Dusty Baker will announce his retirement as a big league manager on Thursday. His next stop after that is the National Baseball Hall of Fame, where the son of the late Johnnie Baker Sr. and the late Freddie Christine Baker will break another barrier in the wondrous life that Baker has led since he graduated from Del Campo High School and left Sacramento to make his name.
What a name, what a life, what a wonderful spirit he continues to be.
Baker was one of the great prep athletes Sacramento ever produced, but he’s been much more than a figure in athletics. He’s been a man whose dreams could not be confined by the racial limitations of his youth. He would not be ignored or kept down, and he didn’t allow bigotry to darken his heart.
He was a terrific baseball player, primarily with the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1970s.
But it has been as a manager that Baker distinguished himself as one of the greats who won everywhere he went: San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Washington Nationals and Houston Astros. He is one of only 12 managers to win 2,000 games — and just six managers in history have won more games than Dusty Baker. Of that group, Baker is the only Black man and for too many years he was the only Black manager in the game.
In all that time, Dusty Baker was not defined by the cold science of baseball analytics. He was a sage of the game, a poet, a spiritual man. Everywhere he went, Baker had friends because his heart was always open.
In 2012, when he led the Reds, I waited for him outside their clubhouse as they prepared to face the Giants in the playoffs. He had just recovered from a stroke, he had a huge game and task ahead of him, he was surrounded by people. I hoped for a wave or a smile as he walked by. He saw me, stopped, walked over, hugged me and said, “Marcos, you’ve lost a lot of weight.”
At that point, I had. How can you not love a guy for being genuine enough to demonstrate his friendship no matter how crazy his day was? I know countless people in and out of baseball who have similar stories of similar interactions with Dusty Baker, Sacramento’s finest.
You’d see him at Kings games or at Simon’s in midtown and he always had time for you, was always present. He always showed that he cared. It didn’t matter if his career was up or down, and he experienced it all.
Baker, 74, overcame the cruel cuts that baseball administers to anyone who gives his life to the game. As the Giants manager, he had the 2002 World Series won — until it was lost and people blamed him for removing a faltering pitcher and trusting a bullpen that had been excellent until it counted most.
As the Cubs manager, he was mere outs from a World Series when a fan infamously deflected a foul ball from the path of one of Baker’s players. As the crowd vented at the poor fan named Steve Bartman, the Cubs fell apart. Baker’s Reds would inexplicably fall part against the Giants in the 2012 playoffs. And so would Baker’s Nationals to the St. Louis Cardinals in 2017.
At that point, he seemed done, finished. It appeared that the only achievement missing from his profile — a World Series ring as a manager — would elude him. Then the Astros became national pariahs for cheating. They got rid of their baseball leadership and Baker, one of the most beloved figures in the game, arrived to take the heat for a mess he didn’t make.
His last chance at a championship was made possible by one of baseball’s worst cheating scandals. Only a man as genuine as Dusty Baker could make it work under the circumstances.
When the Astros reached the World Series in 2022, many people — myself included — dropped their disdain for the Astros only because of Dusty Baker. We rooted for the Astros despite themselves and because of Baker. Once he won that ring, his legacy was complete.
For that, Mayor Darrell Steinberg declared Dusty Baker Day in the city last year after he’d reached the top. The River Cats did it in 2007.
It’s time to do it again.
Baker will come home again. He’s got businesses here that he runs. His heart is here so it seems only appropriate that his city should demonstrate that this love goes both ways again.
Steinberg could do this by bestowing on Baker the key to the city or making Dusty Baker Day an annual event. His name should adorn a park, a street, or any place that says love and community. Dusty Baker has belonged to the world, but his heart belongs to Sacramento.