Among today’s prominent figures in Major League Baseball, there are few with a better perspective on the link between sports and social issues than Dusty Baker.
Back in his playing days as a member of the Atlanta Braves, Baker had a front row seat to some of the racist venom thrown Hank Aaron’s way as the Hall of Famer approached Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. Years earlier, he served in the military at a time when Muhammad Ali was one of the most polarizing citizens in the country for refusing to go to war. Add in the instances in which he personally faced discrimination en route to becoming one of the few African American managers in the big leagues, and it’s easy to why the Nationals skipper's viewpoint is relevant in 2016.
It's because of those experiences that the 67-year-old wasn’t surprised when he saw the uproar following San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit down during the national anthem in protest of what he described to NFL.com as “a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
“I've seen the backlash on my own, you know what I mean?” the manager said in his office Monday.
Baker echoed the sentiments of some of Kaepernick’s supporters, saying that the quarterback is within his first-amendment right to protest during the anthem. And as someone who served in the Marine Corps Reserves from 1969 to 1975, Baker joined the segment of veterans who stated over the past week that they didn’t view his action as a slight at them.
"I didn't take it like that, and I've been in the military” he said. “Maybe some other people did. You can't answer for other people. And if you feel that strongly in your convictions, you stand by your convictions.”
The initial wave of criticism Kaepernick received ranged from charges that he was unpatriotic to the notion that rich athletes have no room to complain about perceived oppression. None of that rhetoric seemed to phase Baker, who came of age in an era when it was the norm for athletes pushing for change to be vilified.
"Usually you are by yourself when you stand up,” Baker said. “That's what standing up kind of means. Most of the time you're by yourself. [Kaepernick’s got] a lot of people talking."
Those people, according to Baker, aren’t in the Nationals clubhouse. Since the Kaepernick story took off in recent days, he said he’s had little discussion with his players about the protest or any of its underlying issues. And that aversion to politics is consistent with how he’s been his entire managerial career.
“I let [the players] be themselves,” Baker said. “They have different religions out there, different languages, different political beliefs, different parties, different everything. With my age and everything, how much influence can I have over them? And how much influence would they have had over me?"
However, Baker is still steadfast in his own beliefs, even if he won’t always fully share them with those around him. Though his time abroad with the Marines helped him establish his worldview and further appreciate his country, that doesn’t mean he’s unaware of its imperfections.
“There’s such thing as some police brutality,” he said. “There's good people and bad people...and good and bad cops everywhere. It's human nature."