Richard Justice: In an era of spreadsheets and cold hard numbers, Dusty Baker’s gift is his human touch

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Eric Christian Smith/AP/Shutterstock (13057592g) Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker Jr. watches from the dugout during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Seattle Mariners, in Houston Mariners Astros Baseball, Houston, United States – 30 Jul 2022

Richard Justice: In an era of spreadsheets and cold hard numbers, Dusty Baker’s gift is his human touch

   Dusty Baker summoned Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster to his office in 2006 as their team was playing out the string on a disappointing season that would ultimately cost the manager his job.

   “He asked me what my incentives were,” Dempster told The Athletic.

   That was it.

   Baker didn’t know if he’d ever cross paths with Ryan Dempster again in his life, but he knew he would do right by him if he could.

   “I never had a manager do that in my life,” Dempster said. He told his manager he had some financial incentives for “games finished.”

   That is, every time he got the final out of a game, he’d earn a few extra dollars. So in the closing days of that season, Dempster got as many chances to finish games as Baker could reasonably give him.

   If you’re looking for a reason why Johnnie B. Baker Jr.’s players love him and respect him and bust their tail for him and why he has been one of the most successful managers of all time, Ryan Dempster is a good place to start.

   Or maybe it would be Reds first baseman Joey Votto, who told The Athletic that when he was struggling after the death of his father, Baker did one seemingly small thing that will remain in his heart forever.

   “He kissed me on the forehead,” Votto said. “I remember that specifically because I knew there was love; I knew he cared. That meant a lot to me. I still think about it.”

   Or perhaps it’s Ron Wotus, one of Baker’s coaches with the Giants.

   “You get to the park early, you jump out of a cab, and there’s autograph seekers,” Wotus said. “There are kids from the neighborhood hanging around, and they want autographs.

   “They’re yelling at the coaches: `Hey, Dusty! Hey, Dusty!’ And he’ll start a conversation with a kid… Next thing I know, (the kid) is walking in the clubhouse with us.”

   These anecdotes are part of a touching piece The Athletic recently published under the headline: True stories of Dusty Baker: ‘I’m the second-most-interesting man in the world.’

   It’s required reading for anyone attempting to understand why Johnnie B. Baker Jr. is the ninth-winningest manager in baseball history and why he has led five different franchises to the playoffs.

   With the Astros on the cusp of winning their 100th game, Baker is about to become the fourth manager in MLB history to win 100 in both leagues, joining only Sparky Anderson, Whitey Herzog, and Tony La Russa. Baker’s 1993 Giants went 103-59.

   He’s finishing up his third season with the Astros and has led them to the postseason every year. But he’s not signed for the 2023 season and may need a deep playoff run to keep his job.

   He’s 73 years old and has been associated with major league baseball for 55 years as a player, coach, and manager, give or take an unplanned sabbatical or two after being dismissed by the Cubs, Reds, and Nationals.

   While it’s true he might not be a perfect fit in the spreadsheet hardball of the analytics era; he also has the single greatest gift a manager can have: He knows how to reach people and convince them to play hard and understand that every decision he makes is what’s best for the team.

  The Athletic interviewed dozens of Baker’s former players and coaches who still remember some small act of kindness or some random story or perhaps a reminder that his 73 years have been a long, fascinating journey.

   During his two seasons managing the Washington Nationals—postseason appearances in both—the team’s beat writers would keep a running list of names Baker would drop during the daily interview seasons. One day, it would be a Supreme Court Justice he’d met along the way. Or maybe it was the time he and Jimi Hendrix chatted.

   Yet players still remember that some of those chats were pieces of advice they never forgot. Outfielder Darren Lewis said Baker once told him: “Darren when you go up to the plate, do you look around?”

   “And I said no. He said, `Survey the land … You need to survey the land. Look, the center fielder is playing over there, and the left fielder is over here. So this is how they’re going to pitch you.’”

   And this from former Reds and Nationals outfielder Chris Heisey: “We were playing in Wrigley Field, and I was in a major slump. He told me one day: `You look like a statue in the batter’s box. You need to take your wife dancing.’ I’m like, `Dusty; I don’t dance.’ He’s like, `Yeah, I can tell.’”

   Another one from Heisey: “Hey, Heisey,” Baker told him, “I know how you grew up. I know you’re a cheap (expletive). I think you should give this to your wife.” He handed Heisey a Louis Vuitton purse.

   He once left a Buddy Guy shirt in pitcher Bronson Arroyo’s locker. Reliever Joe Blanton got a bottle of moonshine. When Nationals pitcher  Sammy Solis mentioned a certain reggae band, Baker would introduce him to the lead singer that season.

   Cubs pitcher Glendon Rusch was waved into Baker’s office and, for the next 15 or 20 minutes, sat in awe as Baker and Hank Aaron talked about their playing days together.

   “I was so overwhelmed,” Rusch said.

   Baker occasionally would burn sage to rid a team of evil spirits. He carried a copy of The Art of War around one season. He sampled every kind of cuisine, and if you ask him for his collar greens recipe, prepare to take lots of notes.

   All of it comes with a human touch.

   “He has this feel that’s very hard to find in a manager,” Solis said.

   Once, he asked pitchers Blanton and Shawn Kelley to come to his office. What they saw is likely to remain with them for the rest of their days.

   “As soon as we walk in, Dusty’s smoking a cigar, Tupac was blasting so loud you couldn’t hear him talk, and he just gives us a speech,” Blanton said.

   Baker’s 841 regular-season victories almost certainly will get him inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame at some point. Only 22 managers have had that distinction, and all of them have won at least one World Series, which is the lone line missing from Baker’s record. Whether he fills that line in this season or not, it won’t change the opinion of some of the people that know him best.

   Votto spoke for a lot of Baker’s players when he said: “I love Dusty Baker. That’s the word to use — I love him.”

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