Remember that iconic moment in MLB history? Dusty Baker probably was there for it
Dusty Baker’s managerial career officially ended Thursday, with a news release and news conference and all the trimmings that come with the end of a career of one of the rarefied few who reach a place of accomplishment as distinctive as Baker.
Yet even that felt somewhat inadequate, as if the occasion should have been marked by a national holiday or a Martin Scorsese documentary. There simply has been no one like Dusty Baker in baseball — or most any other sport.
“This isn’t a goodbye, it’s simply a ‘see you later,'” Baker said, telling reporters that he wants to remain active in baseball. Thankfully, we can be sure we haven’t heard the last from Baker, even if he is finished as a field manager. Only six managers have won more regular-season games. Only three have won more postseason games. And all of that happened after a fine playing career in which he hit 242 homers, racked up 1,941 hits, won one title and three pennants, and perhaps invented the high-five.
Through it all, he experienced every playoff format baseball has ever had, the advent of free agency and the DH, the lowering of the mound, the rise of analytics and so many other changes in baseball that you can’t possibly list them all.
Yet none of these numbers or events really do justice to Baker’s journey. Almost nothing can. He has brushed shoulders with the game’s greats from the day he arrived in the majors. His time has stretched from Mantle to Ohtani, from Johnson to Biden, from Eckert to Manfred.
Two fictional characters leap to mind as comparisons: Zelig and Forrest Gump. Both are depicted in picaresque tales in which they encounter some of the most famous people of their time and are present at numerous historical events. That’s Baker’s baseball story in a nutshell. (Though both comparisons fall apart with a little scrutiny: Baker has neither the chameleon-like persona of Zelig nor the sweet simplicity of Gump.)
The breadth of Baker’s baseball experience is staggering. Indeed, if you wanted to tell the history of baseball over the past 56 years, you could do worse than to simply trace back through Baker’s career.
In other words: If someone mentions something important that happened in baseball during your lifetime, just say, “Dusty Baker was there for that.” And you’ll probably be right.
Hank Aaron hits his 715th home run
Right from the start, Baker moved with — and competed against — some of the most notable baseball personalities of the past half-century. On his very first professional team, the 1967 Austin Braves, he was teammates with Cito Gaston, who would later become the first black manager to win a World Series. (Baker would become the third.)
In Baker’s first big league game on Sept. 7, 1968, he shared the field with both Aaron brothers (Hank and Tommy), Tito Francona (Terry’s father), Felipe Alou, Rusty Staub, Jim “The Toy Cannon” Wynn and Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro.
One of the Braves’ coaches in his early years was the great Satchel Paige. (“He called me Daffy,” Baker told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2010. “I said, ‘My name is Dusty.’ He said, ‘Daffy, I know what your name is.'”)
In 1971, Baker got his first hit of the season into a Pirates outfield that featured Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell.
The list goes on. But of all the brushes with greatness Baker had already experienced, they paled in comparison to his friendship with Hank Aaron, who was moved to first base in 1972 in part because of Baker’s arrival in the majors.
Baker and Aaron were close from the start, with the legend taking the kid under his wing, at the behest of Dusty’s mother. Baker not only bore witness to the historic moment but also to the stress and horrors Aaron had to cope with during the leadup to the mark. Baker later spoke of digging some of the threatening letters Aaron had received out of the trash to read them so he could understand what his friend was going through.
Then came April 8, 1974, one of the iconic dates in baseball history, one embedded in our collective consciousness: Aaron mashed career homer No. 715, breaking Babe Ruth’s hallowed record. Watching from the on-deck circle: Dusty Baker, who leaped in celebration while hugging his close friend, Ralph “Gator” Garr, as Aaron circled the bases.
“He was second only to my dad, and my dad meant the world to me,” Baker told MLB.com upon Aaron’s death in 2021.
Baker had already seen and done so much by that point, but this was his first appearance in what would become a featured role in baseball’s historical highlight reel.
Rick Monday saves the American flag
In 1975, the Braves were struggling, and Baker had repeatedly asked to be traded. Atlanta finally obliged at the end of the season, the trade ostensibly agreed to during the World Series (talks hit a snag when Dodgers exec Al Campanis — yes, him — also asked for Braves catcher Biff Pocoroba). Baker said he found out about the trade while on a family vacation when they stopped off at the Grand Canyon. They checked into a motel, flipped on the TV, and Baker’s face was on the screen.
When Baker arrived for his intro in Los Angeles in December, he showed up on a day when the smog-ridden city was mired in soot from nearby brush fires. Baker thought it might be symbolic. “Maybe so, because I know I want to burn things up in L.A.”
