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Dusty Baker making his last stand with Nationals

Dusty Baker is beginning his 21st season as a major league manager. AP Photo/John Raoux

He did not meet death that night in June 2014. Death would not be so callous, claiming him in the blankness of a downtown Cleveland hotel bed. Only hours earlier, he had received a clean bill of health from the Cleveland Clinic, one of the leading heart and vascular centers in the country. In the hours that followed, he was not dying, but Johnnie B. Baker Jr., 66 years old yet known as Dusty ever since his mother noticed he liked playing in the dirt as a young boy, could not explain why he was sweating. Or why his chest hurt. Or why he saw fluorescent orange "energy globes" spotting and splattering his room.

He got up, went to the bathroom and splashed cold water on his face. Better now. The spots remained, but he was calm enough to fall asleep. Hours later, when he awoke, the spots were gone. Then the phone rang.

It was Melissa, his wife of 21 years, calling from home in California to tell him the news: Bob Welch, one of his best friends and a teammate on the 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers team that won the World Series, was dead.

"Bobby Welch. That shattered me. He was my guy, my brother," Baker says, seated at his desk in his home office on a gray January day. "I know it's going to sound crazy, and to some people it won't make sense, but I believe it. I really do. That night in my room, I think that was Bobby's way of saying goodbye to me."

Baker leans back in his chair, removes his glasses and thinks about his life. To his left is a picture of him and his two brothers -- black, stylish, smiling -- maybe from the early 1980s. It was one of the good days, and an elegiac wave washes Baker's face whenever he mentions his brother, Victor, whose financial advice led to Baker's near financial ruin, to Victor's own emotional breakdown, and to hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses on the part of Baker's former teammates, whom to this day Baker has vowed to repay because they trusted his name.

To his right is a 20-foot, floor-to-ceiling library of books, autobiographical in subject: California, the West, hunting, Native Americans, baseball, African-American history. Baker mentions Welch again and then Rod Beck, his closer with San Francisco who died of a drug overdose in 2007, and finally, the hardest, most recent blow, the murder of Darryl Hamilton the past June. Baker's hands are over his face, fingers pressing into his temples.

For a moment, there's a reminder of 2003, the year Baker took the Chicago Cubs to the brink of the NL pennant before infamy tapped that team on the shoulder. The late writer David Halberstam once said, "There will come a point in your life when going to funerals becomes an everyday occurrence. The phone will ring, and before you pick up, you will wonder for a second who it is and who they're about to tell you it was. It will become a daily part of your life, and you will realize there is absolutely nothing you can do about it."

Age and time are gnawing at Baker, the senior citizen with the youthful nickname and the young team in Washington, the man returning to a ruthless, $10 billion business masquerading as a boy's game. Welch was the kid with the unlined face and lightning bolt fastball who stared down and struck Reggie Jackson out to end Game 2 of the 1978 World Series in one of the most iconic mano-a-mano showdowns in World Series history. He was 21 then, and he was 57 when he accidentally fell in his bathroom, broke his neck and died on June 9, 2014.

Two of Baker's coaches from his first managerial job -- the 103-win, no-playoff 1993 San Francisco Giants -- are gone. Bobby Bonds, his first-base coach, another kid phenom in his day and father of Barry, died of lung cancer in 2003, also at 57. Wendell Kim, his third-base coach with the Giants and the Cubs, died from complications of early Alzheimer's disease a year ago at 64.

In Baker's massive, 12,000-square-foot compound in Granite Bay, California, 15 minutes northeast of Sacramento, is a spacious workout room, complete with a sauna and photographs of so many legends that his weight room looks as if it belongs in Cooperstown. Baker exercises every day, but time has not only taken his friends but also challenged him: prostate cancer in 2001, an irregular heartbeat, sleep apnea, a stroke in 2012 and, earlier this month, surgery to remove cataracts from his left eye.

The Cincinnati Reds fired Baker after his third 90-win season in his final four seasons, yet no one in baseball called, maybe using his health or his age or both as an excuse to say goodbye without his consent. So Dusty Baker had begun the walk, walking away from his known world.

