Dusty Baker: An old Brave comes home again

Some 50 years ago, Dusty Baker prayed that the Braves would not draft him.

Though he was familiar with boundaries in race relations — Baker and his brother had been the only African-Americans at Del Campo (Calif.) High School — shipping off for the deep South in the mid-1960s transcended baseball. Yet, here he was, taken by the Braves in the 27th round of the 1967 draft, 18 years old and one confused kid.

“I said, ‘Lord, I guess you didn’t hear me,”’ Baker said Tuesday. “But it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Ever. I couldn’t have written a better script for my life.”

Because he met Henry Aaron.

Now 67, Baker keeps coming back to Atlanta, here this week with his high-flying Washington Nationals for a three-game series with the Braves at SunTrust Park. But as he keeps returning, his times with Aaron keep coming back to him. They helped to mold the three-time manager of the year, taught him that the game is no greater than those who play it. For that, he remains grateful.

Baker is in his fifth managing stop and having gone through six managers in 10 seasons before he signed on last year, the Nationals haven’t really been a career destination for the skipper set. But he has skills.

“I think one of the things that Dusty’s really good at is he’s real warm guy,” Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth said. “He kind of brings everybody together. Not that we didn’t have that before, but we’ve been the same team for the last four, five, six years. We’ve always had good chemistry in the room, but Dusty does a good job of bringing the whole thing together. He’s a warm, generous guy. He really sets the whole thing up.”

No one had to teach Baker to be kind. In 1968, only a year removed from Del Campo, he made the improbable trip from the Single-A sticks to Atlanta, where, after just 67 games in the minors, the Braves let him get a whiff of the Show in 1968.

“Me and Ralph Garr, we stayed in the old Dinkler Hotel downtown,” Baker said. “Yeah, we went to Friedman’s shoes. Got in trouble hanging out on 10th Street. All the hippies, it reminded me of home. Felt really comfortable about it.”

It is imaginable that the kid might gravitate toward Aaron during that first call-up, but the truth is their relationship began before Baker determined to be a baseball player. While the team was in Los Angeles the year before, the Braves invited Baker to Dodger Stadium for a workout after the draft.

“I cultivated my relationship with Hank the day I signed,” Baker said. “I was torn between going to college and playing basketball. My parents had just gotten divorced and I didn’t know what to do. … Hank promised my mother he’d take care of me as if I was his own kid. (When he made it to Atlanta) he took me over to his house every day. He made me go to church. He made me not stay up. He made me go to bed.”

Such Aaron tales made their way into Baker’s managerial text. And he summons the Hammer’s name when he will.

“The knowledge (Baker) has of the game is incredible and just listening to the stories and the things that he’s been through, it’s pretty special to be around,” said outfielder Michael Taylor, the Nationals’ only African-American player. “He’s told us some stories. Hank was such a big part of his career coming up.”

Then it was over. Freeze-frame: Baker was on-deck in 1974 when Aaron hit his 715th home run. And like that, Aaron was gone the following season to Milwaukee and Baker was gone the year after that, dealt in a five-player trade to the Dodgers.

With the Braves, he was only a part of the Garr-Aaron-Baker outfield. In Los Angeles, he became a star, winning a couple of Silver Slugger awards, a Gold Glove and making a couple of All-Star teams, all from a discarded 27th-rounder.

“(The Braves) had it right,” Nationals first base coach Davey Lopes said. “He just had to get away.”

Baker hit town this week with a 1,773-1,571 record, accumulated with San Francisco, the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati. With the Nationals’ April 10 win against St. Louis, he became the manager with the 16th-most wins in history, passing Jim Leyland. Only Bruce Bochy has more wins among active managers.

“I don’t know how long he wants to go,” said Lopes, an old Baker teammate from his Dodgers days. “That’s something you’ll have to talk with him about. He loves the game. He’s been good for the game in a lot of ways. A good player, a good manager. Probably the one thing he hasn’t done is win the big apple.”

Yes, a World Series championship is the only entry missing from Baker’s resume. He is in the second season of a two-year contract with the Nationals. Determining where this season will take him remains a Washington parlor game.

But this week, he will re-explore his old city, though he confesses unfamiliarity with the Braves’ new neighborhood.

“It’s different. I didn’t come out here to Cobb County much,” he said with a laugh.

He spoke of visiting Ebenezer Baptist Church and then to the Busy Bee Cafe near Morehouse, where not one but two of his pictures still hang on the wall. This is the Atlanta that Aaron introduced him to. To this day, he can’t imagine his career without him either.

“I was in the South for the first time,” Baker said. “Henry and Ralph, they taught me how to live and survive in the South. A kid from California, this was a time of unrest and segregation and Lester Maddox and George Wallace and all of the things you hear and read about and see on TV.”

So he learned and since then has lived a full baseball life so well.

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