Father figure

Sacramento son Dusty Baker raises a generation of giants

Dusty Baker talks to the media before game one of the World Series.

Dusty Baker talks to the media before game one of the World Series.

Photo by Owen Perkins

This is not your father’s World Series, especially if your father has a name like Schilling, Johnson, Clemens or Maddox. These are not one-run pitching duels. Shell-shocked pitchers already have cut open the World Series baseballs, which they claim are noticeably harder and therefore farther flying.

It’s a time for one-man rallies from the likes of Bonds and Snow, Salmon and Glaus. And, while a nation raises its weary eyes from a cross-country drive that left our eastern icons behind in New York and Atlanta, California comes to prime time. The state is showcasing the wild-card World Series with a couple of never-say-die teams led by a gaggle of Golden State natives who are ready to shine, and the series was inaugurated appropriately by a ceremonial first pitch that came from an outer-space station (insert your own California joke here).

This may not be your father’s World Series, but it is a series of father figures, perhaps best embodied by Sacramento’s Dusty Baker. He’s the paternal fulcrum connecting his baseball fathers, like Tommy Lasorda and Hank Aaron, with the several generations of players he has mentored himself, from Angels skipper Mike Scioscia to Barry Bonds, the new and improved prodigal son. Baker’s connection runs from his own son, serving as a batboy in the dugout, to Baker’s father, whose wisdom continues to inform Baker’s actions both on and off the field.

The California Kid
“I’m a combination of both Southern and Northern California,” Baker told SN&R before game one on Saturday, as he reflected on the personal significance of reaching the pinnacle of his career—managing his first World Series in his own backyard. “I was born in Riverside [next-door to Anaheim]. I left there when I was 16, when my dad got transferred to Sacramento.”

Baker was an instant star at Del Campo High School, where he played baseball, basketball, football and track. He was drafted by the Braves upon graduating in 1967 and made his big-league debut the next year between terms at American River College. When he thinks of some of his early inspiration, he hearkens back to his junior high and high school days, when he played down in Riverside.

“The Hollywood Stars and the Los Angeles Angels came over to play in our Colt League park,” he said, reminiscing about his early baseball memories. He saw childhood heroes play on the same field where he played. “Steve Bilk and Luke Easter hit one a mile. I never forgot that as a kid. It’s really pretty neat to have grown up watching both sides, all sides, and then here I am managing here in Angels Stadium.”

Baker was a fan of both the Giants and the Dodgers growing up, and, as he manages his way through a hometown World Series, events on the field take him back to the memories of his youth. J.T. Snow’s spectacular fall-on-the-cheapskate-tarp-and-then-get-up-and-make-the-key-play catch in game one reminded him of seeing Roberto Clemente play in Dodger Stadium when he was a kid.

“He fell down like that and flipped his sunglasses down and made a play like that on his back,” Baker recalled. The play stuck in his mind and inspired him to make a similar play one year in Pittsburgh. The awe still radiates when he marvels that, “for that moment, I did something similar to Roberto Clemente.”

The Clemente story is indicative of Baker’s generosity with his knowledge and experience. Ask him a simple question, and he will give you a detailed, colorful answer that offers a link to baseball heritage, insight to his family folklore or a combination of the two, as in his celebrated lemon-juice cure for a blistered pitching finger.

Ask Baker if he feels he is conquering the post-season demons that have been the consistent knock on him and that have kept him from attaining unqualified acclaim as one of the era’s most accomplished managers, and he will lead you back to his darkest moment in baseball, when his failure to heed his father’s warnings left him a non-factor in the Dodgers’ 1981 World Series victory over the Yankees.

“The only ghosts I have are from ’81,” he said. “One reason I always wanted to get back to the World Series and win was the fact that I didn’t contribute in ’81. I got into a fight with some Expo fans after the [playoff] game, and I couldn’t grip the bat.”

When Baker told his father of the situation, his father reminded him how he’d warned him “about being so wild.” Despite a diagnosis of six to eight weeks healing time, and the surgery that was ultimately required, Lasorda wanted him on the field.

“Tommy begged me. He said, ‘Dusty, we have to have you out there, even if you can’t be yourself.’ I didn’t take batting practice. I soaked my hand in ice all night, trying to get my hand well. That’s my ghost: When you’ve been told something all your life by your father; then you end up doing exactly what he told you not to do.”

Photo by Owen Perkins

In a World Series marked by two wild-card teams known for battling back all season, you need look no farther than Baker to find the source of their determination. In his first year playing in California, Baker having joined the Dodgers after his stint with the Braves, he was plagued by a bad knee. He struggled through the injury for years.

