On the 29th of September 2002, I scored the 1,000th hit in my career. It was a single to left against Florida's Marlins. It was a good feeling to have something to celebrate as my Philadelphia Phillies were heading home below.500. However, that joy would not last. My father died in that game, which was more than 1,000 miles from my home in Teaneck, New Jersey. He had been fighting with diabetes and cancer for many years.
A year, almost to the day, after my father's death, I would be celebrating with my Chicago Cubs teammates at Wrigley Field the clinching a division title. It was the second day of the season and I couldn't believe how good it felt.
Dusty Baker was my manager.
Through a twisting path, I ended up on Dusty's team. I moved halfway across the country from my childhood team, the University of Pennsylvania, and my mother, who is now a widow, to find a job.
At the deadline, I was traded to Baker's Cubs from Texas. After having experienced the hottest month in my career, I was not thrilled about the prospect of being on the bench. However, I knew Dusty from the other dugout for many years. Respected by all, voted the best manager. I took a step back and tried to figure out what my new role was.
Dusty came to my aid on my first day at the Cubs. Dusty knew I was a firebrand in Texas so he explained to me the rotation of veteran players that he would be using. They'd all play different roles than those we had previously. I was curious how he managed to keep his egos under control, as most of our bench were starters.
I was also still trying to figure out my life without him. I was still grieving the loss of my father in Philadelphia. After I lost track of how many outs were left in the game, my distraction caused me to cry on the coach's shoulder. This led to the winning run scoring. My Phillies teammates and I became a veteran Phillie player. It was my Phillies family who encouraged my team and front office to attend my funeral in my hometown to pay their respects.
None of this was known by my new Cubs teammates. They didn't even know me. Gradually, Dusty became someone I needed. It wasn't long before I realized Dusty was more than just a manager. Dusty had the swagger and clearly wanted to win. But he also saw successes in helping us all be better people. He believed that we all had the potential to grow and should embrace it. It was important to remain curious, to learn, and to work together. It was a great exchange. I was amazed at how eager he was to get to know the players. We were able to share our own life lessons because he shared them openly.
There are many father figures in baseball that can help young men mature. This was something that I needed because of the new pain I was experiencing. My father's death had already made playing the game a sad experience. I was watching my mother struggle with her health and realized how this transition affected me. My father was a psychiatrist. His profession involved understanding a person's thoughts and feelings without sharing too much about yourself. How would I share without him and with a new manager asking me a lot of questions?
Dusty made it simple. He took the time to learn about our generation. He was able to learn the music of that day. He was a great listener and has a deep understanding of pop culture. He knew more 50 Cent lyrics that we did. He disarmed us and smashed down walls so easily, you didn’t even notice it was happening. That year, I was able to remove quite a few walls.
Dusty was for me and my clubhouse the stabilizing force. He was also the spiritual center, straight talker, and the spiritual center. After my loss, I was in rebel mode and my hair grew to an old-school afro, with no plan or style. He called me to discuss my hair. He gave me three options: Twist, cut, or shape. Dusty was not playing. It was cut.
Sometimes, I would feel frustrated with my job. My role was to be the captain of a team that looked terrible for most of the season. I could have at least been a starter on a team that was struggling. Dusty was a great leader, with such belief in his team's potential and so much clarity about the important things. It was difficult not to jump on the bus that he was driving.
When it came down to putting together the Cubs' playoff roster it didn't occur to me that I might not be there. Dusty called me in his office to ask if I was able to play infield. I laughed and said that I had played infield in Little League. Dusty said, "Let's ask you again. Dusty replied: "You can play infield. I understood the message.
Tony Womack had injured his elbow while sliding home on a slide, and I was the only person who could make it to this team if I was the emergency infielder. Dusty didn't blink and did not hesitate. Dusty was confident that this was a request for a player who would do anything to help win a World Series. I promised I would.
Although I got only one at-bat in NLDS, I did get one in NLCS. It was in Game 3 as a pinch hitter. The game ended 4-4. Baker allowed me to hit against a righthanded pitcher, which was a surprise, especially since I am a sinkerballer who is usually a nightmare for me. This scenario would not have happened in 2021.
He had done it before. The other team brought in a righty to help me pinch-hit during the season. I learned to not look back at the dugout when a manager wanted to pull you as a pinch hitter. So I decided to have them call me back to my bench. I was surprised when Dusty asked me if Dusty could hit this guy. He was able to hit me with a home run. He let me hit.
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Even though I was aware that Dusty was taking criticism for his "gut", or using empirical data more than feel, it is easy to understand when you play with him. He is not trying to put a random person in a random circumstance, but he is helping a son through a period of personal growth. He wants us all to believe that we can overcome any odds. That belief builds self-confidence and makes managers and players trust one another. It was impossible for me to not be a data point. My father would never have reduced me to the lowest common denominator.
