For Dusty Baker, 2,000 wins are a testament to his generational impact
Baker’s authenticity and place in baseball history have made him the quintessential role model to Black managers: ‘He is a Hall of Famer in every way’
How does a baseball man remain forever young while managing in four different decades, and at the same time maintaining the qualities of an old soul that were evident from the moment he donned a big league uniform at 19?
And how do you carry such attributes while never forgetting whose legacies you guard, while carrying with care the baton handed to you by Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron?
In short, it takes a Dusty Baker.
No one else in our lifetime this side of Joe Torre has followed up a vaunted playing career with a managerial resume of such excellence that he is now only one of 12 men to lead teams to 2,000 or more major league victories.
Johnnie B. “Dusty” Baker reached that rarefied plane on Tuesday night when the manager of the Houston Astros saw his team defeat the Seattle Mariners 4-0 at Minute Maid Park, becoming the first Black manager in MLB history to win 2,000 games.
“It means extra,” Baker told reporters after the game. “It means extra to the culture. It means extra to society. It means extra to my race, and it means extra hopefully for others to get an opportunity [so] I’m not the last.”
The milestone also served as an opportunity for Baker’s baseball brethren to celebrate him.
“For me, as a man of color who played and is now managing, Dusty is, if it’s the right term, the quintessential role model,” the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Dave Roberts said in a phone interview.
Roberts sees in Baker a modicum of cool that allows him to transcend generational lines, no matter the situation, era or iteration of the game.
“The most important thing is you’ve got to be comfortable in your own skin and know who you are as a person, as a man,” said Roberts, who, aside from Baker, is the only other Black manager currently in Major League Baseball. “When you’re dealing with people, whether it be the media, and most importantly, the players, they see through people who are not authentic. And you don’t pass the test of time, managing different generations of players, if you’re not comfortable in your own skin and know who you are. Dusty knows who he is.”
Add it all up in one wristband-wearing, toothpick-gnawing package and you have Baker, a lifer who has remained as relevant and in the mix at the highest level of the game since he stepped on a major league field in 1968.
“You’re talking about someone who came up and batted behind Hank Aaron,” Cito Gaston, a friend of Baker’s since he met his then-18-year-old Atlanta Braves minor league teammate in 1967, said in a phone interview. “Think about that. It was his job to protect Hank Aaron,” a reminder that it was Baker who was in the on-deck circle when Aaron hit his 715th home run to surpass Babe Ruth’s lifetime mark in April 1974.
Baker was just 24 at that historic moment. Talk about an old soul, and a lasting one, too.
“You don’t pass the test of time, managing different generations of players, if you’re not comfortable in your own skin and know who you are. Dusty knows who he is.”
There are precious few people who can point to having been a teammate not only of Aaron’s, but also of Satchel Paige’s. Baker can speak to navigating the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, the civil rights and Vietnam anti-war movements, all while playing 2,500 miles from home.
His politics and activism carried him through the protests of Martin Luther King Jr.’s South to the Black renaissance of Atlanta to the side of a U.S. president named Barack Obama.
Baker, who turns 73 in June, has won the praise of everyday players because of his comfort with their culture. For he speaks not only jazz, R&B, Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix and rock ’n’ roll, but also Nas and Eminem.
“He loves music,” said his former Washington Nationals All-Star outfielder Bryce Harper. “I love music as well, so, being able to talk about concerts he has been to, the people he’s met. Dusty, he can talk about anything!”
Or do anything, it seems. When not making out lineup cards, Baker is making and marketing his brand of wine, painting or delving into new methods of energy production for his own company.
When he is not coaching his son Darren, who is now a minor leaguer in the Nats system, Baker is tinkering in the garden where he honors his parents by growing their favorite blooms, or just being a granddad.
It might seem trite to suggest that Baker may be the most interesting man in baseball’s world, but then, it just may be true.
And, oh, yes, then there are those 2,000 victories.
Now, Baker will never deny that the roller-coaster ride of the last 50-some years has gone both up and down – from the thrill of winning two pennants and being the only manager to take five different franchises to the postseason to the heartbreak of being dismissed by four of those teams despite having won seven of his eight division titles with them (two each with the San Francisco Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Nationals, and one with the Chicago Cubs) and being named BBWAA National League Manager of the Year three times while leading the Giants.
