By being named manager of the Washington Nationals on Tuesday, Dusty Baker trades a leisurely winter at his Sacramento home for another go at personal glory and another chance to fight for the causes that have defined his life.
Baker came of age as a 1960s prep star at Del Campo High School and during his professional career always has returned to Sacramento, where his mother, Christine, still lives and where his dad, Johnnie Sr., was a front-row fixture at Kings games until his death in 2009.
At some point, Baker will retire in Sacramento for good. He’s at retirement age now at 66. But the game keeps pulling Baker toward a goal that has remained out of reach no matter how many years he has dedicated to it. Baker has guided teams that seemed destined to win the World Series, only to fall agonizingly short three times with three different franchises.
All the while, Baker has been a leading voice for equality and integration in a game once known for segregation and still accused of discriminatory hiring practices. Baker’s worldview was shaped when he was a teammate and close friend of Hank Aaron, who endured unrelenting racial abuse while breaking Babe Ruth’s hallowed career home-run record in 1974.
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Baker was competing for the Nationals job against former San Diego manager Bud Black. At one point, it looked as if Baker wasn’t going to get the gig. Had that happened, there would be no African American managers in the game and only one Latino manager out of the 30 total in baseball.
With those numbers, you could argue that some of the gains Baker’s generation worked so hard to achieve have been rolled back. Baseball was integrated in 1947, before many institutions in American life. But it wasn’t until 1974 that baseball had its first African American manager in Frank Robinson. It was one thing for African Americans to shine through their athletic endeavors in the 1950s and ’60s. It was another for African Americans to call the shots on the field.
People can debate whether there has been a barrier impeding diversity in Major League Baseball’s leadership ranks. But the fact remains that there had only been a handful of other African American managers before the Giants hired Baker to run their team in 1993. It was big news 22 years ago.
It remained big news when the Nationals hired Baker on Tuesday. By midday, Dusty Baker was trending on Twitter. For several days before, national publications had taken turns writing stories about baseball’s retreat from racial and ethnic diversity within its ranks. “As jobs pass them by, minority MLB managers on wrong side of ‘buddy system,’ ” said the USA Today headline on Oct. 29.
When Baker was breaking into the leadership ranks, he and others were told that African Americans or Latinos weren’t being hired as managers because they lacked major league experience. But these days, experience seems to matter less. Baker had sat on the sidelines the past two seasons, despite his amassing 1,671 wins in 20 seasons of managing between 1993 and 2013. He had been National League Manager of the Year three times and finished second in the voting three other times. Fellow Sacramento resident Jerry Manuel is also a proven winner as big-league manager, and he’s still waiting for his phone to ring. So are several others.
The culture of baseball has changed. The game now largely is run by a younger generation of executives, many with advanced degrees from prestigious universities. A belief in data-driven analytics is the calling card for managers. Before Baker was hired by the Nationals, several new managers were hired with no major-league managing experience. But they did possess college degrees and “Moneyball” mentalities.
That seemed to leave Baker out until he got the call Tuesday morning.
“One more shot,” Baker wrote to me in an early morning text Tuesday, after the Nationals announced that they had hired him to run a talented but underperforming team badly in need of the unity Baker has fostered on his many stops throughout baseball.
The young team that Baker will manage in Washington, D.C., is skilled but undisciplined. They were picked by some to win the World Series this past year, but they fell short amid injuries and acrimony. Baker’s career has been marked by teams that responded to his positive nature. He is known as a communicator, a motivator, a disruptor of bad influences.
His many friends in Sacramento rejoiced at the news of his hire, knowing it signals another chance to win the prize that has eluded him so far. Baker came within six outs of a winning a World Series with the Giants in 2002, before it all fell apart. His 2003 Chicago Cubs were mere outs from reaching the World Series before coming up short. His 2012 Cincinnati Reds seemed World Series-bound before they were vanquished by the Giants. After each of those defeats, Baker lost his job. Each time, the ranks of African American managers remained minuscule.
Now he’s back, the oldest manager in baseball and still a reluctant standard-bearer for equality. He doesn’t want it to be this way. He had hoped he wouldn’t have to be a pioneer for this game after a lifetime of battles.
“He feels a real sense of responsibility,” said Joe Babich, one of Baker’s closest friends and a prominent Sacramento lawyer.
A few years ago, Baker looked at me during an interview and asked: “Why do I want to win so much?” Only Baker knows the answer to that question, and he is going to keep chasing it before he comes back to Sacramento for good.