In December, Washington Post sports reporter Dave Sheinin spent a good chunk of time at the home of new Nationals Manager Dusty Baker for a story about how ruin and humiliation finally led to his latest gig, the “chance of a lifetime.” But Sheinin and Baker were previously acquainted: The reporter often moonlights as a bar-room musician among fellow journalists, and as detailed by Sheinin below, Baker took notice after one particularly excruciating World Series loss.
The piano player was a hack, just a guy with no shame, just good enough to be dangerous, his only tangible attributes a good ear and an inexhaustible recall of song lyrics. But those can take you a long way, especially in this setting, late at night, at the lobby bar of the Anaheim Hilton hotel, with drinks in everyone’s hands. What he lacked in technique, the piano player liked to say, he made up for in volume.
It was Oct. 26, 2002, and a buzz went up across the bar as then-San Francisco Giants manager Dusty Baker stepped in, alone, and took a spot on a long bench about 30 feet from the piano, this being the Giants’ team hotel during the World Series — and this being the night of Game 6.
A few hours earlier, Baker had suffered perhaps the most calamitous loss of his managing career (at least until the Steve Bartman game in Chicago a year later). With a 3-2 series lead on the Anaheim Angels, the Giants were ahead 5-0 in the bottom of the seventh inning when Baker went to the mound to pull starter Russ Ortiz after a pair of one-out singles. He pointedly handed Ortiz the game ball to take with him as a memento.
But the Angels scored three runs in the seventh and three more in the eighth to win it, then went on to win Game 7 the next night. It remains the closest Baker has ever gotten to a World Series title as a manager.
And now, Baker was in the bar, drink in hand, eyes fixed on the piano player, a crowd gathered around belting out tunes. The set list from the night is lost to history, and to the haze of alcohol, this being a scene — that particular piano player, a hotel lobby, a small crowd gathered around — that played out frequently in those days, at least a handful of times per postseason.
A server came around every now and then, replenishing everyone’s drinks, with one empty rocks glass staying behind, placed atop the piano as a makeshift tip jar. It was probably a really good time — unless, of course, you were a manager who had just come within six outs of winning the World Series, only to tempt the baseball gods with a beautiful but reckless gesture, and lose.
Baker — a massive music buff who once dreamed of fronting a garage-rock band as a teenager, who worshiped Jimi Hendrix as a young man and who befriended blues icons such as John Lee Hooker and Elvin Bishop later in life — stayed for a while, the music making enough of an impression that he would recall the scene vividly more than 13 years later.
“You saved me that night,” he would tell the piano player, when they reminisced about it last December. “That was exactly what I needed at that moment.”
He also said, “Music soothes me” — and perhaps the quality of the performance doesn’t even matter. Because when Baker finally got up to leave, he walked over to the piano, silently dropped a $50 bill in the tip jar and kept moving.
The crisp bill sat there, a pristine presence among a bunch of wrinkled singles, for a long while. The rest of the crowd, fairly certain of getting a better night’s sleep than Baker would, stuck around, singing, drinking and carrying on until the wee hours.
Finally, before heading up to my own room, I stood up from the piano, took the $50 bill and handed it to the server. She deserved it way more than I did.