February 21, 2024
‘I didn’t retire from life’

SACRAMENTO — Wearing an appropriately orange corduroy shirt, Dusty Baker loaded up his plate with fresh fruit and pastries from the buffet inside the suite at Sutter Health Park, home to the San Francisco Giants’ Triple-A River Cats, and turned his view toward the field, freshly soaked from an overnight storm.

“That grass is green, ain’t it,” Baker admired. “My, that grass is green.”

These little details, down to the shade of a well-hydrated playing surface, are the product of almost six decades in professional baseball. At 74 years old, after stepping down from his fifth and final managerial gig with the Houston Astros, Baker is authoring the next chapter of his storied journey in the sport with the San Francisco Giants, the organization that first hired him to their coaching staff in 1988.

It was announced this week this week that Baker would return to the club as a special advisor to president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi and CEO Larry Baer.

“The word was out there that, you know, the prodigal son wanted to come back home,” Baker said in an interview Saturday at the Giants’ FanFest event in Sacramento, where Baker calls home, in some of the first official duties of his new role.

As soon as Baker’s appearance was announced, his became the most recognizable name among the list of attendees. He shook hands. Signed autographs. Posed for pictures.

But while he is enjoying the newly granted freedom — watching his son, Darren, rise through the Nationals’ farm system; paying visits to his grandchildren in Oakland; managing the winery he owns in Sacramento; maybe scurrying off to Montana — Baker didn’t sign up to be a figurehead.

“I’m not a big handshake, greeter-type dude,” Baker said. “I want to have some value in what I say to the organization. … I’m here to contribute my expertise and knowledge to helping the Giants get back on top because, man, they’re in a tough division.”

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The challenge, even as a steward of 13 postseason teams, may be getting Giants brass to listen.

The Giants do nostalgia better than just about any other team, selling out celebrations for championship clubs and franchise icons. But the braintrust behind those World Series winners has claimed since departing the organization that his input did not hold the value with current regime that he believed his past success dictated.

While Baker said he was aware of the comments Brian Sabean made upon being named an executive adviser to Yankees general manager Brian Cashman — that he “didn’t see … a path to being wanted and needed” and felt he was “becoming irrelevant” with Zaidi’s administration — they didn’t seem to bother him.

In fact, he encountered the same issue in Houston, where Baker said he was largely cordoned off from the Astros’ analytics department.

“Even when I was in Houston, my wife (Melissa) would say that that’s a problem in a lot of places. Like, ‘Honey, you’ve got to go somewhere where people listen to you,’” Baker said. “It’s the same dynamic in a lot of places. We do have something to offer and something to say.

“We’ll see. You’re not here to necessarily make a whole bunch of changes, but you’re here to hopefully improve in areas that may need improvement and hope they’re open enough to ask and be open enough to accept what you say.”

The exact nature of Baker’s role is still being determined, though it could resemble something similar to the job he took with the organization for two years in between stints managing the Astros and Washington Nationals. While he overlapped with Zaidi for one year, in 2019, Baker mostly worked with Baer and assistant GM Jeremy Shelley, a longtime lieutenant whom he knew from his time managing the Giants.

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“When I was here before, I felt like they did listen to me,” Baker said. “I didn’t see Farhan that much, but I knew Jeremy.”

He views Mike Yastrzemski and Austin Slater as proof that his eye for talent hasn’t lost a step. Yastrzemski was better-known for his lineage than his own pedigree at the time, while Slater had barely cracked the major-league roster, but both are still here today.

“I liked Yastrzemski when I was here. I said, hey, I like that kid. I talked to (Shelley) and said, ‘Hey man, why hasn’t he been in the big leagues? Because I knew his grandfather,’” Baker said, referencing the Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski. “Slater, was here. I said I like him too.

“I like to say, OK, I don’t necessarily need a lot to see if a guy can play or not. I need my eyes, my ears, to hear the sound, to judge a man’s heart and character. I pride myself in being able to evaluate.”

It’s possible the Giants are more open now to traditional strategies and evaluation methods than at any point in Zaidi’s tenure.

After missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons, Zaidi acknowledged needing to “rethink everything.” They severed the umbilical cord between the dugout and the front office, replacing Gabe Kapler with Bob Melvin, who brought with him a contingent of “old-school” coaches.

“I think it’s admirable that you see an organization realize that we went a little bit maybe too far in one direction and to supplement that with what they brought in,” said starter Alex Cobb. “I wouldn’t even say old school, just baseball tradition. Things that work. You can’t replicate the experience we brought in with Bob Melvin and (bench coach) Matt Williams, Bryan (Price), that’s a lot of experience. Dusty Baker, that guy’s won everywhere he’s gone. You appreciate the fact that the front office, who is very analytically driven, realizes that there’s an edge to be had in reverting back to some sort of–there’s a lot of value in the experience.”

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So much experience, in Baker’s case, that he served as a coach, then manager, when Melvin and Williams were teammates in San Francisco.

Soon after getting the job, Baker received a phone call from Melvin, who wasn’t the only one enthused about the hire.

“I’m not here to want anybody’s job. I’m not here to be a threat. I’m here to try to enhance what we have going on,” Baker told him. “Will (Clark) is psyched. So is Ron Wotus. Some of the guys have called already. Guys on the team that I don’t really, really know. Like, man, I’m anxious to talk you. And Bob said he’s anxious for me to help his coaches coach, which is pretty cool.”

So maybe Baker will have the organization’s ear.

The opportunity started in earnest with a phone call from Baer around the beginning of December, Baker said.

The River Cats’ ballpark is a short drive from Baker’s residence, and Oracle Park isn’t much further.

“It was kind of the perfect scenario,” Baker said. “I had people asking me, ‘I thought you retired?’ Well I did. I retired from the field. But I didn’t retire from life. My dad told me a long time ago that the lord wouldn’t have given me the guys that I’ve met, given me certain wisdom and knowledge about this game, to just take it and run off with it.”