Dusty's views might not be the best for the team at any given time. It is risky to put someone in a position where he can push his personal limits when there are better options. In a press conference following a game, it is much easier to explain difficult decisions with cold numbers. He had a reason for letting me hit in Game 3. I hit righties better than I did in my career, but I was only 1-for-9 against Braden looper when I entered that at-bat.
I was 1-for-1 with a 4.000 OPS, when it mattered. The Cubs were 5-4 ahead when I scored a triple. We won the game.
In the post-game scrum, my attitude towards being considered an "unlikely heroine" was evident. I responded in a chippy manner to reporters reminding them that I can hit righties all my career.
Dusty pulled me aside after my interview. My comment was an indirect message sent to Dusty, my manager. He wasn't going to put me in the starting line-up. He told me when I entered his office that he was confident I could hit righties but had a job to do to help us all succeed. It was difficult with so many options.
When I heard about my inability to win that at-bat and how important that hit was for me, I actually thought of many more significant moments that had happened before. One year of learning how best to cope with the death of a parent. Before I joined the Cubs, I had to undergo a two-month rehabilitation from an injury in Texas.
Dusty emphasized that everyone has the potential to be great at any given moment. Part of that comes from realizing that we have been through adversity in the past. It's in us. Nobody can decide what your greatest moment is. Dusty would remind us, however, that this determination is made by a higher order.
Although most Americans are rooting for the Astros, nearly all of baseball loves Dusty Baker. Tim Warner/Getty Images
DUSTY taught me so much about my self. I was a veteran who was frustrated by my declining health and limited playing time. For the first time I realized that I could be one those unhappy veterans who poisons the locker rooms. Dusty could smell it from a mile away. It was a great thing that he took the extra time to explain how my words reflected on us all as a team. (But, let's face it, I was still in Principal Baker’s office a lot.
Dusty was always available to speak to players and bring them together. He wanted to understand your personal life and put himself in your shoes. Listen to your music, learn about your perspective, and embrace your culture. This is not a company-wide initiative, but an evolution of your life. He allows you to change him and is open to learning. He encourages you to do so.
These were lessons for life, not just in baseball. He wanted to share the experience of a lifetime playing baseball with others. It was more than just learning how to hit a curveball and when Greg Maddux would throw his backup slider. It was real life and the teammates were like family. Every day was a celebration. It was an opportunity to share joy with others. He was the Godfather. He inherited his sons with the humility and knowledge to learn as much from them as he can from them.
Is this a better way for a manager to manage a bullpen? It's hard to say. He taught me so many lessons that I still use 18 years later as a father and husband.
Dusty has been my friend for many years. I still remember his call asking if I would be interested in returning to Chicago after 2003 season. I was hesitant to do so, but he did not hesitate to contact me. I can recall the many conversations we had since then. He was also my first guest when I launched the new show that I had been planning for years. He said yes to appearing on my show. I want you to succeed. I'm here to help if you need it."
A person who has endless time for others is magical. It was clear that he had a lot of time for me, particularly when I needed it most. It was all the more meaningful coming from someone like him: a career that spanned three decades and began in 1988 as a San Francisco Giants first base coach. This came less than one year after Al Campanis, Los Angeles Dodgers General Manager, made disparaging remarks about Blacks in 1987 television interviews.
Dusty's chance -- and his promotion as manager five years later -- were two of the first steps to bring new leadership to the organization. It was difficult for Dusty to be considered a fixture at the dugout despite his successes with the Giants, and other teams, which I struggled with both as his friend and as a player. He paid all the taxes and the duties of the job. After winning more than 90 games, he was fired twice.
He makes the game more enjoyable. It's a more accepting game, more compassionate, and more varied. He was the ideal person to help the Astros team reorient after one of the most scandalous moments in baseball history. Although they might not be able to overcome their legacy of corruption, Dusty proves that it is possible -- that guilt, hatred, and grudges can hold us back.
It is unlikely that Dusty Baker will be managing Houston in 2021 World Series without this scandal. When the Astros needed a manager, he was unemployed and was given an opportunity to clean up another's mess. Dusty won't let me do that. Dusty would remind me it was all in the plan and that this year's success is a testament to the power of love.
Even though many people have talked about cheering for Dusty, it's almost impossible. Although I'm conflicted too, I learned from him that where we are, is where we should be. We can see his incredible leadership skills through these Astros players and their past. It showed the best of him.
Dusty's impact can not be measured by the contents of his trophy case. Dusty has helped his players see beyond their achievements in the game. He believes that relationships, love and time spent together are equally important. That's why, if all of that is combined with a World Series championship, it will be even more meaningful. Dusty is proof that it's always more important to share the joy with loved ones.