Wine, solar energy and a joint with Jimi Hendrix: The interesting life of Dusty Baker

  • Senior writer ESPN Magazine/
  • Analyst/reporter ESPN television
  • Has covered baseball since 1981

You love baseball. Tim Kurkjian loves baseball. So while we await its return, every day we’ll provide you with a story or two tied to this date in baseball history.

ON THIS DATE IN 1949, Dusty Baker was born.

Tony LaRussa was a brilliant strategist, master psychologist and a keen handler of people. Yet once, when at a loss on how to get the best from one of his players, he called the manager of another team for advice: Dusty Baker.

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Baker is so wise, so worldly, his life experiences, good and bad, qualify him for just about anything. He was a Marine. He was a good player with a championship ring with the 1981 Dodgers. In 1977, he was part of the first team with four 30-home run hitters. He was best friends with Hank Aaron, he was in the on-deck circle for Aaron’s historic homer No. 715. He is, purposely or not, the unofficial co-inventor of the high-five; in 1977, teammate Glenn Burke raised his hand when Baker crossed the plate after a home run, Baker reached up and slapped it, a celebration that stuck. He managed Barry Bonds in Bonds’ prime. Baker overcame prostate cancer and a mini-stroke. He knows all about wine, solar energy and music. He once smoked a joint on a street corner with Jimi Hendrix.

“And I know the s— out of this game,” Baker once told me.

Baker has managed four teams, taken all to the playoffs, and was named the Astros’ manager in November in part because, at age 71, he was equipped to handle the crisis management that accompanied the team’s cheating scandal. Baker is 15th on the managerial wins list; Gene Mauch is the only manager with more wins (1,902), is eligible for the Hall of Fame, and is not in, but Mauch’s winning percentage is .483 to Baker’s .532. He could become the first African American manager to make it to the Hall of Fame.

Baker knows all about his players. One spring training with the Giants, a minor controversy arose over the team’s catching situation. The second it was mentioned by the media, Baker politely threw the writers out of his office, called the two catchers into his office and solved the problem. In 2017, the Nationals’ Michael A. Taylor struck out on three pitches in a spring training game. Baker immediately approached him and, in a fatherly way, explained that this season might be his final chance to show that he can play, and that taking a first-pitch fastball in that situation might not be the best path. Taylor went on to have his best season.

And when in doubt, when stress or anxiety or a laugh is needed, Baker just tells a story.

“I played with [the Braves’] Rico Carty, man, he could hit, but he wasn’t the most trusting guy in the world so he would carry his wallet in the back pocket of his uniform when he played,” Baker told me. “Sometimes, he would carry loose change in his back pocket. When he’d be rounding third and heading home, it was like Santa Claus was trying to score.”

Other baseball notes for June 9

  • In 1938, Reds left-hander Johnny Vander Meer became the first pitcher in history to throw a no-hitter in consecutive starts. The second one came in the first night game ever played at Ebbets Field. He walked eight, including three in a row in the ninth inning, but got the final two outs to win 6-0.

  • In 1964, the Cubs traded Lou Brock to the Cardinals. Yikes.

  • In 1977, the Mets traded Tom Seaver to the Reds. Yikes.

  • In 1983, the Cardinals traded Keith Hernandez to the Mets. Yikes.

  • In 1928, Ty Cobb stole home for the 54th and final time, a major league record.

  • In 1972, Tony Clark, now the head of the Major League Players Association, was born. He averaged 44 points a game as a basketball player his senior year in high school.

  • In 1991, Reds outfielder Travis Jankowski was born. He has the most plate appearances (977) in a career by a position player without a sacrifice fly.

  • In 1984, pitcher Tim Lincecum was born. He won two Cy Young Awards. “I went to high school at 4-foot-11,” he told me. “I was throwing about 85 [mph] then. Then I grew to about 5-2. I was throwing 90 then. Then I went to 5-7, and all of a sudden, I was throwing 95.” The Freak, indeed.

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