He did, on the field anyway, but he also bore witness to a different kind of L.A. fire.
On April 25, 1976, Baker was out of the lineup, nursing a hamstring injury as L.A. took on the Cubs at Dodger Stadium. But he was there just the same when, during that day’s game, a protester leaped onto the field and attempted to burn an American flag.
Cubs outfielder Rick Monday, like Baker once a member of the Marine reserves (as well as being a future teammate in L.A.), was having none of it. In one of the most replayed non-game-action moments in baseball history, Monday snatched the flag and carried it away.
The high-five is invented
On April 10, 1977, Baker hit the first of what turned into a career-best 30 homers that season, hammering an Ed Halicki pitch over the wall at Dodger Stadium. The ’77 Dodgers turned out to be the team Baker always wanted to play for, but the style in which they won was surprising, at least to their own manager. Tommy Lasorda hoped to rev up the L.A. running game, predicting 250 stolen bases, 25 of which would come from Baker.
Instead, the Dodgers became one of the most iconic power-hitting teams of the era on their way to a pennant — and stole 114 bags in all. Baker hit those 30 bombs but went 2-for-8 on the basepaths.
By Oct. 2, the final day of the regular season, the Dodgers had already put the wraps on the NL West title when Baker hit his 30th homer off Houston fireballer J.R. Richard. The blast gave the Dodgers four 30-homer hitters, with Steve Garvey, Ron Cey and Reggie Smith joining Baker in the club. No team had ever done that and Baker was given a “half-dozen” standing ovations from the L.A. fans, according to The Sporting News.
But that’s not why that moment has lived on. On deck behind Baker was Glenn Burke. As Baker approached the plate at the end of his home run trot, Burke held his hand up over his head in greeting. Baker slapped the hand in celebration. It was like slapping him five only, you know, doing it up high. And thus the high-five was born — or at least that’s how the legend now goes.
Reggie Jackson hits three homers in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series
Baker didn’t get into his first postseason until those 1977 Dodgers ended the reign of the Big Red Machine in the NL West. Baker was ready for his first taste of playoff baseball, hammering a two-run jack off Hall of Fame lefty Steve Carlton as the Dodgers eliminated the Phillies with a 4-1 win in Game 4 of the NLCS. Baker had two homers and eight RBIs in the series and was named NLCS MVP. For the first time, Baker was on his way to the World Series.
Baker had his moments in the Fall Classic, including a three-run homer off Mike Torrez that accounted for all of the Dodgers’ runs in a Game 3 loss. But this series will always be remembered for its finale, Game 6 on Oct. 18, 1977.
A front seat to history in 1981
There’s no easy way to sum up everything about the 1981 baseball season — Baker experienced the strike, a new playoff format and Fernandomania — but of course, Dusty was right in the middle of it in L.A.
Baker enjoyed one of his best seasons in 1980, hitting .294/.339/.503 with 29 homers and 97 RBIs. He finished fourth in NL MVP balloting and won a Silver Slugger Award. At 31, his timing couldn’t have been better: Baker became a free agent and did so as one of the most sought-after players on the market.
The power of free agency had become much more prominent in the years before Baker’s deal was up, giving him plenty of leverage. But he decided to re-up with the Dodgers, signing a five-year, $4 million deal.
That meant he had a front-row seat to the viral sensation that was Fernando Valenzuela in his rookie year in L.A. Still the only player to win Rookie of the Year and a Cy Young in the same season, Valenzuela also captured the hearts of fans across California and the country.
By the end of the year, Baker had made his first All-Star team, won his first Gold Glove and, most importantly, took home his first ring. That last item happened when the Dodgers hammered Reggie and the Yankees 9-2 in Game 6 of the World Series to take the crown. Baker had two hits and scored two runs in the game.
The 1981 season is most remembered as the strike season, the campaign when baseball shut down for two months and the regular season was split into two halves. The Dodgers, winners of the NL West’s first half, had already clinched a playoff spot when play resumed after the stoppage.
Baker had debuted under the traditional two-league format in 1968; he was on one of the first division champs (albeit in a limited role) when division play began a year later. In 1981, he was a participant in the third format of the big league playoffs, one that saw the first division series.
An earthquake rattles the 1989 World Series
Baker’s career as an active player ended in 1986 — with an A’s team that was on the cusp of exploding. That final season, Baker was teammates with slugging rookie Jose Canseco and even more powerful late-season call-up Mark McGwire. He spent his final months as an active player being managed by a former teammate in Atlanta who’d been hired by Oakland during the season: Tony La Russa.
In Baker’s final game, against Kansas City, La Russa started him at DH; he went 0-for-1 with two walks before being replaced by a pinch runner.