His inheritance

"I know all about family, but mister, you can't raise your family on my back," and Augustus, knowing where the sun was, turned and headed north.
Augustus was a few yards away when Hillard said, "You come back here...I'm telling you to come back here." Augustus continued on.
"Hilly?" Hope called from the porch. "What's going on?"
Her husband raised the rifle and fired a shot into Augustus' left shoulder...Augustus lowered his head and fell to the ground. Hope screamed.
"I told you to stop, dammit! N-----, all I wanted was for you to stop."
Augustus heard him and wanted to say that that was the biggest lie he had ever heard in his life, but he was dying and words were precious.

-- Edward P. Jones, "The Known World"

Jones' sprawling masterpiece is about a slave named Augustus who buys his freedom and is immediately kidnapped back into slavery. Rather than be enslaved again, Augustus walks away, but he is never allowed to reach freedom. Baker resembles Augustus; he does not need baseball, yet is positioned through a hostile analytics faction and a game that is getting more class-driven and younger to have his successes diminished and his intelligence ridiculed and to be wounded one final time.

The freedom of the unknown is at his fingertips, but Baker has re-entered his known world. He started playing baseball in 1955, when Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers finally won the World Series. He was 6 then, growing up in Riverside, California, before his family relocated to Sacramento. In 1968, when Baker was 19 and debuted with both the Atlanta Braves and the United States Marine Corps, 34-year-old Henry Aaron promised Dusty's mother, Christine, to take care of her boy.

"I'm happy [Dusty] is back in the game. When you're on the outside, you really don't know if another opportunity will be there. The game needs him."

Joe Torre

Baker is a living link to the entire history of black baseball. This is his inheritance, even as the numbers suggest the inheritance is slipping away. African-Americans now comprise only 8 percent of all MLB players, and baseball was dangerously close to beginning 2016 without an African-American manager, before it ended up with two. Satchel Paige played in the first seasons of the newly created Negro League in the 1920s, and he played in the 1940s with Robinson, who played against Aaron in the 1950s and told Henry specifically to raise the next young black stars, which Henry did with Dusty and Ralph Garr and Cito Gaston in the 1960s and 1970s.

Robinson didn't live long enough to see it, but it was Dusty who pushed through the managerial door, the one Frank Robinson walked through first in 1975 and Dusty has walked through best. He is the most successful African-American manager in Major League Baseball history, and he is proud of that.

"I've known Dusty since he first came up with the Braves," said Joe Torre, a teammate of Baker's for six games in 1968, when Baker was a 19-year-old September call-up and Torre was a 28-year-old veteran.

Torre was traded to St. Louis the following year. It was Torre, a prostate cancer survivor, who first called and counseled Dusty when his diagnosis came in 2001.

"I always talk about the beating heart to this game, and Dusty is part of that," Torre said. "I'm happy he's back in the game. When you're on the outside, you really don't know if another opportunity will be there. The game needs him."

One last score

Baker walking away was not voluntary, and baseball, which had nurtured him, loved him and hurt him, told him it no longer wanted him in the ice-cold way baseball does: by having younger people who have achieved less than you hire younger people who have accomplished less than you in the name of progress.

In the two years he was out of the game, Baker ignored the blows to his pride and went knocking on doors. He called Detroit when Jim Leyland left but before Brad Ausmus was hired. No one from the Tigers returned his call. He phoned Seattle, a city he says always "called out to him" and would have scratched his itch to manage in the American League. The Mariners ignored him and hired Scott Servais. He reached out to A.J. Preller, the San Diego Padres' general manager. Preller hired Andy Green.

"I still wanted to manage. I just wanted the baseball world to know that I wasn't retired."

Dusty Baker

To a man with three National League Manager of the Year trophies, one National League pennant, 1,671 career wins, eight 90-win seasons and a career .526 win percentage, only the Padres offered the courtesy of a return phone call.

