Dusty Baker, normally a proponent of the Panglossian view that this is the best of all possible worlds, was unhappy. In the fourth inning of a game last week with the Cubs, he had played a Bobby Bonds line drive off the leftfield ivy at Wrigley Field as if the ball were a hot briquette, and Bonds wound up with a run-scoring triple. Bonds subsequently scored the winning run in what would become a 4-3 Chicago victory over Baker's Los Angeles Dodgers, and Baker was unsparing in self-assessment.
"Dammit," he muttered, pitching a beer can into a clubhouse wastebasket, "I pride myself on my defense. I work at it. So now I go out and mess that one up. And, ironically, the ball is hit by one of my idols." Bonds, three years older than the 32-year-old Baker, was an all-sports star in Riverside, Calif., where Baker spent many of his formative years. If there is anyone Baker doesn't want to mess up in front of, it's Bonds, even if the mess works in Bonds' favor. "Dammit," said Baker.
In this same game, Baker's 15-game hitting streak had ended, but that concerned him not at all. He had started what would become a thwarted Dodger rally in the ninth with a walk and a stolen base, and he had gotten the walk by taking a close pitch a more selfish player might have swung at in an effort to keep the hitting streak alive. Baker seemed startled by the suggestion that personal statistics should have entered his mind at a time like that. "I never even thought of it," he said. "The ball was high. I wanted to get on base. The win is all that matters."
"Dusty Baker is one of the most tremendous team players in the game," his manager, Tommy Lasorda, later affirmed. Bothered as Baker was by the loss and his contribution to it, he was nonetheless happy to be playing baseball again. By nature, he is made happy by most things, but especially by baseball, at which he once more is excelling this year. He finished Part 1 of the season hitting .303, and he has maintained that pace in Part 2. At week's end, it was .298.
Baker stayed in shape during the strike with daily workouts that invariably included long swimming sessions in pools near his Woodland Hills home outside Los Angeles. With his broad shoulders and tapering torso, the 6'2", 187-pound Baker looks more like a swimmer than a ballplayer. His nickname—hardly anyone calls him by his given name of Johnnie—derives from his youthful attraction to the good earth, but when not frolicking in the dirt, he was in the water. "My mother made me take swimming lessons when I was seven," he says. "The swimming pool kept me out of the pool halls. I was raised in two of the hottest spots anywhere—Riverside and Sacramento. I lived in the water."
But not all of the time. At Del Campo High in Carmichael, a Sacramento suburb, Baker was such a versatile athlete—starring in baseball, basketball, football and track—that most baseball scouts overlooked him, reasoning that an outfielder who enters track meets on game days isn't a serious enough candidate for the big leagues. The Atlanta Braves finally drafted him in the 26th round in 1967, and Baker, defying his father for perhaps the first time in his 18 years, signed for a $15,000 bonus, "shooting craps with my life," as he puts it. "My father had signed a letter of intent for me to go to Santa Clara University. I don't think he spoke to me for two years after I signed."
The crap shoot came up seven. In his first full season with the Braves in 1972, Baker hit .321 with 17 homers and 76 runs batted in. That was the year of another player strike, and from it Baker learned a vital lesson.
"I thought I was the 25th man on the team," he says. "I didn't do anything during that strike [which postponed the opening of the season by 13 days]. I didn't think I'd be playing when the strike was over. So the first game back, Orlando Cepeda hurt his knee and they moved Hank [Aaron] to first and told me to get a glove. I was in total shock. I got a hit that game and then proceeded to go something like 0 for 20. I went right back to the bench. I know it was because I didn't work out. I thought I'd blown my chance. It was Hank who told me to keep working. He would limp into the clubhouse like an old man and then go out and play like a kid. I worked. When I got back in the lineup, I was there to stay."
The hard work has paid off. Baker has enjoyed some outstanding seasons but received comparatively little public recognition. He is probably the least known of the Dodgers' legion of stars, although the last two years he hit a total of 52 homers and drove in 185 runs. It has been his curious fate to play his best when all around him are doing likewise. He hit 30 homers in 1977, the same year Steve Garvey hit 33, Reggie Smith 32 and Ron Cey 30, as the Dodgers became the first team in the majors to have four men with 30 or more. In 1973 Baker hit 21 homers and drove in 99 runs for the Braves, the very same year that Aaron, Davy Johnson and Darrell Evans all had 40 homers or more, another big league first.
No matter. Baker likes being the underdog. "As a kid I always wanted to be the Indian, not the cowboy," he says. He was even partial to underdog movie fiends. "The only one I feared was the Wolf Man," says Baker. "All you heard about was Dracula and Frankenstein. But the Wolf Man scared me to death. I mean, he was fast. I was a smart kid. When the moon was full, I walked down the middle of the street where I knew the tree branches were too light to hold him. Walk on the sidewalk where they're heavier, and that Wolf Man is liable to drop down right on top of you."
Baker felt like something of an underdog when Atlanta drafted him. The Braves of the early, pre-Ted Turner '70s were a conservative bunch, and Baker had a brashness about him that didn't endear him to his peers. "My music, my clothes, my talk weren't acceptable," he says. "I was arrogant. I was young. I liked to talk a lot and much of it was wrong talk—both to the press and to my teammates. We were losing and I didn't like it. All I heard was what I didn't do, not what I did do. Playing on a winning team is easy. The game gets hard when you're losing. Everybody blames everybody else."
Eventually Baker learned to like the South, and he met his wife, Harriet, while she was a student at Louisiana's Grambling University. Still, he longed for California and urged the Braves to trade him West. "I kept telling them, trade me to the Coast and you'll see how good I can play," says Baker. When he hit only .261 in 1975, the Braves happily complied, dealing him to the Dodgers. It was a dream fulfilled. Baker had grown up a Dodger fan and had worn the uniform No. 12 of another boyhood hero, Tommy Davis. But in the off-season, he tore a cartilage in his knee while running with his dog and limped through a wretched 1976 season, batting only .242 with four homers and 39 RBIs in 112 games. "I was booed," he says. "People were leaving crank notes on my car windshield. They broke some lamps outside my house. It was the lowest point of my career. I told the Braves to wait and see how good I was when I got home again. They must have been laughing out loud."
He had corrective surgery in the off-season, and on the advice of Dodger trainer Bill Buhler, he strengthened the knee with exercises, built his upper-body strength with weightlifting and improved his stamina with swimming. Lasorda became the Dodger manager in 1977 and informed Baker that he would be the team's leftfielder no matter what. Baker preferred either center or right, but he responded to this vote of confidence by hitting .291 with 30 homers in 153 games. True to his word, but a season late, he had shown the Braves what he could do once he got back home. The fans who once reviled him now cheered him, and last November the Dodgers signed him through 1985 for a cool $4 million.
This is the untidiest of all baseball seasons, but Baker considers his Dodgers to be the best of all teams in this best of all worlds. "We got a great mix, the right balance between veterans and kids," he says. "It's the closest team I've ever been on. Look at the outfield we've got. Pete Guerrero is only 25, Kenny Landreaux is 26, and at 32 I feel like I'm approaching my prime years. I've got that good feeling again."
Appositely enough, the rangy Baker is renowned as a batter.