When Dusty Baker was in the sixth grade, he told his classmates he would become a professional athlete one day. He didn’t specify which sport because he hadn’t decided. His first love was basketball. He adored Elgin Baylor and the Los Angeles Lakers. Basketball was the front-runner. But he was sure he could become the next Gale Sayers on the football field or Tommy Davis on the baseball diamond, too. All he needed to do was dedicate himself. His classmates laughed.
“Confidence ain’t my problem,” Baker said. “It never has been. If you didn’t guess that.”
Nearly six decades later, that confidence hasn’t budged. As he nears the end of his 50th year in professional baseball, the sport he chose to devote his life to, Baker is confident in his Washington Nationals’ chances to make a deep playoff run and win the World Series that has eluded him as manager.
He’s confident he’ll get a contract extension, too. He wishes he would have signed one by now. He sees the floundering franchises that have given managers contract extensions, and wonders why his contract will still expire after this season. After leading the Nationals to a second straight National League East Division title — in a season he said has been as challenging as any of his other 21 as a manager — he thinks he deserves one. He and the club discussed the matter briefly this summer without a resolution. He was told to wait until after the season.
“I’m not losing sleep over it,” he said.
That confidence has molded a 68-year-old people manager who relates to just about everybody in a town known for resolute polarity. Baker is comfortable in any setting. He relates to people. People from all stages of his life — childhood friends, teammates, players he’s managed, journalists he’s worked with — sneak into his office or hang out by the dugout in every road city to spend time and reminisce. That trait manifests itself at work every day in his ability to communicate with players and manage personalities. It’s his hallmark.
“Everyone’s so one-sided nowadays and I think that just helps everyone in the clubhouse just talk to him about whatever,” Nationals shortstop Trea Turner said. “It doesn’t even have to be baseball. I think that goes a long ways.”
“He’s very secure in what he does,” pitching coach Mike Maddux said. “It just lets everybody relax and do what you’re supposed to do.”
A wide range of experiences shaped Baker, the oldest manager in baseball following Terry Collins’s resignation as manager of the New York Mets Sunday. Baker reached the majors as a 19-year-old outfielder and faced racial injustices when he arrived. He served in the military. He stood in the on-deck circle in Atlanta when Hank Aaron became the home run king. He smoked weed with Jimi Hendrix. He played winter ball in Latin America. He won a World Series in Hollywood. He managed the current, controversial home run king. He survived cancer. And then he survived a stroke. He played with Hoyt Wilhelm, born in 1922, and he’s managed Victor Robles, born in 1997.
“Imagine the stuff he’s seen from generation to generation,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “And he definitely soaks it all in. He doesn’t miss anything. He’s very aware.”
Music accompanies Baker almost all day. He turns some on after he reads his Bible in the morning. When he’s on the road, he connects his iPod to his portable Bose speaker and turns it up in his office. His 18-year-old son, 38-year-old daughter and son-in-law send him the music. The day’s selection depends on his mood. Sometimes he’s mellow. Sometimes he’s angry. He listens to Future and Stevie Wonder and The Weeknd and rock and jazz and alternative music, always with a toothpick in his mouth.
Baker wears Jordans. He wore an OVO snapback cap to the ballpark one day this season not knowing OVO was the rapper Drake’s brand. His son, Darren, had given it to him. In Cincinnati, he had a Fitbit box on his desk. His wife had bought him an Apple Watch, but the sexagenarian couldn’t figure out how to turn off the alerts. The watch constantly vibrated during games. He asked her to buy him the Fitbit.
“He keeps up with the times I guess you could say,” Zimmerman said.
A borderline type-2 diabetic, Baker eats fruit in the dugout during games to balance his blood sugar. He was raised on fruits. His father had two plum trees, two nectarine trees, a peach tree, a fig tree and a pecan tree growing up in Northern California. Decades later, Baker has his own trees at his home in California.
“I’m not supposed to eat salt because salt is the culprit,” Baker said. “So I don’t eat seeds anymore. I eat fruit. You got to do something with your nervous energy so you might as well be healthy and take care of yourself.”
Baker has used his affinity for food and drink to develop connections in the clubhouse. He knows Jayson Werth makes his own deer jerky so when he sees homemade salami or jerky at a store, he buys some for his clubhouse leader to sample. Last season, he bought Turner and Anthony Rendon steaks because he thought they looked too skinny. In August, he brought in Mexican food for the Nationals when they were in San Diego. In the spring, Adam Lind, a wine aficionado, bought Baker, who owns a winery in California, a bottle of Spanish Tempranillo. Baker later gave Lind a bottle of Cloudy Bay from New Zealand and shared some wine contacts in Europe. Lind plans on traveling there this offseason.
“He cares,” Werth said. “He cares about his players. He relates well to his players. He gets to know each individual person. He tries to form a relationship, which I think is tough to do. But there’s an attempt there. You could tell he’s really trying. So that’s something. That’s better than playing for somebody who has no idea who you are. Who can’t relate to you or never even tried.”
When the Nationals became the first team to clinch a division title on Sept. 10, Werth, who’s completing the final year of a seven-year contract, said he wanted to win a World Series for Baker. To do that, Baker will have to topple the Chicago Cubs — the defending World Series champions and his former employer — and perhaps the Los Angeles Dodgers — the club he won the 1981 World Series with as a player — to claim the NL pennant.
He’s confident because unlike last year, two mainstays weren’t lost for the season in September. Instead, the team, minus Adam Eaton, isn’t dealing with any significant injuries to key players. But before he turned his attention to his ninth playoff push as manager that began with a workout at Nationals Park on Tuesday, Baker paid a spontaneous visit Monday to the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va. He reflected on the time he was stationed there almost 50 years ago. He didn’t tell anyone he was going or speak to anyone there. One person recognized him at the museum, but he asked him to be quiet. He wanted time alone. He emerged calm, positive and focused for what lies ahead.
“I’m always confident,” Baker said. “The way I look at it, it’s already written. All we got to do is believe it.”