"I didn't think about my dignity because my dignity is fine," he said. "I still wanted to manage. I just wanted the baseball world to know that I wasn't retired. There's a difference between being fired and being retired, and I really didn't care how it looked, so I made calls. I called them, yes, but at least San Diego called me back."

When the Nationals fired Matt Williams, whom Baker managed for four-plus seasons with the Giants, he had interest. The Nationals were playoff-ready and full of young talent, and historically, black managers don't inherit teams ready to win. The Nationals have the best player in his league -- and maybe the game -- in Bryce Harper.

While Baker was doing studio work in Atlanta for TBS with Pedro Martinez and Gary Sheffield during last year's playoffs, he used his connections to secure an interview with Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo in Atlanta -- but not before calling Williams first, out of respect. There were other rumored candidates: Ron Gardenhire, Bud Black, even Leyland, who was being tempted to come out of retirement. Although Baker was not retired, maybe another message was being sent: Baseball was retiring him.

Meanwhile, Baker had begun devising a way to exist in his known world while being his own man and giving his life the kind of shape required to soothe the truth -- if it was indeed the truth -- that baseball would never call on him again. He bought land in Hawaii, six acres on the quiet island of Kauai, where he and Melissa plan to retire. In addition to greens and oranges and nectarines, Baker began growing grapes on his property, which so spurred a longtime interest in wine that he has become a vintner and the proprietor of Baker Family Wines.

The grapes of one of his labels, the Legacy Syrah, are grown entirely on his property. He formed Baker Energy Co., a solar-power company that had resulted from a chance meeting years earlier in Chicago with Ted Roth, who was on the board of the San Diego Padres and wanted to hunt with Baker, a man he admired.

"I don't hunt with people I don't know," Baker told him. Roth was persistent, and the result was a partnership and a new tributary of himself, an interest in renewable energy. Although connected to the regional grid, his house is nearly 100 percent solar efficient, and it has a reusable water system.

There is no understanding Baker without understanding the music that lives inside him. In the great room of his house, to the left of a large, flat-screen television just smaller than a Caribbean key, are tributes to the big boys -- portraits of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker (who used to visit Baker in his Candlestick Park office), a B.B. King guitar -- and stories. He met Davis not through Hooker but through Orlando Cepeda. On the coffee table are photo books from the old days of Janis Joplin, Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix.

Baker was alone among the sequoias, along the southwestern slope of the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods -- a writing retreat in Soquel, California, run by former San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer Steve Kettmann -- listening to a woman playing the saxophone down the hill in the distance. It was there that he heard the Nationals had initially offered the job to Black. Baker had just completed "Kiss the Sky," a book about how music, particularly Jimi Hendrix (with whom Baker had once smoked a joint) and attending the iconic 1968 Monterey Pop Festival (which made the already famous Hendrix iconic), influenced him.

He shook his head. He got the message: Baseball had spoken. Days later, when Washington's deal with Black collapsed, the Nationals returned to Baker, who accepted a lower salary and less security.

He does not need to return to baseball, but he wants to. The California in him, the pride in him, contains so many elusive and romantic elements of an old Western: the weathered gunfighter returning to town for one last score, to tie up the baseball life and all its near-misses and loose ends, insults and hurts, before riding off into the sunset.

If the Washington Nationals are not championship material, they are very close to it. If Dusty Baker is not a Hall of Fame manager, he is very close to that too. The California in Baker, the Western in him, sees Kauai in the distance and the land he owns there, close enough to touch and waiting for him. But it will have to wait until after he salves the wounds and seals the hurt. Perhaps this is the sin of pride talking, the thirst for revenge, but the path Baker has chosen is an American romance, a Western one that has never been part of the black narrative because few African-Americans leave their known world the way Dusty Baker is trying to: on his own terms.

'He liked me'

The dance between pain and triumph is always most visceral in sports. The scoreboard is supposed to be eternal, but the way to keep score, as in life, is always changing. Baker's greatest team, the 1993 Giants, launched his successful managerial career, one that ended in San Francisco with a heartbreaking, seven-game loss in the 2002 World Series and, quickly after that, the loss of his job. Neither could top the feeling of betrayal when his personal finances and prolonged battle with the Internal Revenue Service were made public.

