1971, he was traded to Montreal, where he would play every day, but for a team that was scarcely a contender. Despite some good seasons—he hit .302 with 103 RBIs in 1973—he "toiled," as Steve Stone puts it, "in obscurity." He joined the Orioles in 1975 and promptly hit .300. Still, because Baltimore did not qualify for the playoffs, he remained hidden back there in obscurity.
This year has been different. The Orioles have been winning virtually from the outset, and Singleton has been their most visible attraction. "Everybody wants to know who a winner is," he says, meaning not only himself but his teammates. "There are a lot of guys on this team—Rich Dauer, Gary Roenicke, Eddie Murray, Mike Flanagan—who people will want to know about. We're going to put Baltimore back on the baseball map."
Along with Grich, Baylor had been something of a minor league phenom when he joined the Orioles full time in 1972—after brief appearances the previous two years. He was even considered by some experts to be the likely successor to Frank Robinson, who had only recently been traded away. Like Robinson, Baylor was known as a player who could hit for average and power—and steal a base in the bargain. Weaver cautiously forecast that Baylor would be an MVP candidate by 1978, which, in fact, he was. But he would not be one under Weaver, who chose to platoon him in the outfield. In 1975, playing more than he had before—145 games—Baylor hit 25 homers and seemed on the verge of breaking loose. Then he was traded to Oakland in time for Charlie Finley's systematic demolition of the team that had won him three world championships. Baylor, who hit only .247 seemed right at home in this desolating atmosphere.
"It took me a year and a half to get over that trade," he says now. He endured only one season under Finley, declaring himself a free agent and accepting Angel owner Gene Autry's millions at the end of the 1976 season. Alas, he was famous that year primarily for his wealth. When fellow free agents Grich and Rudi succumbed early to injuries, Baylor survived as the only plutocrat in the lineup of a losing team. The fans did not take kindly to his privileged presence, even though he hit 25 homers, so, with the other millionaires infirm, he became the sole object of their anger and frustration.
"I think it strengthened his character," says Grich. "He took it all. He wasn't bitter. He didn't fight back with any sort of verbal barrage. There isn't a finer gentleman around, and that year he showed everyone what kind of man he is."
Some good came of the ordeal, too, because Robinson, then coaching in Anaheim, persuaded Baylor to drop his bat six inches while hitting, so that he might have a better chance at connecting with inside pitches. Baylor says he feels the "character-building" 1977 season helped him meet a crisis that developed this year when yet another celebrated free agent, Rod Carew, tore a ligament in his right thumb on June 1 and was out of the lineup for almost two months. The run-production responsibility fell to Baylor, who had hit 34 homers and driven in 99 runs in '78. "I knew when Carew went out that we were going to miss one of the best—if not the best—hitters in baseball," he said last week. "But you can only get yourself in trouble by saying, 'I gotta take up the slack.' I just decided to do my job. A lot of other guys—Willie Aikens, Brian Downing, Bobby Grich—picked up the slack."
But no one picked up more than Baylor. He tore a ligament in his left hand in early June, but he played on. The injury led to a miserable slump that month, when he hit only .195 and lost 53 percentage points from his batting average. The hand improved in July, and so did Baylor—dramatically. He hit .349 for the month, driving in a one-month club record of 34 runs and hitting 11 homers. By the All-Star break, he had 85 RBIs, and Baylor, habitually a slow starter, knew he was having an extraordinary season. He has a virtual lock on the RBI title, and as of last weekend, he had missed only two turns at bat, having retired early from a lopsided game with Boston in June.
Baylor and Singleton were running apace last week. Singleton tied a Wednesday night game against Toronto (which the Orioles eventually lost) with his 33rd home run and won a Friday night game for Stone against the Red Sox with a game-tying homer—number 34—and a game-winning, bases-loaded single. Baylor drove in two decisive runs Thursday night in Milwaukee as the Angels defeated the Brewers 8-7 and moved four games ahead of Kansas City.
But Kansas City refuses to die, and the biggest reason for that is George Brett. Should the Royals overtake the Angels and win the American League West, Brett would undoubtedly replace Baylor as MVP co-favorite with Singleton. He is winding up an outstanding season, and one hit last week emphasized the point. The Royals were tied with Seattle when Brett came to bat in the bottom of the 11th inning. He already had three hits in a row—two singles and a triple. Now he added a home run, winning the game. The hit was his 200th of the season, his 21st home run and his 100th run batted in. It raised his batting average to .330, second best in the league, eight points behind Lynn.
Brett's heroics notwithstanding, as Milwaukee Manager George Bamberger says, "If the California Angels didn't have Don Baylor there is no way they'd be where they are now." He pauses a moment to take in the import of his remark. "And the same goes for Singleton and the Orioles. What those two guys have done is unbelievable. It's too bad they can't have a tie for the MVP. They both deserve it."