SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The bright smile stayed true through every challenge Dusty Baker faced in life on the baseball diamond and away from it.
Baker’s genuine care and love for people will live on in his remarkable legacy as much as that signature toothpick, his sports wisdom and winning into his mid-70s.
Every visit home to the Bay Area, no matter how busy and no matter how many people pressed for a piece of his time, Baker took a moment to sign autographs or pose for photos with Little Leaguers who waited patiently on the grass behind the batting cage for their chance to meet the decorated manager. He obliged for selfies, too, even lifting and holding the phone himself if he happened to have the longest arms.
All of the little things that he didn’t have to do, Baker did. And did with joy.
Yet when necessary, he didn’t sugarcoat how he felt. There was a stretch when Baker wasn’t sure he’d manage again. That changed when he got a final shot in Houston, where he retired Thursday after the Astros lost Game 7 of the AL Championship Series to the rival Texas Rangers.
Constantly wondering why nobody would call him back when he inquired about various managerial openings, Baker came to believe teams were overlooking him for his age, not his skin color.
“Do you ever make peace with it?” he said in 2018 while out of uniform following his firing by the Nationals. “You make peace, but it makes you kind of lose some faith in mankind, between right and wrong. And you realize in the world, especially in this new world, there’s always been discrimination, race discrimination, but it seems like in this new world there’s age and salary discrimination, which go hand in hand.”
Baker was always open and honest yet thoughtful in his messages. Just this year, he reflected honestly not once but multiple times when his Astros were in the East Bay on his appreciation for the Oakland Athletics and disappointment about their current situation. It hurts him the A’s are planning a move to Las Vegas.
“I feel saddened for the area, for Northern California,” Baker said. “As happy as I am for the Giants, it’s almost like a tale of two cities and they’re right across from each other. I spent a lot of time in both.”
A renaissance man who lived his life between the lines and on the dugout’s top step, he once shared how he smoked a joint with Jimi Hendrix early in his career. Baker was up close for so much history over the decades, from standing in the on-deck circle for the Braves when Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run to break Babe Ruth’s record then for so many of Barry Bonds’ drives during his successful quest to become home run king.
When out of baseball and cheering his son, current Nationals minor leaguer Darren, during his games at the University of California in Berkeley, he’d be right there in the stands with everybody else — munching from a large bag of peanuts or sharing Pupusas from his favorite spot.
You see, Dusty related to everybody, young and old, no matter their race or ethnicity, and he was beloved everywhere he went. He made friends with ushers, security guards, concession workers, writers. In every single city. With his warm and easy-going personality, he always greeted the newcomers and made them feel welcome in the group.
“Dusty’s very unique,” Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais said in July. “The fact he’s pretty fluent in Spanish, he touches all the different diversity you have amongst your team — whether it’s the Black guys, the white guys, the Latin guy, he can touch it all. And I learned a lot from that.”
Baker returns every phone message or text, too, even if it takes him a few days — often apologizing for the delay, like after winning a World Series title at last in 2022. Though nobody would fault him given the hundreds of replies on the list.
It’s natural for Baker, because he never felt he was better or bigger than anybody. That humility and positive approach with people largely stemmed from the influence of his late father, Johnnie B. Baker Sr., whom the manager never failed to credit for his role in the journey.
“All my training came from my dad, who was my coach,” Baker shared last season, “but it was different back in the day, because negative motivation was real. Like I’d say, ‘OK, I’ll show you’ if somebody tells you you can’t do something. Now negative motivation doesn’t work. And how many of those coaches were high-level players at some point in time? I was always told that good players don’t make good coaches. Well, I totally disagree because the good players realize how hard it was to play.
“… There was some point in time if you played long enough that you weren’t only the hero all the time, you were the goat at some point in time.”
He knows those ups and downs so well from his own experiences. Baker has had his health scares and he’s had his heart broken by this game. Still, he kept fighting back to walk away now, all these years later, on his own terms.
In spring 2014, while he was between jobs, he underwent a minor heart procedure. That came after an 11-game stint away from the Reds late in 2012 — including the NL Central clincher and Homer Bailey’s no-hitter — while healing from a mini-stroke and irregular heartbeat.
He was tested, pulling himself out of a funk that didn’t last long.
“I never knew depression,” Baker said. “I’ve got nothing to be bitter about. Life’s good for me. I’m not saying I don’t wake up upset every once in a while. I make sure I don’t stay there. You’ve got to get up and realize life is good. I don’t have anything to be sad or depressed about.”
Yes, Baker always seems to find the good in something — even when it comes to Oakland’s run-down Coliseum and all its quirks.
“I remember that this stadium had the best sound system in America,” he said this season, “and they still do. They were always jamming here.”
Baker can be superstitious, too. The wristbands featuring a caricature of his face only get worn again after wins, otherwise they’re given away.
He has had his own wine for years now. He grows collard greens and other vegetables on his property outside Sacramento. Beaming, he still keeps letting people into his life, a shining light even when times are tough.
“Baseball is not my purpose in life,” he said years ago, “it’s an avenue to my purpose in life.”
AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/MLB