san Francisco Giants manager Dusty Baker is my mentor. He doesn't know that, which makes ours a little different from your normal mentoring relationship. But after the crushing 1993 season finale, when Baker's blue-collar, all-heart Giants won 103 games and still finished in second place, and the blue chip, soulless Atlanta Braves went to the playoffs, I went into a near-terminal sulk. I couldn't work, and I couldn't watch the playoffs, either. Baseball hurt. Then I caught Baker doing post-season commentary on television news, critiquing games he should have been managing, not just talking about on TV. But there he was: smart, excited, articulate, still in love with the game despite his personal disappointment.
I wanted to know how he did that. So I got an assignment to profile him for a local magazine. During our three conversations I found myself less interested in his ideas about baseball than about life. He was spiritual, multicultural, tough but kind, with musical tastes that run from Van Morrison to Tupac Shakur: I had to admit I didn't want to write about Dusty Baker, I wanted to be him. Neither of us knew then that Baker, named National League Manager of the Year in his rookie season, was headed for three long years in the wilderness, when his team would have to slide from first to last before they'd be first again.
At the start of 1997, baseball statistician Bill James predicted Baker would be gone by mid-season. Now, with the Giants in the playoffs, everybody is a Baker fan. In baseball terms, what he's done is clear: He took a roster of journeymen players without stars -- save Barry Bonds -- and made them into a genuine team. The Giants play scrappy Bakerball: They bunt the runner over to second, they sacrifice the run home from third base, pitchers throw an extra inning because the team needs them to. They are mediocre, or worse, in most of the major statistical categories -- batting average, earned run average, runs scored. But they lead the league in sacrifice flies, in one-run victories and in come-from-behind wins.
But there's another aspect of Baker's success that's gone undernoticed, and that's the way, as one of only two black managers in baseball, he's bridged the chasm of race that often divides major league locker rooms. The Dodgers put a diverse team on the field, one that matched the team's increasingly Latino and Asian fan market. But the team was a mirror of the city it represents -- a Balkanized, polyglot enigma that added up to less than the sum of its parts. Mid-season, star catcher Mike Piazza complained openly that players couldn't even talk to one another, and indeed, on the bench they didn't seem to try very hard. They looked like the United Nations of baseball, but without those cool translator headsets.
The Giants, by contrast, could be the poster boys of multiculturalism. Journeyman pitcher Rich Rodriguez, who's knocked around the majors, calls the Giants the most racially integrated team he's ever played on, and credits the 48-year-old Baker -- who grew up in an all-white suburb of Sacramento, speaks fluent Spanish and is married to a native San Franciscan of Filipino descent -- with setting the tone at the top. I think it's noteworthy that commentators almost never talk about this aspect of Baker's talent, or try to learn from it. Since he's my mentor, I thought I had to try.
The first time I met Baker, in 1994, he was tight-lipped on the topic. Did he think being a black manager made a difference? "I didn't even think about that. My attitude is, I've got a job to do, and it's not a matter of black and white." What about people who said his predecessor, Roger Craig, had problems with black players? "That's their opinion," he said coldly. Did he worry about clubhouse separatism? "That's in every job. You hang out with people you have the most in common with." I gave up.
A couple of weeks later, as I was finishing the piece, the phone rang. "This is Dusty," the voice on the other end said unexpectedly. He was alone in Scottsdale, Ariz., on the eve of spring training, without his players, family or his then-fiancie, and he was ready to answer a few last questions. We circled back around to the issue of race, and I got an earful.
baker said he resented the idea that his cross-racial comfort was instinctive or effortless or, as some pundits like to suggest, the result of growing up a popular star athlete. "Actually, there was a time when I was really militant, really angry, because some of the things I was naive about growing up, I got mad about later," he said. "Like my graduation night. I don't like to think about this much, but at graduation, everybody was supposed to walk across the stage in couples. And there I was, this star athlete, but I couldn't get a girl to walk with me. I walked alone. Then when I got to the minor leagues, in Richmond, Calif., we couldn't live in the white neighborhoods, we had to live in the ghetto, where the pimps and prostitutes were our partners. We were just kids, but nobody from the team cared about us.
