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Monday, January 30, 2006

The Top 40 Dodgers Of All Time: #38, Dusty Baker

One of the problems I've had with this series is that, aside from being a lot of work, the players also mean something to me. This second factor makes it hard for me to idly toss off a thumbnail biography, and so feeds the first in a never-ending cycle. If I don't turn these out as quickly as I had promised, it's because I haven't quite had as much time as I once did, even a few weeks ago; my personal life is getting rather busy (but in a good way). Anyway -- on to today's player...

38. Johnny B. "Dusty" Baker, 1144 H, 144 HR, 586 RBI, .281/.343/.437, 140.3 Career Win Shares

Early Career And The World Series Teams

Johnny B. "Dusty" Baker -- the nickname was given to him by his mother -- was born in Riverside, CA and grew up a Dodgers fan. Despite a low draft position -- he was a 26th round pick by the Braves -- he made the big club rapidly, getting a callup the next year. Hank Aaron said of him, "Dusty Baker has more potential than any outfielder I've seen in all my seasons with the Braves." An eight-year veteran with the Braves, he was traded to the Dodgers in 1975 following a string of mediocre seasons. His 1976 season was a disappointment, a major knee injury limiting his effectiveness and playing time.

Baker turned his career around in 1977 following offseason surgery, blasting 30 home runs on the Dodgers' path to a National League pennant, and setting a team record for RBIs in a single inning in a 18-4 pounding of the Padres on September 13, 1977. By clubbing a home run in the last game of the year, a 6-3 loss to the Astros, the Dodgers became the first team in history to have four players provide 30 or more home runs in a single season. Upon returning to the dugout from that home run, Baker met the outstretched, raised, open hand of on-deck hitter Glenn Burke, and Baker and Burke are often credited with inventing the high five then and there.

Baker's postseason run that year was even better, hitting .357/.438/.857 during the NLCS with a pair of homers, the most memorable being a grand slam in the fourth inning of the NLCS Game 2, a rip that sealed the game for the Dodgers. Dusty Baker also drove in the winning run in Game 4, a two-run shot in the second that starter Tommy John would preserve in a complete game victory against the fearsome Phillies lineup. His fearsome accomplishment netted him an NLCS MVP award.

Though he hit fairly well in the 1977 World Series -- earning a .292 average against Yankee pitching -- Baker had only one memorable home run, in Game 3, which the Dodgers lost anyway as the Yanks chipped away at Tommy John. "We ain't losing," Baker said afterwards, "we're just behind." Though the Dodgers got closer with a 10-4 pounding in Game 5 at Dodger Stadium, the Bronx Bombers ultimately sent the Dodgers home disappointed in six.

Baker's incredible 1977 just made expectations the next year that much harder to meet. He deflected questions about a possible letdown following the World Series defeat by pushing for personal goals, saying "I just want to prove my overall effectiveness. I want to hit the ball hard all the time, hard enough to bat over .300." He didn't do it; his average and power both fell, only getting 11 longballs all year. His NLCS record that year consisted of virtually all singles with only one RBI, though he did manage a 4-4 game in the deciding Game 4, a dramatic victory keyed when Gary Maddox -- known as one of baseball's best centerfielders -- bobbled Baker's routine line drive, setting up a game-winning single by Bill Russell.

From that postseason miracle, the Dodgers once again met the Yankees in the World Series. Baker hit a leadoff homer in the second inning of Game 1 that launched a Dodgers offensive juggernaut, crushing starter Ed Figueroa and the Yanks 11-5. But Dusty's World Series record that year, like his regular season, was principally a disappointment: he hit a mere .238 in the World Series with only a single RBI. He also fielded the Brian Doyle RBI double that started the Yankees' scoring in a 7-2 Game 6 rout that sent the Dodgers home unhappy once more.

Baker had a pair of good years in 1979 and 1980, the interregnum between the great Dodger teams of the 70's and their last hurrah in 1981. He and his teammates were getting old; worse, the front office was getting clumsy. For instance, the team failed to acquire future Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan and Joe Morgan in the 1979/80 offseason when both had been picked by the Dodgers in the peculiar free agent draft then in force; the team made neither an offer. It didn't help when Baker went 2-16 in a crucial three- and then four-game series (the final game was a sudden-death elimination after the two teams tied with the same record) in 1980 against the Astros, who had signed Ryan and were two games up against the Dodgers in the NL West going into the series.

