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Dusty Baker: An Amazing Baseball Life

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I have been a fan of Major League Baseball since the 1960's and as a Giants Fan I am very familiar with the career of Dusty Baker

Dusty Baker

Dusty Baker

DUSTY BAKER: AN AMAZING BASEBALL LIFE

Johnnie B. Baker Jr. was born on June 15, 1949 in Riverside, California. Due to his propensity for playing in the dirt his mother gave him the nickname “Dusty”. As a youngster growing up in Riverside he became friends with Bobby Bonds who, like Dusty, would go on to play in the Major Leagues.

In 1967 (Age 18) Dusty was drafted by the Atlanta Braves and although he would make his major league debut in 1968, he would spend his first four years primarily in the Braves minor league system. It would be in 1972 that he would establish himself on the Braves roster. Thus would begin a 43 year (and counting) career of playing, coaching and managing in the Major Leagues.

It would be a career that would include a World Series Championship as a player as well as many individual awards as both a player and a manager. He would become a successful major league manager, but would also experience many heartbreaking finishes to seasons during a managerial career which was very much underrated.

He would be a teammate of the man who in 1974 would break Babe Ruth’s 39 year old home run record of 714. He would be a firsthand witness to the hate mail and death threats that Henry Aaron endured along the way to breaking Ruth’s record. He spoke at Aaron’s recent funeral and stated that Aaron “meant as much to him as anyone in his life”. He also mentioned that Aaron “was like family”.

Later he would manage the son of his childhood friend who would go on to break Aaron’s home run record of 755.

Atlanta Braves 1974

Atlanta Braves 1974

PLAYING CAREER

Dusty was an outfielder who played in the Major Leagues for parts of 19 seasons. He spent eight years in the Braves Organization (1968-1975) and eight with the Dodgers (1976-83). At the end of his career, he spent a year with the Giants (1984) and two with the A’s (1985-1986).

Dusty had a very distinguished playing career which included a lifetime .278 Batting Average, .347 On Base Percentage, 1,981 Hits, 242 Home Runs and 1,013 Runs Batted In (RBI). He played in two all-star games, won a golden glove award and was the National League Championship Series (NLCS) Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 1977. He was in three World Series with the Dodgers (1977, 1978 and 1981) and was on one World Series Championship team in 1981.

Dusty was a good teammate who tended to stay away from controversy. Some of the Dodger teams that he was a part of had strong personalities that would sometimes clash, but Dusty never seemed to be involved.

Dusty was a reliable RBI hitter, often hitting in the 5th or 6th spot in the lineup. He had 80 or more RBI’s in five different seasons. In 1977 he was one of four Dodgers who hit 30 or more home runs, which was the first time a team had achieved that feat.

COACHING CAREER

Dusty retired as a player in 1986 and in 1988 he was hired by the San Francisco Giants to be their 1st base coach. Between 1989 and 1992 he would be their hitting coach. During his time as coach, Dusty developed a rapport with the players that would continue through his years as a manager. Dusty was always known as a “player’s manager”.

San Francisco Giants Manager

San Francisco Giants Manager

MANAGERIAL CAREER

After coaching the Giants for five years, Dusty would be hired as their field Manager for the 1993 season. Dusty would go on to manage for 23 years and is currently employed as the Manager of the Houston Astros. Over this period he would manage five different teams; San Francisco Giants (1993-2002), Chicago Cubs (2003-2006), Cincinnati Reds (2008-2013), Washington Nationals (2016-2017) and Houston Astros (2020- ).

During his managerial career Dusty would win 1892 games and his teams would reach the postseason 11 times (including 1998 wild card playoff). His teams would win seven division titles and finish in 2nd place seven mores times.

However, if Dusty had a managerial short coming it was in the postseason. He was never able to win a World Series and only qualified for the World Series one time (2002). It often wasn’t so much that his teams were soundly beaten in the postseason, as his teams would find an excruciating way to lose. Below is a recap of some of his more memorable postseason appearances.

1993

The Giants would not qualify for the postseason in 1993, however, Dusty’s first year as manager was very memorable. Besides bringing Dusty in as manager, the Giants had signed free agent Barry Bonds. Barry was the son of Dusty’s childhood friend Bobby Bonds. Dusty would Manage Barry Bonds for 10 years in San Francisco, however, he would leave the Giants before Bonds would surpass Henry Aaron’s home run record in 2007.

Bobby Bonds and Willie Mays

Bobby Bonds and Willie Mays

When combining Bonds, with Will Clark and Matt Williams the Giants had a formidable lineup in 1993. The Giants started strong and built a lead over Atlanta, but slumped in late August and early September. By the middle of September the Braves had caught and passed the Giants and had a built a 4 game lead. The Giants would win 14 of their next 16 games and entering the last day of the season were in a tie with the Braves.

