A WONDERFUL LIFE
Nationals Manager Dusty Baker is a vintner, gardener, family man and baseball icon. And because of some troubled times in his past, he cherishes his present even more.
GRANITE BAY, Calif. — The pale California sun makes its midday bend toward the southwest, drenching the freshly pruned vineyards of Baker Family Wines out behind the house with nurturing sunlight. It sends bright-colored beams through the stained glass windows atop the vaulted ceilings. And it radiates upon the massive solar panels at the edge of the property, filling them with the energy that courses into the house and illuminates the recessed lighting of the gourmet kitchen, where Dusty Baker is standing at the stove making collard greens.
You can learn all you need to know about a man from his collard greens.
Baker grew his own in his backyard garden because that’s how his daddy taught him, from heirloom seeds he got from his friend, blues legend Elvin Bishop. So already you know this about Johnnie B. “Dusty” Baker Jr.: He is his father’s son, from the ground up. But it’s the blues that nourishes him.
He cooks his collards with low-sodium chicken broth and boils the salt out of his ham hock before dropping it into the pot. So you know this, too: The new manager of the Washington Nationals is deeply aware you only get so many trips around the sun, and at age 66, after surviving both prostate cancer and a stroke, he isn’t taking any of them for granted.
“Doctor says I’m supposed to watch that sodium,” Baker says, scraping the minced garlic and chopped bell peppers into the pot.
You would need more hours than there are in the day — and more collard greens than there are on the green earth — to know the totality of Dusty Baker, if it can be known at all. But here is a taste:
Aside from being a vintner, a gardener, a solar-energy entrepreneur and a cancer survivor, he is also a published author, a motivational speaker and an outdoorsman of some renown. He has been, at various times in his life, a prep basketball star, a journalism student and a Marine Corps reservist. He once smoked marijuana with Jimi Hendrix on a San Francisco street corner. He counts among his friends a tribal elder of the Northern Cheyennes, the artist behind the hit single “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” and the president of the United States of America.
His preferred denomination of walk-around money is $50 bills, and he is generous with his tips.
“He’s like everybody ought to be,” said Bishop, the songwriter and blues guitarist who befriended Baker after they met years ago at John Lee Hooker’s house. “He treats everybody with respect and an open mind. He’s just a beautiful person. If the Martians ever land here, this is the guy I want to send to go talk to them — to represent the human race.”
Baseball is perhaps the least interesting thing about him, and all other things being equal, he would have rather made his name in music. (“You can do music,” he says, “till you die.”) But his baseball life is still rich enough to deserve its own accounting, and so:
He played 2,039 games for four big league teams without ever going on the disabled list. He once shared a dugout with Satchel Paige. He was in the on-deck circle, kneeling, when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record in 1974 and in the dugout, managing, when Barry Bonds broke Mark McGwire’s single-season record in 2001. He may have accidentally invented the high five on Oct. 2, 1977.
It has been an extraordinary life, and its evidence is displayed on the walls of the house Baker shares with his wife, Melissa, and their 17-year old son, Darren: guitars autographed by the likes of B.B. King and Buddy Guy; photos of the Bakers with all manner of athletes or celebrities or both (“There’s one of my mom with Tony Orlando and Dawn — and Roy Campanella”); letters to Baker from Bob Hope, Gerald Ford and Frank Sinatra.
“Those some bad dudes, huh?” Baker says, grinning.
His collection of baseball memorabilia — old uniforms and bats, his Gold Glove and Silver Slugger trophies — fills several walls’ worth of custom-made lockers and is so vast it needs its own itemized inventory list.
“I can’t even get in this one,” he says, pointing to an exclusive case filled only with balls signed by Hall of Famers. “Maris. Brock. Yogi. Feller. Koufax. Oh, those some baaaaad dudes.”
Still, a man’s walls only show you what he wants to show. For the truth, you need the collard greens. Back at the stove, Baker adds some vinegar to the pot. Just a few shakes. The bottle goes on the table, so you can add more yourself if you would like. Taste, see, is a personal thing.
“If you like me, fine,” he says at one point, referring to the way he seems to engender deep affection from many people in baseball and deep disdain from others. “If you don’t, fine.”
Which brings us to this observation: Baker hasn’t once used a measuring cup or spoon or turned on a timer.
That’s right. He’s not going by the recipe book. That can mean only one thing:
He’s going — wait for it — with his gut.
Old school — but not the one you think
One evening in 2007, a handful of close friends was summoned to the home of Bill Walsh, the revered architect of the 1980s San Francisco 49ers dynasty, for dinner. The guest list included four of Walsh’s favorite players from that era — Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Bill Ring and Eric Wright — and Dusty Baker.
Everyone knew Walsh was battling leukemia, but his condition had worsened. As the group told ancient stories and relived ancient glories, no one spoke of what was really going on. But shortly afterward came the grim confirmation: Walsh passed away July 30 of that year at the age of 75.
