Hometown Report

Hometown report: Odd, but nice, for Baker to be home as spring training begins

Joe Davidson
Joe Davidson

The first time Eli McCullough saw Dusty Baker, he clasped his hands, looked to the heavens and offered gratitude.

It was late summer 1965. McCullough was a 27-year-old basketball coach at Del Campo High School, where a student rushed into his office, pleading, “Coach, come quick. You’ve got to see this.”

They hustled over to the gym.

“It was Dusty Baker, doing anything he wanted on the floor, and I was speechless,” McCullough recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, my God. Praise the Lord, and thank you!’ You dream of athletes like that. Dusty Baker, in effect, made my career, helped make new Del Campo something and touched a lot of us.”

Baker on Thursday afternoon embraced his old coach and greeted scores of familiar faces at the “Over The Hill Gang” luncheon at the Dante Club. Baker is 64, feels 34 and is still affectionately called “Kid” by those who have known him for 50 years.

Baker enjoyed talking about his life in baseball, something he usually doesn’t get the opportunity to do in his hometown in late February. Normally, he’s in spring training this time of year. But the three-time National League Manager of the Year is without a team this season. It’s the third time since his 1967 graduation from Del Campo that Baker isn’t affiliated with a major-league franchise.

The last two times Baker didn’t report was in 1987, after his playing career ended and before he joined the Giants as a base coach, and in 2007, a year before becoming manager of the Cincinnati Reds.

While he would like to be managing, Baker said he is delighted to be home in Granite Bay to watch son Darren play basketball and baseball at Jesuit, and to fish.

But this is a baseball lifer.

“I’ve had a fabulous career as a player and manager,” Baker said. “I don’t know if it’s over or what’s next. When players play for me, they have their best years. We’re playing a kid’s game. It’s no different than when we played at Renfree Field, or Land Park. The game is the same, and it’s beautiful.”

Baker said his Del Campo experiences helped shape him. He needed athletics as a release, to fit in, to grow. He also used sports to cope with unrest at home as teen. His parents divorced when he was a senior. McCullough, a second father figure who remains close to Baker, offered an ear and support. Baker scored on 80-yard runs as a halfback and on kickoff and punt returns. In basketball, he averaged 17 points and 13 reboundsdespite his 5-foot-9 frame (he grew to 6-2).

Baker was a natural in baseball, and he amassed points in track and field, clocking a 9.8-second time in the 100-yard dash, sometimes in his baseball spikes. He would win high jump events despite little or no practice.

“My coaches were important to me,” Baker said. “Coach McCullough could tell something was wrong with me in basketball. I was missing shots. I wasn’t myself. I told him about my parents getting divorced. I used that when I managed (in baseball). You get to know your players and you can tell when something isn’t right, and you talk to them.”

Despite his parents’ plea that he play basketball at Santa Clara on scholarship, Baker was eager to sign a professional baseball contract. He was ready to be his own man, to find his way.

“I was thinking, ‘Please, don’t let the Atlanta Braves draft me,” Baker recalled. “In 1967, the Deep South. ... There were riots, unrest, the Vietnam War was hot.”

Of course, the Braves picked him. More challenges. More growth. Baker logged 19 major-league seasons. Baker didn’t anticipate coaching or managing, but fate tapped him on the shoulder during a 1987 fishing trip.

“Bob Lurie, who owned the Giants, runs into me and wants me to coach with the Giants,” Baker said. “I called my dad, ‘Is that a sign?’ ”

Baker said he is in good health and spirit. He spent part of the 2012 season in a hospital recovering from a mini-stroke and irregular heartbeat. He led the Reds to 90-win seasons and the playoffs each of the last two years but was fired in October.

Despite 1,671 career managerial wins and a .526winning percentage, Baker received no inquiry calls during the offseason. To feed his baseball fix, Baker keeps tabs on his son. A freshman, Darren has size-12 feet to stabilize his growing 5-9 frame. Baker tells his son and anyone listening the more sports you play, the better.

“I don’t understand why kids specialize in just one sport,” Baker said. “Do as much as you can. I did, and it’s still with me.”