A playing career that began on the same field with Joe Torre, the Aarons, Niekro, Alou, the elder Francona, Staub and Wynn ended on a field shared with Canseco, McGwire, Dave Kingman, Mark Gubicza, Bud Black, Dave Stewart, George Brett and a very athletic rookie outfielder for Kansas City, Bo Jackson.
At the time, Baker, 37, didn’t know it would be his last game. He became a free agent after the season with the intention of continuing his career. It didn’t happen, and for a while, Baker worked as a stockbroker. In February 1988, he was hired to coach first base by the Giants; he soon became their hitting coach.
Baker was helping his Giants hitters prepare for Game 3 of the World Series on Oct. 17, 1989, when, before the game, the ground and Candlestick Park alike began to shake. A major earthquake had struck the Bay Area, and it was 12 days before the World Series could resume.
Coaching Bonds — to legendary also-ran status
The winter of 1992-93 was a whirlwind time for the Giants. Peter Magowan became principal owner of the team; Bob Quinn became the general manager and fired his manager. The team signed Barry Bonds to a historic six-year, $43 million contract. Eight days after that, Baker was hired as the Giants’ skipper.
The hire was the culmination of what had been Baker’s five-year plan to become a manager. He worked his way from first-base coach to respected hitting coach and served a stint as a skipper in the Arizona Fall League.
Baker was still only 43 when the Giants put him in charge of the clubhouse. The fit was ideal. He’d long been friends with Bonds’ father and installed Bobby as a coach on his son’s first few Giants teams.
“This is the greatest day of my life, so far,” Baker told the media. “The next greatest day is when we win the pennant and the world championship.”
Sure enough, by mid-July, the Giants were 67-33. Baker’s mark in his first 100 games as a big league manager was the second best in history, surpassed only by Sparky Anderson (70-30 in 1970).
At that point, the Giants had a sizeable lead over Atlanta for the division — but it wouldn’t hold up. An eight-game losing streak in September saw the team go from 2½ games up over Atlanta to 3½ back. The Giants recovered and could have forced a tiebreaker with a win against the Dodgers on Oct. 3, 1993, the last day of the regular season.
It didn’t happen. The Dodgers homered four times, including two from future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza. Kevin Gross went the distance for L.A., Bonds went 0-for-4 and Lasorda’s club rolled to a 12-1 win.
The Giants finished 103-59 but did not advance to the postseason. It was the last season before baseball expanded the playoff format, splitting into three divisions per league and introducing a wild-card slot. The ’93 NL West race is now regarded as the last great pure pennant race in big league annals, the kind that cannot possibly happen in today’s format.
This was the format in which Baker had been competing as a player and manager for 25 years, but dropping it a year early would have made all the difference for baseball’s best second-place team in history. Even without October glory, Bonds got his MVP trophy, and in his first year leading the dugout, Baker won the first of his three Manager of the Year awards.
Barry Bonds hits home runs No. 71, 72 and 73
Year in, year out, the Giants kept winning with Baker in the dugout and Bonds putting up unprecedented numbers at the plate. There were division titles — and quick postseason exits — in 1997 and 2000. Baker won his second and third NL Manager of the Year awards in those seasons, though the Giants fell short of a pennant both times.
By 2002, Bonds had become full Barry, perhaps the most devastating and divisive player in big league history. In 2001, though, it was just pure awe, with Bonds establishing the new home run record (73) while slugging .863. Eight. Sixty. Three.
With Baker watching from the dugout, Bonds broke the single-season home run record in San Francisco on Oct. 6, 2001. He hit Nos. 71 and 72 on the same night. Later, Bonds went on to break Aaron’s career mark.
To recap: Baker was on deck to witness his mentor, Aaron, breaking baseball’s most treasured record. He was teammates with McGwire, the man who broke the single-season home run mark held by Roger Maris. Then he managed Bonds, who broke the record again just three years later.
The Cubs’ curse continues with the Bartman Game
Ten years into his career with the Giants, Baker had done it all, except for the one big thing: winning a championship. He quickly realized he would not do so with San Francisco, who made little effort to keep him once Baker’s contract expired after the 2002 season.
Two weeks later, Baker got his next chance: He became the manager of the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs team Baker took over was not a great one. Chicago had lost 95 games in 2002, and its premier player, slugger Sammy Sosa, was still productive but on the verge of a steep decline. It was also an old team. The standout unit on the club was a dynamic, hard-throwing rotation that featured Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement.