Fourteen years later, it still hurts. Baker walks around the weight room and looks up at one of the flat-screen televisions. ESPN is on. It's SportsCenter.

"Somebody leaked it," he says, hissing the words through the television. "Right? Somebody. Nobody knows who, right? Right to Peter Gammons."

Losing the Series was one thing, but his reputation quite another -- just as his playing career will always be tinged by the campaign in the 1980s to tie him to the infamous cocaine scandals taking place at the time.

Later that afternoon, while driving around Granite Bay and running errands for his solar company before he leaves for spring training, Baker talks in puzzle pieces -- sometimes, it seems, to himself -- about the "ones who tried to ruin me and the ones who told me they were going to try to ruin me because I was the 'smart one.' "

Since Tommy Lasorda retired in 1996, Baker has never been a candidate to manage the Dodgers, the team of his greatest success as a player, and there's a big part of him that believes those years are the reason for that.

The competitor in Baker wants to set things straight. Down one hallway in his home are photos, and one stands out more than the rest: a painting of the great Shawnee chief Tecumseh, of whom there are no known accurate renderings. But Baker commissioned a Cincinnati artist to try after reading "When the Mississippi Ran Backward," written by his friend Jay Feldman.

Upstairs, Baker passes the framed photo of the all-time San Francisco Giants team, on which he was voted as manager.

"[Bruce] Bochy is going to replace me there," he says shyly, pointing at the frame. "But I'm glad to have had it for the time that I did."

There is, in Baker, the confidence of the lifelong athlete, of the successful at an elite level, a man whose house doubles as a sanctuary and museum. Yet there is also the raw tug of a man who -- for all the bats and trophies and autograph balls and letters from presidents, love from family, extended family, saunas, pools and square footage -- feels that something, something vital, has never been given to him.

That something is embodied in a photo that sits on his desk. It is a photo of Bill Walsh, the Hall of Fame coach of the San Francisco 49ers, surrounded by Joe Montana, Bill Ring, Dwight Clark and Eric Wright, each one a member of the 1981 49ers team that sparked a football dynasty. Also in the photo is one baseball guy: Dusty Baker.

In the photo, Walsh is smiling, but he is dying of leukemia. It was 2007.

"It really was Bill's last supper," Baker says of the photo. "Nobody really knew it, but that was the last time he really went out in public. Then he was gone."

George Seifert won a Super Bowl with the 49ers. Mike Holmgren, another Walsh disciple, did so with the Green Bay Packers. The Walsh tree is the stuff of football legend, but Baker and Walsh were so close, beginning with Baker's first job managing the Giants a quarter century ago. Walsh shared with him his philosophies for running an organization -- not $40,000-public speaking-gig, 30,000-foot high-minded philosophy, but down-to-the-bones, how-to-run-a-meeting-down-to-the-minute philosophy.

"Yeah, he liked me," Baker says of Walsh.

When Walsh died in 2007, Al Matthews, one of Walsh's 49ers assistants, gave Walsh's folders to Baker and told him, "Bill wanted you to have these." The manila folders are the sports equivalent of sifting through Beethoven's notes or Henry Ford's original blueprints. Eighteen of them, with labels ranging from "game plan time allotment" to "player lectures." Baker looks at some of his old handwriting on one of the sheets of paper, discussing the 1994 strike and the Giants' contemplating acquiring Darryl Strawberry. It is poignant because Walsh had a falling out with Ronnie Lott, one of his best players, when Lott would not cross the picket line for either the 1982 or 1987 NFL strikes.

Baker considers it an insult that he suffered constant ridicule within the new baseball establishment for unscientific management after an iconic thinker such as Walsh gave his imprimatur to him.

"I was winning 90 games, but I wasn't winning them the way people wanted me to," Baker says, scanning the notes, proud that one of the greatest brains in sports saw something in him that compelled him to share his knowledge.

