Baker’s collection filled with historical treasure

baker3.jpgDusty Baker almost added another cap and jersey to his extensive baseball memorabilia collection this winter.

He was one of the leading candidates to become manager of the San Diego Padres, who opted instead for Angels pitching coach, Bud Black, who played college baseball at San Diego State.

It’s a disappointment to be sure, but Baker has proven over and over again that bad things can’t keep him down.

“Anybody can handle the good times; anybody can handle it when things are going good,” he said. “The mark of a person with faith and a strong person is how they handle adversity. If you continue to have faith you will always come out of it. That’s the No. 1 thing.”

baker2.jpgWhile considering his baseball options, Baker is enjoying a chance to spend more time with his family and reflect about fond memories in the game. A healthy assortment of memorabilia brings to mind all kinds of exciting moments.

There’s the ring he earned as a member of the World Champion 1981 Dodgers. A two-time All-Star, Baker helped lead L.A. to three Fall Classics against the Yankees in 1977, ’78 and ’81. He also has an MVP Award from the 1977 NLCS against Philadelphia when he hit .357 (5-for-14) with two homers and eight RBI.

His hardware includes Gold Glove (1981) and Silver Slugger awards (1980, ’81) and in 1990 he was named to the “All-Time Dodgers Team.”
Baker wasn’t just a star athlete, but an avid student of the game who learned everything he could while playing for a number of standout skippers, including Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda.

When his playing days came to an end, Baker took over the helm of the San Francisco Giants, with whom he won three Manager of the Year Awards (1993, 1997 and 2000). These, too, have a prominent place in his collection along with articles from the 2002 World Series, a classic matchup that saw the Angels beat the Giants in seven games.

Mostly, however, Baker enjoys the items he’s garnered from other greats of the game.

“I’ve collected more in the past few years since my son (Darren) was born, so that he can have something to remember baseball by,” he said. “He’s 7 years old. I’d like him to have a little sense of history, who his dad may have played with and who his dad knows from today and yesterday.”

Darren, who was only 3 at the time, produced one of the 2002 postseason’s most memorable moments. As the Giants’ batboy, clad in a small uniform, he ran toward home plate to retrieve a bat while a runner was racing in from third base. Quick-thinking J.T. Snow intercepted the little Baker to avert the possibility of a tragic accident.

Photos of the incident will no doubt have a prominent place in Darren’s memorabilia collection some day.

A well-respected and admired baseball man, Baker has no trouble collecting whatever he wants from Hall of Famers.

“I’ve got Frank Robinson’s bat, I’ve got a Hank Aaron bat, a Willie Mays ball, a Harmon Killebrew ball,” he said. “I’ve got quite a bit of stuff now that I’m going to put up in my house in my rec room for my son.

“While I was a player I didn’t collect much. I collected cards as a kid,” he continued. “I was a big card collector, but like most kids you didn’t know the value of them. I put cards on the wheels of my bicycle with clothespins to make some noise.”

Unfortunately, his collection had the same fate as that of many Baby Boomer kids.

“I threw them all out,” Baker said, shaking his head with regret.
An avid music lover, his collectibles extend far beyond sports memorabilia to some of the greatest names in blues, pop and rock.

“I’ve got a John Lee Hooker signed poster and a ‘Lucille,’ a B.B. King guitar,” he said. “I’ve got a guitar signed by Santana and a Buddy Guy-signed guitar. There’s one more guitar I’d like to get, an Eric Clapton guitar. I’ve admired him from the time I was in high school and college. I went to some of his concerts when he was in various groups before he went on his own.”

As a baseball player and manager, Baker has always been in the public eye. However, his likes and dislikes provide a rare glimpse into his personal life, character and driving forces in life.

For example, Hooker (1917-2001) was born to a Mississippi sharecropper family and was one of the last links to the blues of the Deep South. He moved to Detroit in the early 1940s and by 1948 had scored his first No. 1 jukebox hit and million-seller, “Boogie Chillun.” During the 1950s and ’60s, Vee Jay Records released a remarkable string of more than 100 of Hooker’s songs.

Every guitar King owned was nicknamed “Lucille,” because he once ran back inside a burning dance hall to save his Gibson acoustic guitar. The fire had started because two men were fighting and knocked over a kerosene heater.

The next day, King learned that the combatants had scuffled over a girl named Lucille, and King gave the name to his guitar as a reminder never to risk his life again like that, because two people died in the blaze.
Born in Louisiana in 1936, Guy launched his career in Baton Rouge before moving to Chicago where his career flourished en route to becoming a world-renowned blues legend, whose music has influenced countless guitarists from Clapton to Jeff Beck.

Baker not only appreciates their talent, but draws inspiration from such figures. Like himself, these artists emerged from humble beginnings to realize great success and achievement.

Born June 15, 1949, in Riverside, Calif., Baker was a 26th-round draft pick of the Braves in 1967, with few expectations of taking a fast track to the majors. But he quickly proved himself by making his big league debut the very next year, going 2-for-5 (.400) in a six-game stint. Baker continued to hone his skills in the Braves’ farm system, getting brief call-ups to the big leagues each year.

His early minor league days involved stints in the Deep South, which presented trials all its own during the late 1960s when racial tensions were high. Finally, he became a Braves regular in 1972 by hitting .321 with 17 homers and 76 RBI in 127 games.

Of course, one of his greatest thrills was simply playing alongside Aaron as he chased Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. Baker was there for the momentous occasion when Hammerin’ Hank hit No. 715 in April 1974.

Being around Aaron provided another great lesson in dealing with obstacles, because Aaron received all kinds of threats including some against his life as he got closer to Ruth’s record.

“Growing up, my baseball hero was Tommy Davis,” Baker said. “That’s why I wear No. 12, because of Tommy Davis and watching him as a kid. But my baseball mentor was Hank Aaron. I had different heroes. On the football side, it was Gale Sayers. On the track side, Bob Hayes.”
Overall, one person held a place above all others.

“My hero growing up really was my dad,” Baker said. “He was my real mentor. To be a good leader you’ve got to be firm, but fair. That’s how I was taught by my dad.”

It’s a principle that’s served him well in life and baseball.
In 2006, the Cubs finished a disappointing last in the NL Central Division, due largely to injuries suffered by key players such as pitchers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. From 2004, when the Cubs came within outs of reaching the World Series, the club went on a downward spiral that saw Baker bear much of the blame, which led to his firing after the 2006 season.
Through it all, however, he kept his focus.

“Yeah, it hurts big time when you’re missing your top players, but nobody wants to hear excuses so you don’t give any,” he said. “You’ve got to continue to play regardless of who’s hurt or who’s in a uniform. You owe it to the team, the fans, the city and you owe it to the game of baseball out of respect for the game.”

Baker’s skills as a teacher are without question and his commitment remains strong to building future generations of new stars. Given his track record and experience, there’s little doubt he’ll join baseball’s managerial ranks again some day.

“You’ve got to make these young kids better so they’ll hopefully do good in the future because of you,” he said.

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