He’s Our Best

Dusty Baker exemplifies Sacramento class

By R.E. Graswich
December 2020

Sometimes I wish Inside Sacramento had an award called “Local Sports Person of the Year.” I know the guy I would nominate for 2020: Dusty Baker. He’s at the top of his game at age 71. And while the year was miserable and Baker did his best work in Houston rather than Sacramento, he will always belong to the city he calls home. He’s a paragon of leadership, integrity, pride, hard work and perseverance. He’s also pretty good at baseball.

As 2020 began, Baker was unemployed in Sacramento, his career finished. It was a bittersweet end. Baker has been involved in professional baseball since 1967, when he was a senior at Del Campo High School and drafted by the Atlanta Braves.

Over the next 53 years, he won a World Series playing outfield for the Dodgers plus multiple honors for his managerial skills. He has the talent to motivate players whose egos reject any hints of imperfection. There’s nothing magical about Baker. He succeeds on personality, wisdom, insight, humor and an ability to connect with people regardless of age, disposition or background.

His last managing job ended badly, doused by suggestions he was too old and ineffective to win big games. He was fired after his Washington Nationals were bounced from the first round of playoffs in 2017. No job offers followed. He wasn’t ready to retire. But baseball seemed done with him.

I’ve known Baker for years and have spent hours with him over lunch at the old Esquire Grill on K Street. Baker is a talker, a guy who loves to commune with friends. He has terrific stories to tell.

Talking with Baker means traveling far beyond the green lawns and dugouts of baseball. In two hours over shrimp salad he can cover civil rights, racism in America, homelessness and drug addiction among friends and family, Jesse Jackson, Hugh Hefner, a new wine varietal that caught his attention, a business opportunity in Hawaii and a fish that got away.

When Baker does talk baseball, he avoids statistics. He’s a traditionalist who knows people matter more than numbers. His old-school humanism exposes Baker to criticism from stat-obsessed fans who believe baseball can only be understood by studying averages and percentages.

Baker knows baseball managerial lifespans can be brief. But he was plainly disappointed after being fired by the Nationals. It wasn’t fair. He did a good job. Worse, the dismissal meant his legacy would be a story of playoff failures. Then the Houston Astros called. Baker suddenly became a singular solution to a reputational disaster.

In January, the Astros were baseball’s most reviled team. A lengthy investigation by league headquarters proved they cheated to win the 2017 World Series by stealing proprietary signals between opposing catchers and pitchers. In the end, baseball leadership declined to punish the villains. The Astros were allowed to keep the tainted 2017 title.

As furious fans threatened to quit the game, Astros owner Jim Crane decided he needed a new manager who could serve with unimpeachable credibility—an elder statesman with universal respect and top managerial skills. There aren’t many people with that profile. In late January, Crane hired Dusty Baker.

The coronavirus delayed the season and kept stadiums empty of fans. The pandemic banished high-fives, which Baker and Glenn Burke invented in 1977. But the games went on for TV dollars. Baker’s Astros overcame injuries and defeats and climbed into the playoffs. They beat the Twins and A’s but lost the American League championship to Tampa Bay. Even then, the Astros overachieved. Nobody could say Baker was a lousy post-season skipper.

“You’ve got to love this team, or some people hate this team, but I mean you’ve at least got to respect this team, the way they’ve worked,” Baker says, perfectly summarizing the Astros.

His presence tempered the scandal, reduced the ridicule and moved the game onward. Baseball is lucky to have the guy from Sacramento.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at regraswich@icloud.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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