Dusty would choose Rookie Solomon Torres to pitch on the last day against the Dodgers. He had been in the rotation in September and pitched fairly well. But on this day whether it was the pressure of the moment or Tommy Lasorda’s emotional speech before the game reminding the Dodgers of previous years that the Giants had spoiled their season and that this was a chance for payback, Torres didn’t have it. The Giants were blown out 12-1.

Dusty was known throughout his career as a manager who stuck with his veteran players. It may have been this decision to use a rookie in a critical situation, in his first year as manager, which caused him to rely on veterans thereafter.

The Giants had won 103 games in 1993, the second most of any team in all of Baseball. However, the Braves won 104 and there were no wild card teams back then. By all accounts this was a very successful first year for Dusty, it would turn out to be the most regular season wins he ever had as a manager. It just didn’t end well and unfortunately this would be a scenario that would repeat itself again and again in his managerial career.

Russ Ortiz and Dusty

Russ Ortiz and Dusty

2000

In 2000 the Giants would win 97 games which was the most of any team in Baseball that year and they would win the Western Division going away. It was the Giants first year in their new ballpark and there was a lot of anticipation in the Bay Area that this could be their year.

They would face the Mets in the National League Divisional Series (NLDS). The series started out well for the Giants winning the first game. But they would not win again. Two extra inning loses in Games 2 and 3, followed by a one hit shutout thrown against them by Bobby Jones in Game 4 ended their season. It was a shocking end to a really good year.

2002

By August in 2002 the Giants had fallen far behind the Arizona Diamondbacks, but a late season surge that was ignited by the midseason acquisition of Kenny Lofton secured them a wild card spot in the playoffs. They would beat the Braves 3 games to 2 in a tough five game NLDS and then they would beat the Cardinals 4 games to 1 in the National League Championship Series (NLCS).

They would then play the Angels in the World Series. After five games of the World Series the Giants held a 3 games to 2 lead. Entering the bottom of the 7th of Game 6 the Giants had a 5-0 lead, the World Series appeared to be theirs. However, the Angels rallied in the 7th causing Dusty to remove starter Russ Ortiz from the game. The bullpen gave up three runs in the 7th and then three more in the 8th and the Giants lost 6-5. Likely demoralized, the Giants went down rather easily in Game 7.

It was the most devastating end to a season yet for Dusty and it was very difficult for the Giants Organization and fans as well. The Giants didn’t pick up his contract for 2003 and he would be hired by the Chicago Cubs to be their manager. It is hard to imagine that you could suffer a worse end to a season, but for Dusty something that may have been worse was right around the corner.

Chicago Cubs Manager

Chicago Cubs Manager

2003

The Cubs were coming off a miserable year in 2002 where they had lost 95 games. Their Manager Don Baylor had been fired in the middle of the season and Bruce Kimm had been hired to finish out the season.

In 2003 with Dusty as the manager, the Cubs would be much improved. They would win the National League Central Division with a strong finish to the season, edging out the Astros and Cardinals. Then they would beat the Braves 3 games to 2 in a tight National League Division Series (NLDS).

Next came the Florida Marlins in the National League Championship Series (NLCS). In a best of 7 series the Cubs would take a 3-1 lead. After losing Game 5 in Florida, they would return to Chicago just needing one win to advance to the World Series for the first time since 1945. In Game 6 they would jump out to a 3-0 lead going into the eighth inning, just six outs from the World Series.

After the first batter was retired in the 8th, Marlins Luis Castillo hit a fly ball down the left field line in which left fielder Moises Alou appeared ready to catch. However, a fan reached out and deflected the ball away from Alou. The umpires did not call fan interference as the ball was near the stands. Alou was livid and adamant that he was ready to make the catch. Since the play occurred in the left field corner, Dusty never saw it.

Castillo instead of making the second out, eventually reached base on a walk. The Marlins would rally and before the third out was recorded, 8 runs would cross the plate and a 3-0 Cubs lead turned into an 8-3 deficit. The Marlins would go on to win Game 6 and then win Game 7 by the score of 9-6, rallying from an early deficit.

This was a devastating loss for Cub fans who had waited so long to return to the World Series and then were denied in the most excruciating way. A lot of blame was placed on the fan who deflected the fly ball (Steve Bartman), so much so that he was given police protection at his house.

One famous quote attributed to Dusty was “I am a strong man and I usually get over hurts and it makes me stronger when I come back”. After what occurred in 2002 and then again in 2003, that quote would be put to the test.

Dusty would spend three more years in Chicago, but would not reach the postseason again. The Cubs choose not to renew Dusty’s contract after the 2006 Season. He was hired by the Cincinnati Reds beginning in the 2008 Season.

