Editor’s note: “As Told To Amy G,” presented by Toyota, will feature exclusive conversations with Giants staff, players and alums, as well as interesting figures around Major League Baseball, throughout the 2019 season. This time, we head into the dugout with Dusty Baker, the former Giants manager, in the first installment of a two-part interview.
You know “The Most Interesting Man in the World” commercial campaign? Yeah, yeah, it’s to sell beer, but if it was an ad to sell baseball, Dusty Baker likely would get the role.
Back with San Francisco after a difficult departure as manager in 2002 and a 16-year hiatus from the Giants, Baker’s official title is special assistant to the CEO, but he explains he’s more of an evaluator. He visits minor league affiliates to keep tabs on who might be able to help the big club and keeps his eyes peeled around the league for potential trades or acquisitions.
In this era of sabermetrics, Baker, who will be 70 in June, claims he’s not a computer guy, but his eyes, ears and memory serve him well. His 52 years in the game speak volumes about the value he brings to the Giants, but it’s his life experience that left me in awe. Behind the iconic image of Dusty at the helm of multiple big league teams -- toothpick in mouth, tucked into the railing -- is a man who played the game during one of the most tumultuous times in our country’s history. His story educates, inspires and brings perspective to many Giants fans’ perceived mistake of giving Russ Ortiz the ball too soon ... and yes, we talked about that, too.
We covered so much ground that we’re splitting this “As Told To Amy G,” in two parts. In Part 1, we covered his life after playing baseball, his transition into managing and how his mom wasn’t too happy about that whole thing with his son Darren at home plate.
Dusty Baker managed the Cubs, Reds and Nationals after leaving San Francisco in 2003, but now he's back as the Giants' special assistant to the CEO (Photo by USA TODAY Sports Images)
Dusty’s playing time in the Bay Area seems to get lost in the shuffle. He was a Giant in ’84 and with the A’s in his final two seasons, in ’85 and ’86. His sights set on a complete career change, Baker headed for Wall Street in 1987, but an extremely controversial statement made by a baseball big wig pulled Baker back into the mix. And he had something to prove.
“I was a stock broker in '87, and then Al Campanis said his words that we [African-Americans] weren't qualified. it was horrible, but sometimes good comes out of a horrible situation. I got a call from Hank [Aaron], Joe Morgan, Frank Robinson for us to all go to Dallas to get minorities jobs when they get through with baseball because baseball at the time, you didn't get any PR jobs. You didn't get any kind of jobs. When your playing days were done, you were done. ...
“We met in Dallas ... next thing I know, Bob Kennedy came to me and said, '[Giants general manager] Al Rosen would like to talk to you.' I said, 'About what?' He said, 'About a job.' I said, 'I’m not here to get a job. I’m here to help other people get a job,’ and he goes, 'Just listen to him.' So I listened to him — didn’t even know him. Out of that, Don Baylor got a job. ... Like I said, out of that bad situation came some good.
“So, I went to Lake Arrowhead with my daughter and my brother to ask God what to do because I didn't want to go into it. and I asked my dad, 'What do I do?' He said, 'Go to the hills and just pray on it.' So, I went to the hills. ...
“I’m standing in line, [Giants owner] Bob Lurie tapped me on the shoulder. I looked around, and he said, ‘You need to come join us.' I said, 'How many times have you been here?' He said, ‘This is my first time.' I said, ‘This is my first time, too.' So, I went to the phone — I have to call my dad. I said, ‘Dad, is that a sign?' He said, 'Son, you just don't want to see it, you go up there asking for a sign, and you don't want to adhere to what you're praying to and you haven't even prayed yet.'
“So, I flew to San Francisco — I was getting divorced, ready to get out of LA — and I interviewed with Rosen. He said, ‘We’d like to make you first base coach and ... what would you like to do?' and I said, 'I’d like to be your assistant general manager. I think I’m GM material.' He goes, ‘I think you'd be better suited for the field.' So, I kind of took exception to that. The field? What does that mean? And he said, ‘I think you'd be a better field manager.’ i didn't know if he was talking grounds crew or what, so I said OK. I said, ‘Someday I gotta get out of this position, not just be a coach. I’m the oldest of 5, was in the Marines. I’m used to giving orders more than taking them.' He said it would take five years to get the player out of me, and then five years almost to the day when I was hired, that's when I was chosen as a manager .”