Baker has had to sit out droughts between job offers. He still knows there is a pesky asterisk that serves as a placeholder for a world championship ring he yearns for as a manager. And, yes, he knows the sheer weight of responsibility that comes with being the most senior African American caretaker of the baton handed down from Jackie Robinson to Frank Robinson to Gaston to him.
For Baker, this part of his multifaceted life is no burden. It just is.
Baker saw how Gaston won two World Series as a manager, yet never secured another bench position of any club outside of Canada. Last year, Baker listened to accolades about having taken an unprecedented fifth franchise to the postseason, but countered every question with an unapologetic question of his own: Why was it even necessary to move to so many locales, given all those division titles, pennants and managerial awards?
He hears the praise that’s come from his handling of lightning rods such as Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Harper, drawing from each some of their finest seasons. He heard similar praise after leading the scandal-scarred Astros back from disgrace to the American League pennant and a World Series appearance in just his second season.
And yet …
“If you’re an African American, if you don’t win it all, you’re considered a failure, you know what I mean?” Baker once said to me.
To stay sane, to stay the course, Baker chooses to measure his own worth. “I refuse to acknowledge that [negativity]. That’s why I don’t read articles about me. Because, you know, why should somebody else control my self-esteem?”
The 2,000-win club climb and what comes with it may be a hard feat to ignore, however. Baker should surpass Bruce Bochy (2,003 wins), Leo Durocher (2,008) and Walter Alston (2,040) this season to settle into the top 10 all time for victories. So Baker will be doing a lot of looking back even as he figures out which other fields he can conquer.
While he explores and expands his résumé, only he will likely have the final say on when or where his last call will be in the major leagues. As for others in the game, many agree that Baker’s last baseball address will likely be in Cooperstown, New York, whether with a managerial World Series win or without.
“Dusty is a Hall of Famer … for me, there is zero dispute when you compile his accomplishments as both a player and manager,” said Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon via text. “I believe all my peers who have played for or with Dusty all agree … he belongs on the wall in Cooperstown.”
Added Willie Randolph, who managed the Mets from 2005-08: “Dusty is the reason why I wore No. 12. Dusty has set an example of outstanding leadership over many decades. When the time comes, Dusty Baker should be a [first-ballot Hall of Famer].”
Even Baker’s most perceived “frenemy” agrees.
When 2014 Hall of Fame managerial inductee Tony La Russa put the uniform back on last year, it helped renew one of the fiercest managerial rivalries. That led to yet more chapters in the never-ending, always intense, combustible chess game between La Russa and Baker. It culminated in a fiery 2021 American League Division Series filled with growls and innuendos as Baker’s Astros eliminated La Russa’s Chicago White Sox.
It was during that series that La Russa, second only to Connie Mack with 2,831 wins and counting, was asked by reporters if Baker should one day join him in Cooperstown. La Russa gave an unequivocal endorsement, brushing aside the rivalry.
“Just like with Joe Torre, you can’t discount the kind of playing career he had and the fact that he stayed in and continues to coach and any team he coaches for, players love playing for him,” said La Russa, the only MLB manager older than Baker. “Sounds like a Hall of Famer to me.”
Because it’s baseball, because they’re managers, there’s bound to be a rhubarb, even of the most polite sort. Torre, winner of four World Series and a place in Cooperstown, believes Baker can join the 10 managers with 2,000-plus wins who are already in the Hall (Bochy, who retired from managing in 2019, is not yet eligible for enshrinement).
Still, Torre says, Baker may need one more thing.
“Dusty’s been to postseasons as a player and many times as manager. I believe he still needs to win one,” Torre, the fifth-winningest manager with 2,326 victories, said via text.
Other than that, Torre believes Baker has checked every other box. “His players play hard and that’s Dusty’s influence,” Torre said. “He seems to be able to bridge the gap from generation to generation, and that’s not easy.”
Now, Baker has never doubted that he possessed the necessities to succeed in any aspect he chooses in the majors. What he was never assured of is the necessary opportunities, especially at the managerial level. Still, what baseball has come to understand is that Baker not only had the will to push aside the doubters, but the strength to do so as well.
“It’s very tough to last that long; I’m proof of that,” Gaston said. “Dusty, he hung in there. He got let go and had to go work for ESPN, but he got it back in again and he just keeps going.”
