‘He transcended eras’: What Dusty Baker means to baseball
Dusty Baker’s Hall of Fame speech is going to be a doozy, because the man can drop more big names than anyone. He does it without trying, drawing from an anecdotal memory that covers most of a century. He played against Hoyt Wilhelm, a Hall of Fame pitcher born in 1922, and managed against Evan Carter, born in 2002. He can tell you about what it was like to watch Henry Aaron hammer his record-breaking 715th home run from the on-deck circle, and what it was like to manage Barry Bonds, who broke Aaron’s record.
He’s got stories about Jimi Hendrix, about Bill Russell the basketball player and Bill Russell the shortstop, about Joey Votto and Jose Altuve, about Tommy Lasorda and Tom Seaver, Roberto Clemente and Justin Verlander.
At the outset of spring training this season, ESPN carried a live segment from Astros camp in Florida, and the first question for Baker was this: Who did he hear from in the aftermath of the Astros’ championship in 2022 — Baker’s first as a manager? This was like throwing a hanging breaking ball to Yordan Alvarez — you knew that Baker’s answer was going to be spectacular, laden with star power. And he did not disappoint.
“Sandy Koufax, Barack Obama and Snoop Dogg,” he replied.
Johnnie B. Baker was a really good player, accumulating 1,981 hits, 242 homers, two All-Star appearances and a Gold Glove over 2,039 regular-season games. He is thought to have received the first high-five, in his time with the Los Angeles Dodgers, from teammate Glenn Burke. Burke was gay, and Baker maintained a strong friendship with Burke even as teams cast Burke aside. And after his playing career ended, Baker was an even more accomplished manager; his 2,183 wins are seventh-most all-time. He is known as a players’ manager, dressing the part, with his trademark wristbands and spikes and the toothpicks that he gnawed on.
“Dusty was very hip in how he had a keen idea of where we were going, the city and region,” former Reds outfielder Jay Bruce wrote in a text. “In Texas, he’d be dressed in more of a Texas outfit, with cowboy boots. If we were in Miami, he’d have a linen suit on. In the Northeast, it was a pea coat and a beret style hat.
“Usually, when you see someone be so all over the map with something like the way they dress, it can come off as a bit forced. For whatever reason, with Dusty, it never seemed that way. It always fit him.”
If you walked past his office through the years, you were apt to see him deep in conversation with Joey Votto during his time with the Cincinnati Reds, or Bryce Harper when he managed the Washington Nationals, or some fringy player or an athletic trainer. He seemed to collect people. “He would have five to 10 — or more — people waiting for him after the game, from all different backgrounds and cultures and ages,” Bruce recalled. “It was very impressive and eye-opening to what type of guy he was. He transcended eras, and was just universally cool.”
Baker had been out of the game for three years in the winter of 2020, when Astros owner Jim Crane was faced with a unique problem. His franchise was under siege, after the revelations of the sign-stealing scandal of 2017 and the subsequent firing of manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow. On one hand, Crane needed someone who could guide his franchise through the tumultuous months ahead, knowing Astros players — even those who weren’t on the team in 2017 — were doomed to be loudly booed in other parks. He also wanted someone with the experience to foster more success from a group of accomplished players.
He picked Baker, and the winning continued for the Astros. They would reach the American League Championship Series in each of his four seasons, losing to the Braves in the ’21 World Series before defeating the Phillies in 2022. Along the way, Baker continued to collect connections. Bruce wrote, “He’ll keep an eye on the clubhouse and when he sees or feels someone is a bit down or needs something, he brings them food — usually some type of homestyle or Southern type of dish — and he’ll just set it on their chair. No one ever asked for it, but he knew they needed it.
“Far beyond the field, he genuinely cared about his players and people in general. He took the time to get to know them and their families, and you felt like he was doing more than just managing a ballclub … In my experience those things are not happening in every clubhouse, and I believe that the culture created from those types of actions make a different, and really told me who Dusty was.”
The Astros acquired Trey Mancini just before the trade deadline in 2022, at a time when the front office was looking for an upgrade over Yuli Gurriel. But Mancini struggled with the Astros, batting .176 in 51 games, and despite feeling pressure from those above him to continue fielding Mancini in the playoffs, Baker chose to play Gurriel.
But in the midst of that postseason, the Astros played the New York Yankees in New York, and Baker went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and picked up an extra set of prayer beads for Mancini. Baker didn’t know for sure if Mancini is a practicing Catholic, but he knew Mancini attended Notre Dame and had a vowel as the last letter in his name. Hours later, Mancini spoke gratefully in the Houston clubhouse about the gesture. Mancini hadn’t played well for the Astros and wasn’t even a regular in the lineup, but Baker still had him top of mind at a time when he might’ve felt forgotten.
Verlander had never been credited with a World Series victory in his years as a pitcher before Game 5 of the 2022 World Series, and early in his outing that day, it appeared that streak would continue. Verlander’s stuff was flat, and the Astros’ bullpen was quickly active. But Baker waited for Verlander to come up with some combination of his pitches to work his way out of trouble, because, as Baker later explained, he had seen Verlander do that so many times before. Verlander got through five innings and qualified for his first postseason win, and when that game ended, Verlander met Baker near the mouth of the visiting dugout and gave him a huge hug. Baker trusted the player, trusted his heart.
Baker’s time with the Astros was not easy. Because of the timing of his hiring, and because Crane brought him on as a caretaker for an already successful group, Baker didn’t bring in his own set of coaches, and he clashed from time to time with the Houston front office. For the past two years, he fended off efforts to replace catcher Martin Maldonado, a light hitter with a knack for working with pitchers like Verlander. Late in the 2023 season, Baker was advised to give more playing time to Yainer Diaz, a younger catcher with more offensive potential, and Baker’s response, according to sources, was blunt: If somebody really wanted Diaz to catch, that person would bear the responsibility of telling Verlander, Framber Valdez and the other Houston pitchers. Maldonado would be the regular in the postseason.
But by his 26th year as manager, the 74-year-old Baker knew he was moving upstream against the relentless tide of analytics. He once told a story about making a lineup decision in the playoffs — moving Jeremy Pena to the No. 2 spot in 2022 — that went against the front office advice in Houston, and praying to his deceased father during a game that his choice would work out. (In that game, it did.) Baker’s eyes misted over as he related this. His last years as a manager were good years; they also were hard years. Now Baker can move on, to make summer-long connections with grandchildren and his two new hunting dogs. He’ll have more time for fishing.
Before he managed his last game of his career, in front of a small group of broadcasters in his office, Baker leaned forward over his desk and lit an incense stick, the smoke slowly rising as he explained his lineup choices. Along the way, he talked about the neediness of a young player in his clubhouse, and to illustrate his point, he cited an example from his own youth. When Baker played for the Braves, his locker was right next to Aaron’s, and Baker craved the attention and knowledge of an all-time great player. Eventually, Baker recalled, Aaron would look over to him wryly and say, yes, that was the time for questions and answers, and Baker would jump in.
It felt like a prelude to the speech he will give three years from now, when Baker will likely get his call for the Hall of Fame, when the Cooperstown lords summon him from a dock somewhere onto the stage in upstate New York. He will deliver warmth, grace, stories that reflect a long journey that was more difficult than he ever let on, but a time in the game that he deeply cherished, for the connections he fostered along the way, with Aaron and Mays, rappers and basketball players and light-hitting catchers, bat boys and presidents.