Despite Dusty’s efforts to keep African Americans in the game after their playing careers, the number of African Americans currently playing baseball has dramatically dropped. Agent Leigh Steinberg wrote for Forbes last year that, in 1981, 18.7 percent of the league’s players were African American. On opening day in 2018, African American players comprised 8.4 percent of all major league players.
Here’s Dusty’s take on that decline ...
“I think part of it is economics, part of it is a lot of the fathers aren't into baseball. See, my dad was my Little League coach, and he was Bobby [Bonds’] Little a League coach. A lot of us fell in love with baseball because of our fathers. And some of it has to do with some of the broken homes, I think. Some due to the economics of playing baseball — it's expensive. ... Costing $3,000 to $5,000 to play on a travel ball team, and if you're not on a travel ball team, you're not getting the best competition.
“Then they're using college baseball as a minor league for the big leagues because they can get there quicker. But, for college baseball, it's only 11.7 scholarships [for a 25-man roster], where football and basketball are full scholarships. And if you're a person who doesn't have the means and you get a half scholarship, someone else is going to have to come up with the other $15,000 or $20,000, whatever it costs to go. I think, No. 1, if they can up the scholarships in college, that would help a lot.”
Dusty Baker managed Barry Bonds all 10 seasons with the Giants and had a familial connection with the slugger (Photo by The Associated Press)
Dusty is only one of four black managers to manage in a World Series game ... in baseball history. With the numbers of African American players rapidly declining and the loss of iconic black figures such as Robinson and Willie McCovey this year, I was curious if Baker felt pressure to be the voice and to solve this problem.
“No, I don't feel any more pressure than I always felt. Stevie Wonder had a song a long time ago called “Can't Cash In Your Face,” and that’s true. When I walk into a room, you know what you are, or within a few minutes, most people will let you know by their facial expressions.
“Pressure is something I've been dealing with my entire life, and it makes me stronger and gives me strength, if anything, but somebody else has to pick it up, I think, because these guys are passing. I'll be 70 years old in June, so I think there are some great candidates to pass it on, but the system has to listen to them. if you're not listening to them, it doesn't do any good, or you sweep it under the rug until next year for the next Black History Month, and then you don't talk about it for the rest of the year. I think people are genuinely trying to come up with a solution, but I don’t think anybody knows what the solution is yet.”
We shifted gears back to Dusty’s managing days. After all, he managed one of the most controversial players in the history of the game. It helped that Dusty was very close with Bobby Bonds, but managing his son, Barry, was a topic I had to get into this interview.
What was it like? What side of Barry did he see? Turns out there were several sides to Bonds, and Baker was a master at connecting with all of them.
“I held Barry the day he was born. Most of the time, we wanted to hug him, sometimes you wanted to spank him, but he was too big to spank, and sometimes his dad would tell me he needs a spanking. I said, ‘Well, you give it to him. You're the father.’
“Barry is one of the greatest players -- he and Hank Aaron were the two greatest players I’ve been around. Their concentration, their motivation came from within. You didn’t have to give it to them, but like a prized thoroughbred race horse, they don't like to be ridden too much. Sometimes you have to let the race horse run, and sometimes that made it a little difficult to have certain disciplinary things done on your team.
"Sometimes you would have to trick Barry. Sometimes you'd say, like, ‘Hey man, show up at 4 o'clock,’ and he'd show up at 4:10, and then the next day, I said, ‘OK, don't show up at all,’ then he'd show up 10 minutes to 4. So, I said, ‘OK, I see how this is.’ ”
J.T. Snow tugging Giants bat boy Darren Baker out of harm's way at home plate is one of the lasting images from a 2002 World Series that San Francisco lost (Photo by The Associated Press)
You can’t think of Dusty Baker without envisioning his baby boy, Darren, being scooped up by J.T. Snow at home plate in Game 5 of the 2002 World Series, avoiding a scary collision. All of us watching stopped breathing for a minute, and Dusty, well, he hasn’t stopped hearing about it …
“People ask me why [Darren was a Giants bat boy]. It’s simply because I had discovered I had prostate cancer that December, December 2001, and then I had an operation, and I barely got back in time for spring training because then they didn't do it robotically. They cut you open. And so the most traumatic times of the year was every three months for a check-up. You had to go back to see the doctor, and you go in and they tell you if your cancer is back or not every three months, so that was tough. ...
