An MLB star’s dinner in Granite Bay
Speaking at a dinner Jan. 18 in Granite Bay hosted by the Society for American Baseball Research, Dusty Baker acknowledged the obvious.
The society’s name shortens to SABR. In 1982, analyst Bill James paid tribute to SABR by defining advanced baseball statistics as sabermetrics. So even while many SABR members don’t use sabermetrics, preferring historical research, some people think of stats when they hear SABR.
One of these people might have been Baker, 68, a Granite Bay resident who’s had a consistently successful career as a Major League Baseball manager and was a fine player, too, but has excelled with an old-school approach, seeming not to rely much on sabermetrics.
Baker agreed to speak at the dinner — hosted by SABR’s Sacramento chapter, which renamed itself after Baker in 2016 — at the invitation of his friend and chapter member Clay Sigg after some misgivings.
“Clay asked me to come here tonight. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was coming into,” Baker said.
But a night that might have been awkward proved enchanting, as Baker cast aside inhibitions about his audience, telling stories of his career and taking questions for 45 minutes.
A fireside chat
A cold, clinical event this was not. Baker spoke without notes and generally went in chronological order without offering dates, lending his remarks a free-associative quality. It was like listening to a fireside chat from one of baseball’s finest elder statesmen.
Baker spoke of his father Johnnie Baker, Sr. being the Little League coach for future big leaguer Bobby Bonds.
“The reason I played four sports was to be like Bobby Bonds,” Baker said. “He was the best athlete that I had ever seen.”
In time, Baker developed as a great athlete, too, playing four sports at Del Campo High School in Sacramento and signing after graduation with the Atlanta Braves. He opted to sign over playing baseball in college after Hank Aaron told Baker’s mom that he would treat him like a son.
But surprises awaited Baker, such as the racism of the Deep South.
“I remember one time, I’m getting off the bus to go get something to eat (and someone said) ‘Where you going, boy?’” Baker told the audience. “I said, ‘Hey man, No. 1, I ain’t “boy.” And No. 2, I’m going to get me something to eat.’ They say, ‘Man, get your butt back on that bus (or) somebody (will) put you back on that bus.’ So it was awakening for me.”
Eventually, Baker’s fortunes improved and he made it to the majors with the Braves where, in 1974, he was on deck when Aaron hit his 715th home run off Al Downing, breaking Babe Ruth’s 39-year record. Baker, with less fanfare, walked in the next at-bat.
Hitting the big time
In the days before free agency in baseball, Baker’s salaries lagged in his early seasons, going from $15,000 to $18,000 to $42,000. Before long, Baker requested a trade from Braves’ general manager Eddie Robinson, who threatened to send him to the Cleveland Indians.
“I didn’t know that’s where they would send all the guys, the bad actors, they would send them to Cleveland,” Baker said. “That was the Siberian Front.”
Instead, Baker was dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the days before cell phones, he found out about the trade during a cross-country trip back to California with his wife.
“I saw all these faces come up on the TV… I said, ‘Man, who’s this bad dude that they traded Lee Lacy and Jimmy Wynn and all these guys for?’” Baker said. “Then I saw my picture.”
In his first year playing in Southern California, struggling with a knee injury he’d picked up in a game of pickup basketball, Baker hit just four home runs. Playing in front of the fans at Chavez Ravine that season, 1976 got to be a chore.
“At the end, I didn’t even want to come out of the dugout to go hit because they were booing me and booing me bad,” Baker said.
Famed manager Tommy Lasorda stuck with Baker, though, and he blossomed into a star in 1977, one of four Dodgers to hit 30 home runs, helping the team to the World Series.
“People say, ‘Dusty, you’re so loyal to your players,’ but Tommy Lasorda was loyal to me,” Baker said. “Because he told me I was his left fielder no matter what had happened.”
Baker played eight years in Los Angeles, all told, before winding down his career with short stints with the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics.
Into the coaching ranks
The website Baseball-Reference.com notes that Baker has managed four teams over 22 seasons, from the San Francisco Giants in 1993 to the Washington Nationals who oddly discharged Baker last fall after a 97-65 season.
At 1863-1636, Baker has more wins than several Hall of Fame managers, as a SABR quiz at the dinner noted. He might be bound for Cooperstown himself. But Baker didn’t take much time at the dinner to salvage his pride or list his managerial accomplishments.
Baker spoke of how, after last playing in 1986, he worked selling stocks for a year before getting a call from San Francisco Giants executive Al Rosen to come work for the team, as first-base coach.
He spoke of encouraging the Giants to hit a talented but uncertain young player Kevin Mitchell in the heart of the order, which Mitchell answered by smacking 47 home runs and helping carry San Francisco to the 1989 World Series.
And Baker spoke of getting to work with his childhood hero Bobby Bonds, whom the Giants hired as hitting coach shortly before they gave Baker the managerial reins.
Bonds’ tenure as hitting coach would prove short-lived in San Francisco.
“Sometimes, your hero don’t really like taking orders from his subordinate,” Baker said.
After a few more minutes of audience questions, Baker sat down to applause. He’d stick around to sign autographs and chat with club members after. A potentially awkward evening in Granite Bay had been a smashing success.