Why that matters to Gaston and other baseball people of color is that they feel Baker’s loyalty to them. Just the fact that Baker keeps on keeping on, said Gaston, “has allowed him to do something for every person of color to hope to have a chance. That alone makes him a great influence for so many. He keeps going because he cares about all people of all colors.”
Such loyalty was ingrained long ago, Gaston said, once again pointing back to the days when he, Baker and other youngsters watched and drew from the quiet dignity of Aaron and twinkly-eyed mischievousness of Paige.
Baker, for one, spent as much time as he could with his mentors, even babysitting Aaron’s children, playing hoops, skipping rope, hanging out in the Aarons’ backyard while his “elder” teammates and spouses played cards in the Aarons’ den. Why?
“Because I was closer to them in age than I was to most of my teammates,” Baker said, laughing.
Baker did his best to learn, from day one. Those lessons sustain not only him, but the players he now mentors as well.
As a manager, he asks his players to be men, own their defeats as well as their victories while standing up for each other. Such qualities are as important to him today as they were in the summer of simmering hatred in 1973 when Baker witnessed what Aaron went through while chasing Ruth’s home run record.
Baker often speaks to how he and Ralph Garr — who was at Tuesday night’s game cheering on his former teammate — saw it as their sacred duty to make Aaron smile through the worst moments. Two of the youngest Braves, he and Garr would read through the hate mail, then carefully put the letters back in place in Aaron’s cubicle. They needed to understand in order to be of comfort to Aaron. Most of all, they needed to hear their teammate laugh again.
When Baker arrived in Houston for the 2020 season, he saw an Astros team filled with players who had forgotten how to laugh. That sign-stealing scandal that hung over the team for two seasons had ripped away Houston’s cockiness and self-assuredness.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred had determined that the Astros had gone way beyond acceptable measures to electronically pilfer opponents’ signs. The blame fell squarely on the organization. Manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow lost their jobs. Former Astros player Carlos Beltran never had a chance to advance his career, failing to manage one game after being suspended from his new appointment with the 2020 New York Mets.
Though no 2020 Astros player was punished, presumptive Hall of Famers lost credibility with their peers around the league and earned the scorn of once-adoring fans everywhere.
Besmirched players such as Jose Altuve struggled. Others withdrew or verbally combated angry opponents. Even before the 2020 season began, it was simply a hot mess in Houston.
“There’s no person on the planet that could have done what Dusty did to get that organization, to get those players, give those players an opportunity to move forward.”— Los Angeles Dodgers manger Dave Roberts on Dusty Baker taking over the Houston Astros in 2020
While others may have run away from the stench, Baker ran toward the fray. He had, after all, been idle since being dismissed by the Nats following the 2017 season. He’d finished second to Joe Girardi for the 2020 job in Philadelphia, crushing a seemingly indomitable spirit.
While young Darren kept saying perhaps he wasn’t meant to be in Philly, Baker couldn’t help but wonder if he would ever belong anywhere in baseball again.
Then the Astros came along.
Baker was thankful for the opportunity to manage again, saying it “increased my faith in mankind and my faith in God. I knew that if you just persevered and did the right thing that, in the end, you’ll come out on top.”
Looking back, Baker’s hiring was arguably the best transaction of the 2019 offseason. Already an elder statesman, Baker immediately became a buffer and healer by the spring of 2020. He then led Houston through the throes of a pandemic and life in a bubble. In two years, he took Houston to consecutive postseasons, reaching the World Series in 2021.
“There’s no person on the planet that could have done what Dusty did to get that organization, to get those players, give those players an opportunity to move forward,” Roberts said.
“Whether it’s caring for a teammate or a player he’s managing, he’s always going to be the voice of reason. You look at Jose Altuve — having that conversation with him, keeping his head right, knowing that the game needs him, that the team needs him — it just takes a unique person to really understand that, to also be able to make those messages land with individuals.”
That praise, it should be reminded, comes from a manager whose team is considered the most aggrieved victim of the cheating scandal of 2017. If that does not speak to where Baker stands with his peers, then the 2,000 victories and counting should.
The milestone, Randolph said, “should mean the world to all aspiring Black managers. That given an opportunity, we can be great.”
“I’m just so proud of him,” Gaston said. “Whenever we talk, he’s always giving me the credit for what he’s been able to accomplish. But I give him a lot of credit for what he’s done. He is a Hall of Famer in every way.”
For Roberts, it’s really this simple:
“There is just no one better. No one.”