“That night,” Baker says, “was his Last Supper.”
Baker still doesn’t know exactly why Walsh took to him so strongly, their paths having first crossed in 1981 when a mutual friend introduced them. But one day in 1993, when Walsh was coaching at Stanford and Baker had just been named the Giants’ manager, Walsh invited him to his office and handed him an oversized accordion file stuffed with manila folders. Inside the folders were Walsh’s handwritten notes — scribbled on large pieces of easel paper — about how to run an organization.
Essentially, it was Walsh's blueprint for how he built one of the NFL’s greatest teams. He wanted Baker to have them.
The late Bill Walsh used easel paper to record his plans when he coached the San Francisco 49ers to greatness in the 1980s.
“Look — he had everything mapped out,” Baker says now, pulling out pages from folders marked with headings such as “Training Staff,” “Pre-Camp Coaches Meeting,” “Fine Schedule,” “Team Travel” and “Public Relations.”
All the folks who deride Baker as an “old-school” relic are right: He’s straight out of the 1980s. But it’s the 1980s NFL.
“He used to talk to me about the importance of having balance in your life as you got older,” Baker says of Walsh. “He said you should always be open to new ideas.”
About that “old-school” label. It’s true: Baker is a mostly observational leader in an increasingly analytical era. But it’s an oversimplification, one that has been used to demean him for years. It is impossible for his critics to acknowledge he is brilliant in the ways of managing men because it is not something that can be measured with numbers.
“How did I win all those games?” he says sarcastically. “I guess it was luck.”
This is why the collard greens are important: They’re perfect. He doesn’t need a recipe. This is why the blues are important: Within the rigid structure of those 12-bar verses are an infinite number of patterns and modulations. This is why Bill Walsh is important: Baker still embraces new ideas, even at 66 years old. Especially at 66.
“I believe in the new school big time,” he says. “There’ve always been analytics in baseball. It just didn’t always have a name.”
A long time ago, Baker rode some pitchers hard. In some pockets of Chicago, he always will be blamed for shortening the careers of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior — a notion that still chafes him. But baseball is not a static enterprise. The sport has gotten wiser about pitch counts, arm fatigue and elbows, but somehow it is only Baker who is still blamed for the way he used his pitchers in a different era.
“How he handled pitchers 15 years ago? The game has changed, and he’s changed,” Bob Miller says. “Look around. Some pitchers are ridden hard, and some are treated with kid gloves. And they almost all get hurt.”
Miller was an assistant general manager in Cincinnati for the entirety of Baker’s stint there as manager from 2008 to 2013, moving to the Nationals’ front office in November 2014. When the Nationals fired Matt Williams a year later, General Manager Mike Rizzo leaned heavily on Miller’s experience with Baker in evaluating the man the Nationals eventually would hire.
“My biggest [role] was to tear down the negativity people have about him,” Miller says. “He was very open to ideas from the front office [in Cincinnati] — as much as we wanted him to be. He’s still an old-school guy, and he’s still going to go by his gut and listen to his players.
“But he believes in sabermetrics more than the sabermetrics people believe that these are humans playing the game and that some things can’t be measured.”
His George Bailey moment
The sun is lower now, its deepening light filling the window-lined nook where the kitchen table sits, perhaps the sunniest spot in the whole house. The greens are served, alongside elk-and-venison sloppy joes. “I eat wild,” Baker explains.
This is the Bakers’ dream home — a compound, really — built to their specs in this Sacramento suburb seven years ago. There’s a basketball court, a covered batting cage for Darren and a detached garage/man cave/fishing lodge with its own kitchen and shower.
Dusty Baker puts his arm around his 17-year-old son, Darren, as they wait for a batting cage to open up. The Baker compound includes a batting cage for Darren, but on this day rain made it too wet to use.
Baker loves being home, even if he never intended to be home so much lately. It wasn’t as if he was pleased to get fired by the Reds after the 2013 season — after a 90-win season that the franchise hasn’t come close to matching — but it did afford him the chance to watch his son play a lot of baseball these past two years, and it meant he could be there to walk his daughter, Natosha, from his first marriage, down the aisle on a summer Saturday in 2014.
“The time off did me some good,” he says. “I didn’t think it would. But it gave me the time to get everything back together — my mind together, my spirit together and my body together.”
A most curious picture hangs behind Baker’s head as he talks between forkfuls. In a house where everything has its own logical place, he has chosen this spot, above the kitchen table, for a black-and-white photo from the classic Frank Capra film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
The photo, showing Jimmy Stewart as hard-luck building-and-loan man George Bailey, is from one of the darkest scenes in the film, when Bailey — whose selflessness and honesty go perpetually unrewarded — explodes at his family on Christmas Eve following a disastrous day at work, when he lost the last of his money. A couple of scenes later, devoid of hope, he is about to jump off a bridge to commit suicide when an angel intervenes.
“His whole world was upside down,” Baker says softly. “I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to lose hope.”