A sore shoulder nagged at him all through his 1981 season, sapping his power: he hit only 9 home runs, and drove in 49. Despite his decreased production, Baker won the 1981 Gold Glove and made an All Star appearance, the first of two (he would repeat in 1982). But with his stroke shortened, he hit for a higher average, and finished the year with a .320 mark, the second best number of his career. But even if he had been well, it's hard to imagine how he could have stood out on that team; as with most of the other Dodgers that year, the tide of Fernandomania washed the rest of the players out to sea with it. Baker, like most of his teammates in that era, lived in the shadow of "Mr. Perfect", Steve Garvey, and Valenzuela provided yet another icon in front of Baker in the public mind. His mediocre postseason numbers did little to change people's perceptions, though he did draw first blood against Houston in the NLDS Game 3 and scored the winning and series-deciding run in Game 4.

One of the most dramatic moments of his career came in the 1981 NLCS, in Game 4. Facing elimination, stranding baserunners all day, the Dodgers put on a late innings show against the Expos, with Baker scoring the go-ahead run in the eighth after a frustrating game in which he was erased at third base on a fielder's choice in the third and tagged out at home in the sixth. But his World Series performance that year was quiet, collecting only four hits for a .167 average, and driving in only a single run in a losing effort in Game 1.

Swan Song

Dusty Baker had one more truly good year with the Dodgers in 1982, collecting 23 homers in 570 at bats with a .300 average, a year where he had a fantastic 5-6 game with 5 RBIs against last year's nemesis, Montreal, on May 8. The game marked the emphatic end of a slow start to his season that had seen him demolish a specially made director's chair that read, "Dr. Smash", a nickname he gave himself until that slump. Another All-Star appearance capped a year that amounted to frustration for the Dodgers, as they narrowly missed the postseason to a surging Atlanta club.

Though 1981 was the last year of the Garvey-Cey-Lopes-Russell infield when the Dodgers traded Davey Lopes to Oakland, it really sank in following 1982 when the front office let Steve Garvey go via free agency. Steve Yeager and Rick Monday were now reserves; the great Dodger players of the 70's were on their way to retirement -- and so was Baker. Hitting 15 home runs all year, his average dropped, too, to .260, along with his plate appearances. Despite his expressed wishes to retire in a Dodgers uniform, on February 10, 1984, the Dodgers put him on waivers. At first, he took it fairly well according to GM Al Campanis, but that was before the Dodgers decided they didn't have to pay him for the final two seasons on his contract -- a $1.6 million figure. Though the Dodgers didn't explain their actions, published speculation repeatedly mentioned innuendo about Baker having some kind of involvement with drugs, something both the club and Baker denied publicly.

The Giants made a waiver claim on him, which he rejected thanks to a no-trade clause, an incredible rarity at the time. He became a free agent, and after fruitless negotiations with the Angels, Padres, and Braves, settled upon the Giants as his next home, where he played principally as a reserve. He played out his last two seasons on a pair of bad Oakland teams, starting in 1984 with a record similar to his last year with the Dodgers, and finally as a reserve in 1985, after which he retired.

Managerial Career

Dusty Baker's career as the manager of the San Francisco Giants began to thunderous applause when he was announced as the club's new skipper on December 16, 1992, receiving bigger cheers than newly signed superstar Barry Bonds. The team had narrowly averted relocation, and Baker had no taint of failure. Friends with longtime Giant Bobby Bonds, whom he hired as his hitting coach, Baker said, "This is the greatest day of my life, so far. The next greatest day is when we win the pennant and the world championship."

That wouldn't happen, at least, it didn't with Baker in a Giants uniform. Powered by Barry Bonds and a simply astonishing season from starter Bill Swift, the Giants' 1993 season came down to the last game of the year, naturally against the Dodgers. With the Giants and Braves tied for first place, Baker put rookie pitcher Salomon Torres on the mound -- with explosive effects. He left the game after only three and a third innings, surrendering three earned runs in a game where Mike Piazza blasted two homers, setting a franchise record for single season home runs by a catcher. Atlanta meanwhile won the division by beating the Rockies 5-3, setting an end to the season for the winningest Giants team in their history.

Though Baker won NL Manager of the Year (and again in 1997 and 2000), he also presided over the Giants' greatest collapse, notably the 2002 World Series Game 6 in which the bullpen exploded, and the Giants had the unfortunate distinction of blowing the largest lead in World Series history. While that wasn't his fault, the decision to start Livan Hernandez in Game 7 was; replaced by Chad Zerbe and junkballer Kirk Reuter, who collectively pitched five scoreless innings, it remains Baker's biggest single gaffe, for which the Angels are eternally grateful. His record -- 840-715, a .540 winning percentage -- will always bear the scars of failing to bring home the rings despite winning a National League pennant and two division titles.

