Dusty Baker walked into the conference room at Nationals Park on Monday, still in his street clothes except for a pair of red flip-flops he had on over his socks — a sign of a man whose mind was elsewhere, or perhaps whose shoes were soaked by pounding afternoon rain.
After a few minutes of the usual baseball chatter, he was asked about Don Baylor, the former major league player and manager who passed away early Monday morning at age 68. Baker was born 13 days before Baylor, and their careers paralleled each other for decades — never intersecting for long, but never too far apart. Baker’s voice dropped and thoughts flowed, more disorganized than usual, interrupting one another.
“We signed the same time. We were in Double-A against each other, Triple-A for two years. I was supposed to be the next Hank Aaron. He was the next Frank Robinson with the Orioles,” Baker said, offering no grand assessment of his friend’s life, seemingly still sorting through the memories himself.
“We fought for batting titles all the way up. We played in Puerto Rico together. His first wife picked out my first wife’s engagement ring. That was the first time I had ever gone to Baltimore, was when I drove up to see Donny.”
Baker was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1976. Baylor joined the California Angels in 1977. Baker won two Silver Sluggers and made two all-star teams. Baylor won three Silver Sluggers and made one. Both of their playing careers ended in Oakland, a couple of years apart. Baker was named National League manager of the year in 1993, 1997 and 2000. Baylor was NL manager of the year in 1995. They were perpetual opponents and longtime friends.
Baylor’s wife called Baker on Saturday, and so did Hall of Fame writer Claire Smith. Baker spoke to Baylor then, an opportunity for which he was grateful in emotional retrospect.
“I learned that when somebody says call me back — a couple times someone called me and I was going to wait till tomorrow — but that person died before I called back. So when somebody says call ’em, somebody’s not doing well, you better call ’em right then,” Baker said. “Because there’s nothing worse than somebody calling and saying somebody’s not doing well and they’ve died already.”
Baker did get to speak with Baylor before his death. Then, early Monday morning, he woke up to go to the bathroom.
“I knew something was wrong,” Baker said. “The last time I had that feeling was when Bobby Welch died [in 2014].”
Baker has seen several close friends pass away during his Nationals tenure, and they seem to weigh on him, each taking a new toll on the second-oldest manager in baseball. As he spoke about Baylor, in a voice so hushed reporters clamored to confirm which names he actually mentioned in his stories, Baker seemed to talk his way into reflection again — something he does often, but not like this.
“They say death travels in threes,” Baker said. “I just found out [former Phillies catcher] Darren Daulton left, and [former Giants clubhouse attendant] David Loewenstein, Al Rosen’s kid, died last week, and [former big leaguer] Lee May.”
Loewenstein, Daulton and Baylor were all younger than Baker when they passed, succumbing to lengthy battles with illness.
“I was just listening to Tupac today, ‘Death Around the Corner.’ I don’t know if you all know that song or not, but indeed, you just don’t know how close death is to all of us. Just treat each other right and try to do the right thing. . . .” Baker said. “I didn’t mean to go on that long.”