The words come haltingly. “There was a time, at a down moment, I was tired of it all,” he says, pausing. “Man, some of this stuff I’ve been holding on to for 20 years.”
In the mid-1980s, Baker’s life was falling apart. Divorce. The end of his playing career. Worst of all, the IRS had begun coming after him for millions of dollars in back taxes, interest and penalties after it determined a series of tax shelters he had used for years — at the direction of his brother, Victor, who managed his money — were disallowed. The IRS was asking for $4 million, Baker says, and at one point when he was managing the Giants on a $900,000 salary, his paychecks were being garnished, leaving him $4,500 a month to live on.
Baker’s relationship with money has always been a deep one. As a boy, he remembers helping his dad at his second job, mowing neighbors’ lawns. He didn’t get a dime. “You see those big old shoes on your feet?” his father would tell him. “You see that food on your plate? That’s your pay.”
As a young man, Baker says, he aspired to be “the richest black man in America.” And like George Bailey, he had always tried to do right by people, sharing his good fortune with those he cared about. He delighted in setting up scholarship funds for his nieces, nephews and literally dozens of godchildren. “You don’t owe me nothing,” he would tell the kids. “Just be something.”
The mere insinuation that he was a tax cheat was as painful as the actual dollar amount.
“I ain’t no tax evader,” he says now. “I’ve never evaded anything in my life.”
Some friends suggested to Baker he should declare bankruptcy, but that was never an option. “Being African American,” he says, “that was more of a sign of failure than it was for Donald Trump or somebody else. It’s a business move for him. But with us, it was always viewed as: ‘You dumb athlete — you squandered your money.’ ”
Dusty Baker tends to a portion of his garden at his Granite Bay home. Baker grows much of his own food. “I eat wild,” he said.
At his lowest moment, Baker says, he was George Bailey on that bridge, his money gone, his hope depleted, his demons unconquerable. In the movie, the angel jumped into the water first, knowing Bailey would jump in to save him, thus reminding himself of the value of life. Baker’s angel came barging into the room where the same demons had placed a gun in his hand.
“If it hadn’t been for God or my daughter …” he starts to say.
What do you mean?
“She was 8 years old,” he says. “She came in and said, ‘Daddy, what are you doing?’ I was sitting there with my gun in my hand.”
What if she hadn’t walked in?
A long pause. “I don’t know, man.”
It took years — and the tireless efforts of a tax-crisis lawyer — for the mess to be straightened out, with the IRS ultimately acknowledging Baker should not have been charged for penalties and interest. Still, the episode left Baker shaken and bitter, never more so than when the story was leaked to ESPN shortly after he left the Giants in 2002.
This bat, given to Dusty Baker by Felipe Alou, is part of a memorabilia collection so extensive that he needs an itemized inventory to keep track of it.
“What I saw,” the lawyer, Karen Hawkins, recalled in a telephone interview, “was a man whose honor and reputation are everything to him [and] somebody who was very angry because he had been so straightforward and honest [and] others wouldn’t treat him same way. He’s a very, very honorable man. They don’t make them like him anymore as far as I’m concerned.”
The Bakers’ beautiful house, full of mementos and, at this very moment, the comforting aroma of collard greens, is a testament to a lesson learned, a fortune rebuilt and a life renewed.
“I’ve been from the top to down near the bottom and back up again,” he says. “But you never forget what you went through. I don’t know if that contributed to my cancer — they talk about the stress being a factor — or my stroke. … That’s why all that stuff people say about me, none of it matters.”
Baker wasn’t sure he would manage again. For a long time, teams weren’t calling him about their open jobs. In late October, when it appeared the Nationals’ job would go to Bud Black, he opened up to a reporter about baseball’s checkered history of minority hiring, at a moment when there were no African American managers in the game. (Baker’s eventual hiring and the Dodgers’ subsequent hiring of Dave Roberts brought the number to two.)
“I don’t know how much more backwards we can go,” he said then. “You wonder if it’s by accident or design.”
And now: “There were things a lot of us felt that you couldn’t easily say for fear you would never work again,” he says. “But after a while you get tired of being PC and sugar-coating things. What I said was true.”
When the Nationals came back to Baker with the job offer, he took it to his family, with Darren telling him, “It’s the chance of a lifetime, Dad.”
“Wrapping up [his career] on his terms. That’s what this is about,” Melissa says. “After all he’s accomplished, I think he deserves that.”
So he took the gig, even though his two-year contract guarantees him only about half the $3.5 million annual salary he made in Cincinnati, with additional incentives based on performance.
“Yeah, it bothered me somewhat,” he says of the low contract offer. “But that’s all right. I’ll make the rest of it up in incentives.”
A couple months after joining the Nationals, closer to Christmas, Baker settled into his spot on the leather sofa and watched “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as he does every year, and he thought about life, and about ringing bells and angels’ wings, and he cried a little, as he does every year.