Cincinnati Reds Manager

Cincinnati Reds Manager

2012

In 2012, Dusty’s fifth year with the Reds, the Reds would win the National League Central Division in a runaway. The Reds won 97 games, which was the second most wins in all of baseball. In the NLDS the Reds would play the Giants and would quickly jump to a 2 games to none lead winning the first two games in San Francisco. All they needed was to win one of three games at home to win the series. They couldn’t do it.

They lost a tough pitchers dual in Game three in extra innings, largely as a result of an error. In the 4th and 5th games they fell behind early and couldn’t recover. In a season where they were never swept at home in a three game series during the regular season, it happened in the postseason.

After losing in the postseason last year as Manager of the Astros, a reporter asked Dusty how difficult it was to lose again. He said that the 2020 loss was not as tough as some previous losses and he mentioned 2012 as being particularly difficult.

Although the Reds under Dusty had qualified for the playoffs in three of his six years in Cincinnati, they would fire him after the 2013 Season. He would be hired by the Washington Nationals beginning in the 2016 Season.

Washington Nationals Manager

Washington Nationals Manager

2016

In 2016 when Dusty became manager of the Washington Nationals, he inherited a team that had been to the postseason in two of the previous four years. However, they had been unable to win a series in the postseason. That trend would continue.

In Dusty’s first year with the Washington National’s they would win 95 games and win the National League East rather easily. In the NLDS they would play the Dodgers and would jump out to a 2-1 lead in a best of five series. However, the Dodgers would win the last two games, both by one run, and win the series. Once again a very tough way to end the season for Dusty.

2017

In 2017 the Nationals would have another successful year, winning 97 games. They would win the National League East by 20 games. In the NLDS they would play the Cubs in a best of five series. The series would be extended to the fifth and final game. The Cubs would end up winning Game 5 by a 9-8 score. The key inning in that game was the Cubs fifth, when they scored four runs. In that inning the Cubs were aided greatly by a passed ball on a swinging third strike, a catcher’s interference and a hit batsman.

It was another bitter end to a season. After two years with the Nationals winning 95 and 97 games, Dusty’s reward was to be fired again. At the age of 70, he would be hired once again to Manage. This time it was for the 2020 Houston Astros.

Houston Astros Manager

Houston Astros Manager

2020

The Astros coming off recent allegations of cheating, had fired their previous Manager A.J Hinch who had been connected to the cheating scandal. They were looking for someone who could give them a fresh start and maybe above all someone who was of the highest character. Dusty being hired as Manager of the Astros at this time spoke volumes about the integrity of the man.

When Astros owner Jim Crane announced Baker as the Astros manager, he said of Dusty:

"Throughout his successful career, Dusty has embodied the qualities that we were looking for in a manager, he's a winner, and more importantly, a strong leader who has earned the respect of not only his players, but of virtually everyone that he has touched in baseball.''

In the Covid shortened regular season of 2020, the Astros were 29-31, but they qualified for the expanded playoffs that were put in place due to the short season. Once in the playoffs the Astros caught fire, they beat the Twins 2 games to none in a best of three series and then beat the Oakland Athletics 3 games to 1 in the American League Division Series (ALDS). They then faced the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Championship Series (ALCS). The Rays would win the first three games of the series, but the Astros came back and won the next three games. However, the Rays would win Game 7 and end the Astros season.

It was another tough playoff loss, again losing one game short of the World Series. Dusty has one more year on his contract with the Astros, but has indicated that he isn’t sure if he will come back.

CAREER SUMMARY

I suppose it would be easy to summarize Dusty’s managerial career as simply “He couldn’t win the big one” and I am sure there are many that have done just that. However, I believe that would be very shortsighted. Dusty is 15th all- time in wins as a manager and was named Manager of the year three times. Below is a comparison of Dusty’s managerial record with the best Managers of his era:

ManagerSeasonsWinsWinning Percentage Postseason AppearancesWorld Series Wins

Tony La Russa

33

2728

.536

14

3

Bobby Cox

29

2504

.556

16

1

Joe Torre

29

2326

.538

15

4

Jim Leyland

22

1769

.506

8

1

Bruce Bochy

25

2003

.497

8

3

Terry Francona

20

1702

.543

10

2

Joe Maddon

17

1278

.537

8

1

Lou Piniella

23

1835

.517

7

1

Dusty Baker

23

1892

.532

11

0

His numbers compare in regard to winning percentage and number of post season appearances versus years managing. He’s the only manager ever to take five different teams to the postseason. The only glaring difference of course is the number of World Series wins.

It is true that Dusty has not fared well in the postseason. There are a number of possible theories as to why this is the case. Dusty has always been a patient manager, especially with veteran players who are proven major leaguers. He would often let a veteran pitcher “work his way through” a rough patch in a game rather than pulling him. He would continue to start a player in the field who may be slumping at the plate.