Much to the dismay of future critics, Baker leaned on his rotation hard in 2003. All four of his rotation stalwarts started at least 30 games and compiled more than 200 innings — they also were the main reason the Cubs won a soft NL Central and outlasted the Braves in a five-game NLDS. Chicago won the three games in that series started by Wood and Prior.
Amid stories of curses and billy goats, the Cubs found themselves up against the Florida Marlins in the NLCS, with everyone in Chicago salivating over a potential World Series matchup against either the Yankees or Red Sox.
Baker has never been under the microscope more than he was on Oct. 14, 2003, one of the most discussed games in baseball history — the Bartman Game, a contest remembered for a fan who bore little to no blame for the loss. That was on Baker and his team.
People now tend to forget a couple of things about this game. For one, Prior was dominant, an ace oozing pure pitching filth. We didn’t know then what would become of a career wrecked by injury. We only knew that he stifled the Marlins for seven innings in Game 6, putting the Cubs six outs away from the Fall Classic, and seemed all but invincible.
Then it all came apart. Prior faltered, the bullpen melted down and the team collapsed around them all as the Marlins plated eight stunning runs.
“It has nothing to do with the curse,” Baker said, always the pragmatist. “It has to do with fan interference and a very uncharacteristic error by [Alex] Gonzalez. History has nothing to do with this game, nothing.”
That leads to the other thing people now seem to forget: It wasn’t the last game. There was a Game 7 and the Cubs blew a lead in that game, too — in that case, with Wood leaving with an unsightly season-ending pitching line.
The Astros win it for Dusty
Baker enjoyed tremendous success in his stints as manager for Cincinnati (2008 to 2013) and Washington (2016 and 2017). He guided five more 90-win teams, all of which advanced to the postseason — none of which won a playoff series. He led more surefire Hall of Famers during these years, such as Joey Votto, Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer.
By the time Baker parted ways with the Nationals, he was 68 years old, and it really felt like he was done. The industry had moved to hiring younger, more analytically driven managers who were as much extensions of the front offices as they were maestros of the dugout. Baker was far from the only established skipper who didn’t seem to fit that mold.
Then, in the winter of 2019, one of the teams most responsible for the rise of quantitative baseball, the Astros, fell into disarray over an infamous sign-stealing scandal. Lead exec Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch lost their jobs amid the fallout.
Houston owner Jim Crane needed someone to restore a sense of order in his franchise, and the leader to whom he turned was Baker, 70, who had been working as a special adviser with the Giants.
“I’m extremely thankful for this opportunity,” Baker said in a team statement. “This is a great ballclub with outstanding players that know how to win.”
In his first postseason in Houston, Baker’s Astros recovered from a 29-31 pandemic season record to make it all the way to Game 7 of the ALCS before being shut down by former Astro Charlie Morton and the Rays’ bullpen.
In 2021, Houston roared back to the top of the AL, winning 95 games. Houston beat Boston in the ALCS, its fifth straight appearance in the series, giving Baker his second pennant winner. But still the big prize, the last résumé item missing from Baker’s picaresque journey, eluded him when the Braves beat Houston in a six-game World Series.
“It’s tough, but you know something, you’ve got to keep on trucking, and that gives you even more incentive next year,” Baker said. “It’s tough to take now, but this too shall pass.”
The 2022 Astros, Baker’s 26th team during his managerial career, turned out to be one of his best clubs. Houston won 106 games, the most of any Baker squad, even topping the win total of his first team in San Francisco. In the World Series, Baker’s Astros came up against a thing that had almost never existed through baseball history: a 6-seed, thanks to a new expanded wild card series.
Houston led the Philadelphia Phillies 3-2 coming into Game 6 on Nov. 5, 2022, the date Baker had been waiting for since he took over the Giants in the winter of 1992-93. So often, Baker’s postseason disappointments had come down to a Game 6.
Not this time. Yordan Alvarez shook the earth with a three-run moonshot over the batter’s eye at Minute Maid Park. Baker rode his hot starter, Framber Valdez, just long enough before turning things over to an airtight bullpen. Finally, when Kyle Tucker squeezed a Nick Castellanos foul fly in the ninth, it was over. The quest was done. The Astros were champs again, and Baker was a World Series-winning skipper.
Baker’s résumé, one of the most amazing in all of baseball, was complete. His ticket to Cooperstown, already a strong possibility, had moved into the realm of certainty. After the game, a questioner noted it had been 10,806 days since Baker managed his first game. He had just become the oldest manager to win a World Series.
“Had this happened years ago, I might not even be here,” Baker said. “So maybe it wasn’t supposed to happen so that I could hopefully influence a few young men’s lives and their families and a number of people in the country through showing what perseverance and character can do for you in the long run.”