About now, I’d have pictured Dusty Baker over on Pier 7 with a fishing pole, humming Otis Redding’s “Dock Of The Bay,” happily retired from a most bittersweet baseball career. Going on 67, wouldn’t he prefer hurling himself into the easy life after so many health issues and professional heartbreaks? The other day, in a comical blizzard of name-dropping, he mentioned the following people among those he considers friends, acquaintances and influences:
Barack Obama. Nelson Mandela. Stevie Wonder. The Doors. Henry Aaron. Bill Russell. Bill Walsh.
If he has associated with that many heavyweights, why would he still harbor an urge to manage yet another needy major-league club doomed to be yet another underachiever that once again leaves him distraught and depressed? Isn’t a rich, full life enough?
But if there’s one fate that Johnnie B. Baker can’t stand more than managerial failure, it’s irrelevance. And when the Washington Nationals called amid all their inglorious dysfunction and asked him to stabilize their out-of-control clown car, Dusty didn’t even think twice. He ended his two-year absence from the dugout so he could try one last time to win the World Series that eluded him in 20 years with the Giants, Cubs and Reds — all teams capable of championships, all stories that ended in anguish. The ring he won as a player, with the Dodgers, came 34 years ago. He wants one as a manager, which might push him closer to the Hall of Fame but, more importantly for him, would hush criticism that he has wasted more title opportunities that any manager in history.
“That’s the exact void I want to fill,” he explained. “I haven’t missed much in my life. Like I tell people, I signed out of high school. My parents got divorced, so I missed out on the chance to be a big man on a college campus, and I missed knowing my grandparents because they died before I was born. The only thing else is winning a championship.
“I’ve had a burning desire to succeed in my heart that wasn’t filled in my life. You’re going to have voids in your life. I mean, you can live without them. But I’d rather not.”
So Mr. Baker goes to Washington, where the Nationals have been a mess pretty much since losing the six-hour, 23-minute, 18-inning spirit-crusher to the Giants in the 2014 National League division series. After signing pitcher Max Scherzer to a $210-million contract last offseason, the Nationals were supposed to supplant the Giants as NL champions. But they collapsed in an ugly swirl of underperformance and infighting, despite the spectacular season of impending Most Valuable Player Bryce Harper. Matt Williams, who got the job when the Nationals didn’t want Baker two years ago, was fired. This time, they want Dusty to keep the peace, a mojo that somehow succeeded in San Francisco and Chicago — until it didn’t. It was enough to create a co-existence for Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent in a tense Giants clubhouse until the excruciating loss in the 2002 World Series, which prompted Baker to flee to the Cubs after he’d unwisely talked with them during the postseason. It was enough to lead the historically woeful Cubs to the brink of the World Series until, well, Steve Bartman happened. In Cincinnati, a pennant looked possible until his Reds blew a 2-0 division-series lead to the Giants in 2012.
Next came a mini-stroke, then a pink slip. But rather than bury him, the latest disappoint lit his fire. Never mind the perception that he is almost great-grandfatherly in an industry of thirtysomething general managers immersed in analytics, to the point of scripting lineups and game strategy for their managers. Dusty thinks he can beat the nerds with old-school cool.
“I don’t think of myself as 66 years old,” Baker said. “I don’t know how old I am sometimes. It really doesn’t matter, because the way I look at it, not sounding cocky or nothing, but I don’t see a whole lot of dudes out there that look better than me now.”
OK. But can he change with the times? “Well, I was pretty good before, you know?” he said. “Adaptation is no problem for me; my friends call me a chameleon, because they think I can adapt to any place, any time, anywhere. And so I’d like to think that I transcend different generations, like some musicians. I mean, Stevie Wonder still sounds good. And The Doors might sound even better. I believe in old morals and ideas, but you translate them in modern ways so they can understand. I think it really helps me to have a daughter of 36, a wife of 50-something, and a son of 16.” Yes, Darren Baker is 16 now, 13 years removed from the night J.T. Snow saved him from being run over at home plate.
To prove he’s a baseball hipster, the same guy who claims to have smoked a joint with Jimi Hendrix, Dusty posed at his press conference and did two pirouettes on the podium in his fancy new suit. “My mom used to be a model,” he said.
This experiment can go in one of two directions. If Dusty pulls this off with a championship, he’ll be remembered as the fighter who wouldn’t surrender until he found his happy ending, the good-times unifier who not only maximized Harper but made sure he ran out every groundball and avoided dugout fights with teammates — such as the problematic Jonathan Papelbon — who go so far to choke Harper. If he doesn’t pull it off, the all-time managerial pity party will end with appropriate angst.
Dusty Love, I used to call it in Chicago, when he managed there and I wrote there. He still thinks he can spread it. “I talked to the great Bill Russell, and I talked to Bill Walsh, and they told me that a team has to be close,” he said. “And I can bring closeness to a team. And they said that love was the key. And I was really shocked that they told me that. We talk about love nowadays — it’s like, you know, talking crazy. I want to get this team together, as soon as possible, from top to bottom. Because the great teams I’ve been on, from top to bottom, everyone believes.”
The critical challenge will be coaxing Harper to buy in. The phenom is in a delicate space between bratdom and a possible lengthy term as a national treasure, having quieted critics who bemoaned his petulance as a teenaged prodigy. Now, it’s all about developing his maturity so his leadership can match his wondrous talent. Is Baker, almost three times older than Harper, the one to facilitate the process?
He has dealt with Bonds. He has dealt with Sammy Sosa. Why not Harper? Dusty starts, of course, with the introductory brown-nosing.
“Hey man, this guy can really play. I love watching him play,” he said. “And the thing is, I’m not really intimidated by stars, because I was a star. I wasn’t as bright a star as some of these guys, but I was a star. I tell them I don’t care how much money you make — don’t plan on giving me any of your money, I’m not giving you any of mine. But when the game starts, it’s about whether I kick your butt or you kick mine, simple as that. I wasn’t as good a player as Bryce Harper. But I came into the league, my first year, I hit behind Hank Aaron, and I thought I was the cat’s meow at that time. And I got kind of jacked up a couple times by the older guys. One time, I had somebody’s hand around my throat, because I was a little cocky, too. But you learn.
“I’m looking forward to Bryce Harper. I’ve been fortunate. I had Will Clark and Kevin Mitchell. At another point in time, Jeff Kent and Barry Bonds, then Ken Griffey Jr. and Sammy Sosa, then Joey Votto. And now, Bryce Harper. Hopefully, he can learn from me, and he might have something he can teach me.”
We watch baseball, even as it’s totally eclipsed by football, because the stories are still precious. Dusty Baker winning a World Series in the nation’s capital — as the only African-American manager in the majors, a deplorable reality — would be a remarkable story.
“I do know quite a few politicians, from the president down,” he said, still name-checking. “It’s a perfect fit because of the culture here, the educational system. I’d like to turn my son on to the diversity that’s here. I went to a [Wizards] game, and I saw people from all over the country and all over the world. I used to call myself back in the day ‘International Bake,’ even though I wasn’t international yet. Now I have an opportunity to be international and feel as such.”
If he wins a championship in Washington, they’ll be calling him more than International Bake.
He’ll be Johnnie B. Good, forevermore.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.