This approach seemed to pay dividends in the long regular season, as these proven veteran players would usually work their way through their slump and then provide a lot of production for Dusty’s teams. In addition, these players’ would develop a tremendous loyalty toward Dusty because of the faith that he had in them. Dusty’s players generally loved playing for him and would likely give a little extra as a result.

However, in the postseason this philosophy may not work so well. There isn’t time to let a pitcher work through a problem. It is often best to go with whoever is hitting well at that time, not necessarily someone who has done well throughout the season. The postseason is short and every game is critical.

It is also speculated that this philosophy of sticking with veteran pitchers often leads to them being overused. Dusty has been criticized that his philosophy has caused some pitchers to develop arm problems (I.e. Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Robb Nen). Even if it doesn’t cause an injury, it may leave his key veteran pitchers tired at the end of the season and therefore not as effective in the postseason.

It is also very possible that as the postseason failures started to mount that he may, consciously or not, have put pressure on his players in the postseason which could have negatively affected their performance.

While all of these theories for postseason futility may have some merit, it is hard to believe that they entirely explain it. If Dusty had a philosophy that was fundamentally flawed for the postseason, it would seem likely that he would be overmatched in the postseason. However, that has generally not been the case. In 2002, 2003, 2012, 2016, 2017 and 2020, the postseason series was extended to its full length before his team lost. Can a fundamental flaw in a system explain losses by razor thin margins?

Could part of the blame lie in the teams that he was managing. Until his recent job with the Houston Astros, he never managed a team that had been recently successful in the postseason. In fact, some of the teams had historical postseason failures or simply never were in the postseason.

The Giants had not won a World Series in their 35 years in San Francisco when he began managing them. The Cubs hadn’t won a World Series in 95 years when he started managing them. The Reds had won a World Series 18 years before Dusty began managing them, but they had only been in the postseason one time since that last World Series win. The Nationals had not won a World Series since moving to Washington in 2005 and were fresh off some postseason disappointments when Dusty took over there.

Is it possible that the organizations for which he managed and their pennant starved fan base was also responsible for putting undue pressure on the players, causing them to press at the most critical of times?

I think it’s also important to point out, that it is simply a difficult task to go through the playoffs and win a World Series. In the 1960’s and before only the winners of the American and National Leagues made it to the postseason. While it was more difficult to get to the postseason in those days, if you got there you had a pretty good chance of winning. Under the current postseason format, ten teams make the playoffs and only one will win.

Bobby Cox was in 16 postseasons and only won one time. Jim Leyland and Joe Madden were in 8 postseasons and won one time. Of his contemporaries only Joe Torre and Bruce Bochy had a significantly higher ratio of World Series wins compared with postseason appearances. Tony La Russa won 3 titles but he managed for 33 years.

There is no doubt that Dusty’s managerial career would be viewed a lot different with just one World Series Title. It could have come in a number of different years where he came so close. But maybe it was meant to be that he not win a World Series as a Manager.

Dusty has had one of the greatest careers of anyone in baseball. But it’s been a career that has sort of been “under the radar”. He had a solid Major League career as a player, but he played in Atlanta in the shadow of Henry Aaron and then went to a Dodgers team that was loaded with talent and again was not at the forefront.

When starting his managerial career with the Giants, he came the same year as Barry Bonds and again was somewhat in the background. After leaving the Giants he never managed too long at any one place and therefore was not a significant fixture on those teams.

Ken Griffey Jr., Dusty and Lou Piniella

Ken Griffey Jr., Dusty and Lou Piniella

His stats as a player are good but not Hall of Fame worthy. His stats as a Manager are good, maybe outstanding, but without a World Series Title probably not Hall of Fame worthy. However, when you look at his entire body of work in baseball, there are few that could compare. Dusty is one of only four people to have 1,500 or more hits as a player and 1,500 or more wins as a manager. The other three are Joe Torre, Lou Piniella and Fred Clarke, who played and managed in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

Dusty’s career also included unique connections with the some of the greatest players to ever play the game. He was a good player, he was a good teammate, he was a good manager who was loved by his players and he was of the highest character. Who knows, he may continue to manage and finally win a World Series. But even if he doesn’t, it is fair to say that Dusty Baker’s Baseball Life has truly been amazing.

Mark Grace and Dusty

Mark Grace and Dusty

Comments

Dave Braun (author) from Chowchilla, CA on February 12, 2021:

Thanks for your comments. I appreciate it.

CJ Kelly from the PNW on February 09, 2021:

Very detailed look at Dusty. I have criticized his style over the years and remember that game in '93 vividly. To me, his handling of the pitching staff was always the biggest problem. But he's a good guy and never hear anything bad about him. Great interview too.

Good job. Sharing.