CINCINNATI (AP) — Before Dusty Baker broke into the majors with Atlanta in 1968, he already had a no-nonsense baseball guardian. Hank Aaron promised Baker’s mother he would watch out for the rookie and teach him the ropes.
The Hammer wound up spending the next six seasons as a mentor to Baker during their days as teammates with the Braves, and they developed a friendship that remains special today despite a 15-year age difference.
Many years later, it was Baker providing the guidance to another superstar: Barry Bonds. For 10 years he managed the San Francisco slugger, who is closing in on Aaron’s home run record of 755. Bonds, who did not start Wednesday afternoon’s game at Cincinnati to rest his sore legs, hit his 751st homer Tuesday night.
Bonds already was an established player when he joined the Giants in 1993 at the same time Baker became skipper.
“I’m pretty lucky. I’m very fortunate,” Baker said of having spent time around two of the game’s greatest sluggers.
May have best perspective
And Baker might be the man with the best perspective. Baker played alongside Aaron in his prime and went on to manage Bonds, including a trip to the World Series in 2002 during their final season together.
Don’t ask Baker to pick sides, though. He is rooting for Bonds, yet understands why Aaron doesn’t plan to be in the stands to see No. 25 make history when and if the mark falls.
“This is a different time and day. I’m pulling for Barry,” Baker said. “Hank was big in my life. I signed because of Hank Aaron. ... He was extremely confident. I never heard him brag one time about anything. That’s true confidence right there. He taught me about honor and respect and the importance of family.”
Baker had a front-row seat for Aaron’s 714th and 715th home runs when Hammerin’ Hank tied and passed Babe Ruth in 1974. He also was around for many of the highlights of Bonds’ career — such as in 2001, when he set the single-season home run record with 73, a mark later tainted by concerns it had been fueled with performance-enhancing drugs.
Baker’s father coached Bonds’ late father, Bobby, in Little League in Riverside, Calif. — the birthplace of both Dusty Baker and Barry Bonds.
“The one thing they both have, the one parallel, is the vision and concentration and the determination,” Baker said. “They’ve both got that, big time, to go along with the usual strength. The things they see that nobody else can see, and that speed and time. Everything’s at a standstill for them. The toughest times for both of them ... the only time I saw Hank not hit was when he was getting divorced. Hank and Barry both dealt with that, along with all the other stuff.”
The last thing that Baker, who is black, wanted before he got drafted in 1967 was to go to the Braves and play in the deep South. Thanks to Aaron, everything worked out well for the outfielder. The Braves selected Baker in the 26th round and a year later he was playing in the big leagues, six games in ’68 as a September call-up.
Baker credits Aaron for getting him out of bed for breakfast every day and to church on Sundays, and for keeping him from “hanging out” late as Baker describes the tempting baseball culture.
“It was a great time,” Baker recalled. “The one thing I prayed on, I didn’t want to be drafted by the Braves because in the ’60s that was tough in the South with civil rights. It ended up being the best thing that happened in my young career — not only going to the South but being with Hank every day for long periods of time. He promised my mom from the day I signed that he would take care of me.
“He taught me honor and dignity. He reminded me so much of my dad about how to conduct yourself as a man and to be a good teammate.”
Baker is out of uniform this season for the first time since a brief stint as a stockbroker in 1987, the year after he retired from a 19-year major league career. He became San Francisco’s hitting coach the following season.
The Chicago Cubs did not renew the 58-year-old Baker’s contract last fall after he spent four years as manager. Along with building a new home near Sacramento, Calif., and spending quality time with wife Melissa and their 8-year-old son, Darren, the three-time NL Manager of the Year is working for ESPN.
“Dusty is a fine young man and I think that he’s going to be a fine analyst. He’s done a terrific job on TV,” Aaron said. “I think it’s just a matter of time before he has everybody in his corner, because he knows baseball. He’s been around it for a long time and I think that he’s going to do well.”
Friends before teammates
Baker’s relationship with Aaron actually began before they officially became teammates. Baker was in Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium when the Braves were courting him. He rode on a bus with Aaron, Felipe Alou and Joe Torre.
Baker was 18 and still deciding whether to play basketball at the college his father had picked for him — Santa Clara — or turn pro in baseball.
“I asked Hank what to do. I was at a crossroads,” Baker said. “I kind of wanted to stay home because my dad was real strict. I was the only black dude in the high school and didn’t want to go to the same kind of college. My dad was about education to prepare us for life. I didn’t know I was going to get somebody just like my dad [in Hank].”
Aaron will never forget that initial conversation he had with Baker’s mom.
“She had told me when he signed his contract that she wanted me to take care of him,” Aaron said. “And I said, ‘Well, I’m having enough trouble just taking care of myself and I’ll do the very best I can.”’
It meant more to Baker than Aaron will probably ever realize.