Baker continued his career in a Cubs uniform, again to much applause as he first entered the scene. He coaxed the 2003 squad to within (stop me if you've heard this before) five outs of their first World Series appearance since 1945. But the Cubs couldn't find enough pitching to stop the Marlins in Game 6 of the NLCS (and an uncalled case of fan interference by Steve Bartman), and lost game 7 despite starter Kerry Wood's presence on the mound.

With his starting pitchers constantly on Baseball Prospectus's leaderboard for pitcher abuse, Baker has rapidly worn out his welcome and is questionable to return to Chicago after his contract expires at the end of the year.

Great stuff Rob, and I appreciate the time you put into this. I don't care if it takes all year -- have a personal life too.

Brought back some great memories of a wonderful Dodger era. I believe I was at the 1993 game when the Dodgers ousted the Giants on the last day of the season. Unfortunately I've never been good at keeping track of when I attend.
Rob, I think it's unfair to criticize Dusty's decision to go with Livan Hernandez over Rueter, results notwithstanding. I'd pick Livan over Kirk every day, and twice on Sunday. Livan was (and is) a big-game pitcher, with a much better track record of success.

Baker's decision NOT to start Livan in game 4 of the NLDS in 2000 quite possibly cost the team a shot at another pennant. Once again, in a do-or-die game, I'd go with Livan over Mark Gardner every time.

Baker made the "correct" decision in 2002; it just didn't work out.
I seem to remember there was a great deal of gnashing of teeth at the time among Giants fans; Reuter, IIRC, was on full rest, or more than Hernandez had, anyway. I'll have to go look it up, but in any event, Baker has been tabbed with a mantle of being unable to win despite great teams. 2003, the last hurrah of the Sammy Sosa-led Cubs teams, didn't do anything to discourage such talk. I'm not saying it's necessarily earned or unearned, but that's his reputation.
Rob, sorry, I didn't mean to cast aspersions on your overall analysis of Baker's managerial acumen, or lack thereof.

I do recall that there was a good bit of debate as to whether Livan should have been the game 7 starter. In my mind, it was a no-brainer. I specifically remember at the time thinking that there was no way LH wouldn't start, especially given what happened in 2000.

Of course, it's equally possible that Baker made the wrong decision in 2000, and blew it again in 2002.

Regardless, Baker has a well-deserved reputation for questionable decisions with pitchers.

But I think he made the right decision in 2002. Of course, the fact that I was pleased with the end result may cloud my judgment. ;-)
Yikes. With all the Dodger tradition and success over the years I'm a little surprised to see that Dusty Baker made the top 40. He always felt like a role-player to me. Nothing really special. I remember him best for that weird, swaying batting stance of his. Maybe I was too young to appreciate him in his prime.

Great stuff here, Rob! I'm looking forward to the rest of the list.
Nice work, Rob...

Dusty Baker was not as consistently solid as, say, Steve Garvey, but NO Dodger during that era was more beloved by fans. In the late '70s, early '80s can still vividly recall the fans in left field -- dubbed by Vinny as "Bakersfield" -- literally showering him with affection. They threw money and trinkets at him, and the ball boys would have to go retrieve it. Very fond memories of Dusty in Dodger Blue...
Cigarcow -- Baker had a long career, though hardly a Hall of Fame one; he performed at a fairly high level throughout most of it. I liked Baker, though I concede that I took a greater shine to Steve Garvey's well-oiled public image. If he could have kept his fly zipped, he probably would have been a Senator by now.
"setting a team record for RBIs in a single game in a 18-4 pounding of the Padres on September 13, 1977"

That should read "a team record for RBIs in a single inning." Dusty Baker had 5 rbi in the 2nd inning of that game. Fernando Tatis has the Dodger Stadium record of 8 RBI in one inning with two grand slams off of Chan Ho Park. No doubt the California Highway Patrol hated that!

Nice work, Rob.

Baker was terrific and all but you mean to tell me that in the entire history of this storied franchise there are only 37 players better than Dusty Baker?

I don't mean to criticize your list, Rob. It just seems a bit shocking. That's all.
Please see my introductory comments for Don Newcombe regarding the ordering. I think it's fair to say that the list is more or less accurate but the ordering may be problematic.

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