Dusty Baker might be baseball’s premier storyteller. Get him going any part of his 40-year major-league career as both a player and manager, and he’ll usually offer a fascinating tale down to the granular details.
So with the Nationals set to face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series this weekend, the 67-year-old Riverside, California native was naturally given a chance to reflect on being traded to the L.A. back in his playing days. And as one might he expect, he had a whole lot to say about it.
Here’s the setup: After spending his first eight big-league seasons with the Atlanta Braves, Baker had grown frustrated with his team’s apparent rebuilding effort. He hoped to play for a winning organization and return to Southern California. In other words, he wanted to play for his childhood team. So shortly after the 1975 season ended, Baker let it be known where he hoped the Braves would send him.
“Man, that’s what I wanted,” he recalled after Wednesday’s pre-NLDS workout. “Cause I didn’t like losing. [The Braves] had traded Hank Aaron, that winter of ’75. I didn’t know the business end of baseball at that time. They traded all of us at the same time, and then sold the club to Ted Turner. They traded Ralph Garr to the White Sox, traded me to the Dodgers, traded Darrell Evans and Marty Perez to the Giants.
“My reaction was, I went in and I asked [Braves general manager] Mr. [Eddie] Robinson. I wanted to be traded back to California because I was tired of being in the South at that time, and I was tired of losing.”
While Baker already had California on his mind, his general manager apparently had different plans.
“And [Robinson’s] reaction to me was: Had I ever been to Cleveland?” Baker said. “So I called Hank, and I asked Hank: ‘How come every time I ask them to trade me, they ask me have I ever been to Cleveland?’ Cause Cleveland wasn’t Cleveland as you see it today. Cleveland’s a good town. But back then they played in old Browns stadium. That was like where you sent the bad actors.”
Upset that he wasn’t going to be traded to his preferred destination, Baker decided to take a scenic, cross-country drive back to his home state.
“So I went in and I told them: I’m getting out of here," Baker said. "And I packed up my, I had a 914 Porsche. I had sold the Ford. I sold my Thunderbird to my mother-in-law. And then I packed up my Porsche, built a little rack on the back, and like Route 66: Across America, going to California.
“They didn’t have cell phones, so I stopped in Carlsbad Caverns. I stopped at the Grand Canyon. To see things I hadn’t seen. And that night I was going to bed. I always wanted to be a Dodger, because I heard the Dodgers had the best athletes, the pretty uniforms, the good bodies. And I was like, shoot, you’re talking about me. That’s the way I thought. I’m serious.”
During one of his stops on the way back to California, Baker learned the news that the Braves granted his wish — albeit a few days after it happened. With no cell phones or social media available in the mid-1970s, Baker didn’t know he was traded until he turned on a television.
“So then I’m watching the news, and they showed like four players: Jimmy Wynn and (Tom) Paciorek and (Lee) Lacy and Jerry Royster. And I was like: ‘Dang, who’s this bad dude they just traded for?’ And then I saw my picture come up, myself and Ed Goodson. And I called my dad. He said: ‘We’ve been looking for you for two days. You’ve been traded to the Dodgers.’ Eddie Robinson did me a favor, traded me to where I wanted to go.”
After a tough first year with the Dodgers, Baker would go on to hit .281 with 144 home runs and 586 RBI over eight season in Los Angeles. He’d later manage their chief rival in the San Francisco Giants, so west-coast baseball will always have a place in Baker's heart.
"I was on all the All-Dodger Team," Baker said. "And probably the thing I’m most proud of, I was on the All-Dodger Team as a player and the All-Giant Team as a manager. I don’t think there’s been another one that’s done both. I mean, [current Giants manager] Bruce Bochy soon will take over for me, for sure, if he hasn’t done it already. But that’s part of my history there.”