“I just found a way to play,” he told reporters before Sunday’s game. “Back then, you had to find a way to play, or else somebody’s going to have your job, especially on the great Dodger teams we had, with the young players waiting to come up. I think that’s helped me endure a lot of things in my life—just knowing how to survive and knowing how to do things in spite of injury or bad health or whatever.”

Manage This
The injuries came in his playing career. The bad health came last winter before he had surgery to treat prostate cancer. Baker’s next challenge remains to be seen, as he faces a possible standoff with Giants owner Peter Magowan, who is reported to think Baker gets too much credit for the success of his team.

When asked if Baker would bet that he’d be back with the Giants next year, he found an easy answer. “I’m not a betting man,” he told reporters Saturday. “That’s one of the vices that my dad wouldn’t let me do as a kid. My sister told on me when I was 12 years old, that I had some dice underneath my pillow. So, my dad took them out in the driveway with a hammer, broke the dice, broke my heart. I was going to get rich at school. My dad said no son of his was going to be a gambler.”

Is he giving a coded message, implying that the uncertainty of his job with the Giants is a gamble he will not take? The rumor mill has him in a virtual done-deal with Seattle, where he’d replace Lou Pinnella, who seems a lock for the Mets opening. Or, is Baker simply deflecting tension with more homespun wisdom about fathers and sons and the making of a Major Leaguer?

When you live and die by the three-run homer, it’s easy to have your real skills go under-appreciated, and Baker’s ability to maintain a calm clubhouse in an organization surrounded by chaos during the last two years is surely one of his greatest achievements. Whether depositing comfort food in a struggling player’s locker—“I learned from Hank Aaron about nutrition”—or choosing the right pre-game music—“I like the blues. They’re always singing about a lady that left them, a dog that died”—Baker creates an atmosphere that lets his players relax, focus and get to work.

Baker learned the art of focusing through chaos while playing alongside Hank Aaron with the Braves. When Baker hit the big leagues to stay in 1971, Aaron, a distinguished veteran, made a point of nurturing young players like Baker, as Aaron marched past Babe Ruth’s all-time home-run record in 1974. Baker has continued the legacy, by passing on the heirloom of baseball knowledge to the young players who came up behind him.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia, has nothing but reverence for the role Baker played in helping him adjust to the Major League when they were teammates on the Dodgers. “As I came up in 1980, I was 21 years old, and Dusty was a veteran on a championship-caliber club,” Scioscia explained before the start of the series. “If there was a youngster coming up, Baker made sure that he was going to help you with some insights that were going to make you not only a better player but a better Major Leaguer and let you understand what Major League Baseball was like on and off the field and try to prepare you the best he can.”

“He’s definitely a player’s manager,” said closer Rob Nen. “He’s a guy that doesn’t put added pressure on you. When you’re struggling or doing great, he still puts you in the same situation and always gives you confidence that, ‘Hey, this is your spot. This is where we need you.’ ”

The rare combination of field tactician and clubhouse leader has served Baker well in what may endure as one of his greatest achievements—the reinvention of Barry Bonds. Though the “new-look” Bonds of the past few years remains anything but a media darling, he has become relaxed, happy and borderline communicative under Baker’s tutelage.

“Dusty always thinks about each individual player at each given time,” Bonds explained at a workout before the series began, as he voiced his own support for retaining Baker as the central architect and orchestrator of a decade of success in San Francisco. “I just don’t think the grass is going to be greener on the other side for the Giants,” he added, casting doubt about any post-Baker era.

Baker’s gift as a manager includes his sincere enthusiasm about actively coaching, tutoring and guiding his players. His mission to coach the next generation extends off the field and is reflected in his consistent work with groups like the Sacramento Children’s Home for Abused Youth. But part of Baker’s unique stamp has been his ability to merge both family and profession, by infusing his dugout with the presence of young sons, including his own 3-year-old, Darren, and Bonds’ son Nikolai, who both serve as bat boys for the Giants.

The boys are the envy of all young Giants fans who dream of donning the uniform. But, perhaps more importantly, the fathers are just as envied by those who appreciate what it means for a father to be able to share those sorts of experiences directly with a son.

“When my dad played, we weren’t allowed to be on the field,” Bonds recalled. “Dusty is a manager that sees the relaxation of the players when they do have their kids around. It takes a little bit of stress off and allows us to not only be able to play the game, but be able to enjoy it with our families.”

For his part, Baker trusts the instincts of the clubhouse kids. “Kids usually don’t lie,” he said. “Their feelings are pretty right on about a person most of the time.”

Baker should know. The California kid who broke his heart and his hand in defying his own father and who finds himself on the highest perch of his profession this week thanks to the lessons learned from his baseball fathers is one three-run rally, one door-slamming closing, one collard-greens locker delivery, one Johnny Lee Hooker riff away from showing that Sacramento’s Father Baseball really does know best.