Reds manager Dusty Baker sits in the same spot for every home game, just to the right of the steps leading to the on-deck circle. He gnaws on his trademark toothpicks with the same intensity the players reserve for sunflower seeds, which litter the dugout steps and every square foot nearby.
Baker has been a manager so long now, 21 seasons and counting, it’s hard to believe it’s a career he almost didn’t choose. On Monday, as he chased his 1,600th career win, Baker reflected on the path he’s traveled.
In 1987, one year after the end of his playing career, he was working as a stockbroker and getting divorced. He said he was at a crossroads when Al Rosen, then general manager of the Giants, approached him about getting into coaching.
This was just after Dodgers GM Al Campanis created controversy with his remarks on ABC’s Nightline about why there were so few blacks managing in the big leagues.
“There were some of us in the right place at the right time,” Baker said. “Me, Don Baylor, Hal McRae and probably Cito Gaston.”
Baker didn’t know what to do. His dad told him to hike up Big Bear Mountain, a ski resort east of Los Angeles, and pray about it.
“Sit down someplace and think about it,” said Johnnie B. Baker Sr., who died in 2009.
Baker happened to run into Giants owner Bob Lurie at the resort.
“Bob Lurie taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘Hey, Dusty, you need to come join us,’” Baker said. “He said, ‘How often have you been here?’ I said, ‘It’s my first time.’ He said, ‘It’s my first time, too.’”
Baker called his dad and asked, “Do you think that’s a sign?”
It certainly was because Baker was hired by the Giants as first-base coach in 1988.
Baker told himself, “Give me five years. I give orders better than receiving them. If I’m in the same position, I’ll do something else. Five years to the day, I started managing.”
The rest is history. Going into Tuesday’s game against the Braves at Great American Ball Park, Baker was tied with his former manager Tommy Lasorda for 19th on the all-time wins list. Their records are almost identical, in fact. Baker has eight more losses (1,447). Only eight of the 17 managers above Baker and Lasorda have better winning percentages.
“I never dreamed I’d be in this position,” Baker said. “I never dreamed I’d be managing. It just shows you what life’s turns give you sometimes.”