"You go look at all my early baseball cards -- I'm not smiling in any of them. I was angry. I was very taken with the Black Muslims, their togetherness. They were very clean-cut, and they took a lot of brothers off the street. But my old man wouldn't let me join," he laughed. "And my sister kept telling me: Don't harden your heart."
He didn't. As a manager, Baker admitted, racial separatism in the clubhouse bothered him, but he decided it was best combated by example, not mandate. "Sure, I'd like to see more mixing, but there are reasons there isn't. White people aren't used to thinking about their race; black people have to think about it all the time. Guys will say, 'Bake, man, I wish you'd been with me last night, I was the only white guy out at this club.' And I'll say, 'Now you know how it feels.' But on the field, we're a team. In that clubhouse we're together."
Four years later, Baker was a little more willing to probe the race question more directly. He thought the Dodgers' problems were compounded by the difficulty many people in baseball have in dealing with racial difference and racial tension. "I'll say this: After Piazza talked about communication problems, the Dodgers started to win for a while, because they started to come together as a team. People complained about his saying it, but it was the first step to taking it on as an issue -- to say that guys would have to make a real effort to come together. Most people will just hold it in when they feel that way, but he let it out."
Baker also favors diversity outside of the roster. "If there's one thing I've done that's made a difference, I think it's the diversity of my coaching staff. It matches the team: I've got African-Americans, Latinos and whites. If you can't find somebody on my staff you can talk to, you're not trying. It helps if everybody's represented all through the team, up to the front office. We have the only black traveling secretary in baseball.
"And we're lucky to be in San Francisco. We attract a certain type of person throughout the organization -- if you don't like blacks, or you don't like Asians, or you don't like whites, or you don't like gays -- well, you're not gonna want to live here."
Catcher Brian Johnson, an Oakland, Calif., native who struck up a friendship with Baker while a student at Stanford University, thinks the way Baker revels in racial difference sets a tone for the Giants. "He doesn't try to muzzle cultural differences. He enjoys them. He speaks Spanish himself. He relates well with all kinds of people. People talk about diversity, but what are they doing in their personal life? Do they have close friends of another race? Dusty does, and you can feel that."
Johnson may be the best symbol of the 1997 Giants, racially and professionally. He had mediocre numbers with San Diego and Detroit. But when he came to the Giants in July, something happened. In the season's climactic moment, facing the Dodgers two weeks ago with the division lead at stake, the catcher smashed a 12th inning homer into the left-field bleachers to win the game, breaking the Dodgers' spirit and sending 55,000 fans into screaming delirium. Johnson, whose heroics have already become a permanent part of Giants' lore, looks white but sounds ... well, black. Most of my black friends insisted he was black, or at least of mixed racial parentage. "He walks like a brother," one friend argued.I noticed Johnson shaved his head, like the black players, but when he stood with them, hatless, watching his teammates bat, his scalp turned bright pink. I always wanted to yell, "You can be whatever race you want to, my brother, but you really ought to borrow my sunscreen."
When I finally broke down and asked Media Relations Manager Jim Moorehead to tell me Johnson's official ethnicity, there was a long pause, then a chuckle. "I really don't know," he confessed. So at the end of an interview, I asked Johnson directly, describing the debate among my friends. He enjoyed that. "I'm 150 percent white. But I grew up around black people. My wife is black. A lot of my friends are black. My friends' parents, they always treated me like a son. I know how I sound. My parents have told me I should get some speech lessons, now that I'm doing more talking to the media." He laughs at the idea. "But this is who I am."
For a while I felt like I ought to apologize for my unseemly obsession with Johnson's ethnicity, or Baker's proud black multiculturalism. It seems eccentric, like Tiger Woods calling himself "Cablinasian." But here's what I think it's about: We have made diversity a drag in this country. We talk about diversity when it doesn't work but ignore it when it does. We're all hooked on this idea that multiculturalism means strife, that integration is as appetizing as castor oil. For me the Giants' success this year has been a rumor of a different way of life, an answer to the question: What if we all really could get along?
But fittingly, when Johnson talks about why the Giants thrilled their fans this year, he doesn't talk about race. "Oh, it's very deep. It's theatrical. This is a team where every single player has been told: You're not good enough. Everybody on this team has been cut, or traded, or let go when they didn't want to be. So people can relate to us. Everybody's been told they're not good enough at some point in their life. We're everybody."