"Look at all the things I've studied, the people I've learned from. You think this is all my gut? [The critics have] said so many things about me. ... But they never said I was smart."

Dusty Baker

"Look at all of this stuff? Look at all the things I've studied, the people I've learned from. You think this is all my gut? [The critics have] said so many things about me. They said I was lucky because I got Barry my first year. They said I knew how to work with players. They said I could get a lot out of a club, that I was a motivator.

"But they never said I was smart," Baker says before walking out of his office.

Nationals pull him back

Baker is all about what the Buddhists would call the "sangha," which means that all living things create a life force that touches all others. On the stove in the Baker's open kitchen, Melissa tends to the collard greens from the garden, a reminder of an old Baker tradition that has existed in San Francisco, Chicago and Cincinnati: At some point during a homestand, players and coaches are encouraged to bring in a dish for the team.

"My daddy used to say, 'Anybody can give you a glass of water, but if they feed you, they care about you,' " he says. "Part of it was nutrition. Part of it is tradition. Part of it is bringing the family atmosphere to the team as quickly as you can. We've had Italian food, Mexican, German food. Matzo soup. When I managed the Cubs, I never had a homemade pierogi, so whenever we went to Pittsburgh, Matt Clement's mother would make them.

"Guys aren't going to get along all the time. People aren't going to get along all the time. The United Nations was formed because people don't get along, and now you've got to spend 200 days together out of a possible 220 days? Same bus, same plane, same clubhouse. The Latin guys feed each other -- always have. You need that, just as long as when it's time to knock Albert Pujols down, you aren't afraid to do it because he fed you the night before."

Before returning to the house, Baker makes his last stop for a drink at Paul Martin's, a bustling, upscale restaurant in Granite Bay. He drinks scotch, a Macallan 25. Around Sacramento, Dusty's legend is not luminescent as much as it is oxygen. One patron enters and tells him Dusty's mother, Christine, taught one of his black studies classes back in the day. Several more stop to tell him little anecdotes about Dusty's father, the ever-present Johnnie B. Baker Sr. Another patron tells him the 1993 Giants were the most fun he has had during a baseball season, but the ending broke his heart.

"Me too," Baker says.

For the first time, Baker begins to turn his thoughts toward spring, the Nationals' training home in Viera, Florida, and baseball season. He sips his scotch, and his eyes light up when someone brings up Barry Bonds.

"Let me tell you about Barry," Baker says, standing by the bar around a small, captive audience that did not expect to be brought closer to fame during happy hour. "Barry would sit there and not move. He'd get one pitch a week to hit and not leave his comfort zone. He wouldn't let them wreck his program.

"I want that: one more chance to go back to the World Series, to win it as a player and a manager. Who knows? Maybe that's enough for the Hall of Fame."

Dusty Baker

"That's what I want to convey to Bryce [Harper]," Baker says. " 'You're the baddest cat in the lineup. They have to come for you, and if you just do your thing, there's going to be gravy for everybody.' "

This is the pull; baseball is still in him. Baker knows Kauai is there. The music courses through him. He is working on a future project: a partnership with the Torres-Martinez Native tribe in Indio, California, to bring solar power to the reservation. On the painting of Tecumseh sits a hawk and eagle feather, given to him as a gift of high respect from the Cheyenne. Baker's mother was born in Indio, and when Dusty was a kid, some of his classmates were from the reservation. He wants to bring his gifts to them.

Yet because of the pull, the gifts will have to wait. First, the old westerner is going back into town, back into the known world that has alternately built him and ruined him, told him to leave and brought him back, and never said he was smart. He knows pride is a sin and so is vanity, and he has done more than enough to leave it freely, to leave his known world as his own man. But Dusty Baker is going back to put things straight anyway.

"I want that: one more chance to go back to the World Series, to win it as a player and a manager," he says, walking past his Silver Slugger award and a framed letter from Frank Sinatra. "Who knows? Maybe that's enough for the Hall of Fame. That really would be something, wouldn't it?"