Baker's Childhood Dream Was Basketball; His Life Salvation Became Baseball

Tracy Ringolsby

As a teenager, Dusty Baker's passion was basketball. He dreamed of a career on the hardwood. Football wasn't bad either. Every now and then he'd ponder the possibility of being a wide receiver in the NFL.

Baseball? Well, it helped fill up the summer, waiting for football in the fall and basketball in the winter.

Well, you know what they say about the best made plans of man?

They don't always work out.

"I had a lot more options (at the college) level in other sports than I had in baseball," said Baker. "Truth is, I had none in baseball. I had a number of scholarships for football, a number of scholarships in basketball. I even had a couple in track."

And baseball? Well, when he did go on a basketball trip to the University of Santa Clara, where his father was hoping he would commit, he was given a chance to work out with the baseball team, too, but, the baseball coaches weren't interested.

"My dad was my Little League coach, and Bobby Bond's Little League coach," said Baker. "We all played baseball because we loved it, you needed something to do that time of year, and I couldn't imagine not playing all sports. I was pretty good at all of them, but not that good at baseball.

"I was a tall skinny kid who could hit, run field and do everything, but hit home runs. Everybody wants a power hitter."

Baker never seriously thought about a baseball career, and his father would tell scouts when they would show up at Baker's high school games not to waste their time talking to his son because Dusty was going to college.

Braves scout Bill Wight, however, wasn't deterred. He liked finding the long-shot. He signed Joe Morgan for the Astros (before the draft began) and lobbied for the Cardinals to take Keith Hernandez in the 42nd round selection in 1971.

"He knew my parents' situation," said Baker. "They had just divorced. I'm the oldest of five children, and the spokes on the economic wheel were off. When your dad has to get an apartment and still carrying the house payment. ... 

"I didn't want to be a burden on my mom and dad. My mom was in college at that time. My brother was going to be in college in a year, and my sister the year after that. My dad always taught us to be responsible, although he was against me signing a baseball deal.

"My dad invested my money. I got second-round money, even though I was a 25th-round draft choice. He put me in Standard Oil of California. We didn't speak. At least, I didn't speak to him (for three years). I thought he was being a mean old man. I was like, `I'm 18. I can do what I want.' My money tripled. I started watching the stock market. Next thing I I know, I'm thinking, `Maybe my dad's not this mean old man.' We became best friends after that and remained so until he died."

And just like Baker came to understand his dad's feelings, his father didn't take long to realize baseball was a good decision for his son.

"I think about it," he said. "How long would I have lasted in football with my little skinny self? I had speed, but one hard tackle from some of those guys that I saw out there playing. I would have been Tiny Baker instead of Tiny Archibald because I was older."

There's that basketball reference.

"I couldn't get it out of my system," he said. "Don Baylor and I played basketball when we were in Puerto Rico for winter ball. I eventually hurt my knee about two days after I got traded (from the Braves) to the Dodgers. It almost ended my career. That's when I fell in love with baseball. I was 27 years old by then."

And it is a love affair that has grown. Here Baker is, 44 years later, still putting on the uniform, still sitting in the dugout. He is the dean of active big-league mangers with 3,559 games managed on his resume, 423 more than the Indians' Terry Francona, who is second on that list.

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And Baker is 15th on the all-time games-managed list, right behind his former Dodgers manager, Walt Alston.

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Baker will be on stage beginning Tuesday, filling out the lineup card for the Houston Astros as they take on the challenge of the Minnesota Twins in the best-of-three opening round of the post-season. 

Not bad in light of the fact he always felt baseball was No. 3 on his list of sports, and then to think that much to his chagrin, it was Atlanta that actually selected him in the 1967 June Draft.

"I prayed that I would be drafted by any team except Atlanta," said Baker. "And what happens? I was drafted by Atlanta. This was 1967. I didn't want to go to the South. There was a lot of racial unrest, riots and freedom marches. There was nonconformity to everything. Vietnam. Racial issues.

"I got the call the next morning, congratulating me on being drafted by the Atlanta Braves. I thought, 'Lord, you didn't hear me."'

Baker smiles and shakes his head at the memory. Turns out, he says, the Lord knew exactly what he was doing. 

How well? Consider that as much as Baker never really thought about playing baseball, the idea of coaching or managing was never the slightest consideration.

"Al Rosen was the general manager, and he saw something in my I didn't see in myself," said Baker "He wanted me to become a coach. He said I'd probably be a great field manager. I took exception to him saying, `in the field.' I said, `I want to be your general manager, your assistant.' And he said, `I have an assistant.'"

Baker was in the midst of getting a divorce at the time, which had his life in limbo.

Finally, Baker and his brother decided to go to Lake Arrowhead and consider the options.

"I went up there to pray," said Baker. "Like my dad would say, `Go to the mountaintop, son, and ask for guidance.'"

He found it.

"I was standing in line to check in at the hotel and a guy taps me on the shoulder. It was Bob Lurie, who owned the Giants,'"said Baker. "He says, `You need to come join us.' I said, `What are you doing here.' He says, `It's my first time here.' I'm thinking it's my first time, too. I went to the phone  and called my dad. I asked him if that was a sign. He said, `Son, you just don't want to see it. You went up there to ask for guidance and you got guidance before you even checked in the hotel."

Baker breaks into a big grin when he thinks about that moment.

"So that's what started my (post-playing) career," he said. "I gave myself five years to be a manager, or I was going to go into broadcasting or something. Almost five years to the day, I was chosen to be manager of the Giants."

And 28 years later, he is wrapping up his 23rd year as a manager, guiding his team into the post-season for a 13th time.

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