It has taken true grit to watch baseball in Toronto this spring. The wind-chill factor has dropped below freezing, and the Blue Jays have plummeted to last place—they are already more than nine games out. Which should make the Blue Jays' ticket salesmen especially grateful that Bob Bailor is playing rightfield and centerfield and leftfield, not to mention a little third base. Bailor is a fan's dream, a player with classical skills and attitudes. As modest and self-effacing as a Hardy Boy, Bailor plays six positions in all, hits to all fields, comes to the park early, leaves late and—shades of the players of yesteryear—hunts, fishes and chews tobacco.
Taken from the Baltimore farm system in the 1976 expansion draft, Bailor excelled in the field last season (15 assists in the outfield), on the base paths (15 stolen bases) and at the plate. Despite injuries that caused him to miss 39 games and even though he divided his time between shortstop and the outfield, the 26-year-old rookie hit .310 to break Rusty Staub's 9-year-old record for the highest batting average for a player on a first-year expansion team. Using a short stroke and an open stance, Bailor made frequent and eager enough contact to record the second-fewest strikeouts (26) in the American League; he also had the second-fewest walks (17). Kansas City's Dennis Leonard, the pitcher who most consistently stopped Bailor, says, "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."
And a hard one to keep down. Late in spring training this year, Bailor reinjured his-right knee chasing a fly ball. After being out for 15 days, he stepped in for his first regular-season at bat, cracked a hard single and has been making contact ever since.
Even though he spent seven years in the minors, being a .300 hitter in his first major league season has had little effect on Bailor. The other night, as he sat in a Kansas City disco called The Score, Bailor drank beer, wolfed popcorn and almost never deviated from the subject of baseball.
May 21, 1978
"I'll tell you what," he said, employing a prefacing clause he uses whether he is giving directions to the bar, expounding on Nolan Ryan's fastball or, presumably, discussing the possibility of nuclear attack, "I almost didn't make it." Spring in the Pennsylvania Appalachians, where Bailor's hometown of Connellsville is located, is so cold that many schools did not field baseball teams. Geibel High was one of those schools, and the 5'10" Bailor made his athletic reputation there as an all-state basketball player. He did not see much future for himself in that sport, however, so he played American Legion baseball and was picked up by the Orioles in 1969 as a free agent. He remained in Baltimore's talent-heavy farm system until the Blue Jays took a liking to his statistics and came to the rescue.
Bailor is very happy with the wide open spaces of Ontario. "I'll tell you what, there were plenty of opportunities to fish and hunt around Connellsville," he says. "I started doing both when I was five. The legal hunting age is 12 in Pennsylvania, but I cut it a few years. 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 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."
As a minor-leaguer, Bailor had the reputation of a man who could hit as well as he could fish, and that gave him self-assurance during his rookie season in Toronto. "I had always batted .280, .290, .300," he says, "so I began to figure why not?"
There were lots of reasons why not. By May 25 last year Bailor had suffered a cut hand, a pulled hamstring and a bruised back. But he also was leading the league with a .387 average. On Aug. 21, he was hitting .320 (he had three four-hit games and 12 three-hit games in 1977 and once scored from first base on a single). Then he sprained his knee in a collision with Dave Chalk of the California Angels. Bailor missed the next four weeks of play and tailed off a bit when he came back near the end of the season, dropping out of the Top Ten hitters" list for the first time since May when he grounded out on his last at bat of the year.
Despite his .310 season, Bailor does not see himself as a fixture in the big leagues just because of his bat. He played shortstop, second, third and all three outfield positions and even pitched during his first year in the minors, and he thinks versatility is still his strong point. Although he has been used mostly in the outfield this season, he has already filled in, errorlessly, for nine games at third. "I'll tell you what," he says, "down the line when they need a player, they've got me."
In Toronto, they need him.