"I wanted to give Darren everything that I could just in case my cancer came back, and leave my son to the world at 3 and a half, 4 years old. Even though he might not remember, I'm trying to show him the world, and that’s why I had him out there, and I like kids -- you saw all those kids out there -- and some of them have gone on to play pro ball. They get motivated.
“Well, before the game, my mom told me, ‘I have a bad feeling. Don't let him on the field today. Don't let him be bat boy.’ I was like, ‘Mom, I'm grown. You don't tell me what to do.’ So, I went back to my office in the clubhouse [after the near-collision at home plate] and the phone rang. It's my mom, so I wasn't going to answer. I said, ‘I better answer,’ and there's a cool-down period of 15 minutes, so I said hello, and she said, ‘Dusty,’ so I said, ‘Hey Mom, what’s going on?’ -- I was hoping she didn't see the game – [but she said] ‘I told you not to let that boy go out there,’ so I said, ‘Mom, I have to go. The press is here.’ She said, ‘Oh no, you tell them to wait. You don't ever listen to me.'
"You know, you get that “you never listen to me” speech -- you ever given that to your boys? Yeah, well I got it, and I was like 50 years old when I got the speech.”
A lot of hearts broke during that World Series after the Angels won it in seven games, and again in the offseason when Dusty and the Giants couldn’t come to a contract agreement. Baker departed the City by the Bay for the Windy City. It turns out it was one of the most difficult decisions in his baseball career, and he leaned on another Bay Area coaching icon for advice about taking the Cubs job.
“Well, it was tough. I could still see me standing on the field holding Darren with my wife next me and the fans up there, and I knew it was time to go. And I didn't want to go because it was inconvenient on me because I went to Chicago, but then I couldn't stay in my house in San Bruno. My kids couldn't go to school here -- I had to be without my family, but sometimes you have to make a decision, and I had talked to Bill Walsh, one of my mentors, one of my big-time mentors. Bill told me, ‘At some point in time, it's always trying to go.’
"I felt that was my time to go because he believed that our guys changed teams every seven years or so, five to seven years, because during that point of time, there are certain things about you the organization may not like, and there's certain things about the organization that you might not like, and all I can do is fester and make it worse. You don't want to ruin a great 10 years here and ruin it in a matter of seconds, because that’s all it takes.
We close Part 1 with our Toyota Fan Question, and it's about pulling Russ Ortiz from that World Series Game 6. The Giants led 5-0 in the seventh inning but lost the game and eventually the series on a six-run Angels rally.
So one fan had to ask: "Game 6 ... why? Why'd you do it, man? Why?" Here's Dusty's response:
“No. 1, you have to get over it -- that’s No. 1. And they won like three [World Series championships] in the meantime. And No. 2, Russ had been scalded in the start before that, and as a manager, you go on how they are hitting the ball or are they hitting up or down or whatever, and they had just hit two bullets off of Russ -- I think Tim Salmon hit one of them, and I don’t recall who hit the other one, and it was cause for concern. So, as a manager, you're responsible for what they do, but they're responsible for their performance. …
“I was reading a story one day, and this football coach was getting a haircut, and he had started this freshman on Saturday, and this freshman played terribly. And then on Monday, he went to go get a haircut, and the guy said, ‘If I were you, Coach, I wouldn't have put that kid in to start as a freshman,’ and he goes, ‘Well, if I had until Monday to see the outcome, I wouldn't have put him in either.’ So, if I had until the next day, like you do on most occasions, I might not have done it, either, but I did what I thought was right.”
Come back Monday, May 20, for the second part of “As Told to Amy G” interview with Dusty Baker on NBCSportsBayArea.com or the MyTeams app.