Johnnie B. Baker Jr.? He’s one of my favorites.
Maybe it’s because I’ve won a few bets on trivia questions involving him. Maybe it’s because he’s 63 years old, but still goes by the nickname he acquired as a toddler because he enjoyed eating the dirt in his backyard.
Maybe it’s the ubiquitous toothpick. “A replacement for dipping tobacco,” he told Craig Heimbuch of the Cincinnati Profile.
Maybe it’s the wristbands that still adorn his gameday uniform. “I’ve always worn them, since I was a kid,” he told Heimbuch, “And consider them a part of me.”
But when the Atlanta Braves road show stopped in Cincinnati this week, it gave us a chance to look in on the Reds manager.
As if it isn’t enough that the Braves are in the midst of a stretch that includes 26 out of 37 games on the road. This trip won’t be any bargain. No days off. It ends in Arizona, after a four game set in San Francisco against the World Series champion Giants.
The weather might be better than the last frigid excursion to Pittsburgh, Denver and Detroit. But the trip starts in Cincinnati, where the Braves face the team that has fashioned the best home record in baseball.
And that team has Dusty Baker in its dugout.
“I hate losing, man,” Baker told Heimbuch. “That losing makes me miserable. I don’t like that ‘L’ by my name at all. I don’t want my name even associated with anything that starts with ‘L,’ you know what I’m saying? I like ‘Ws.”
Baker’s been associated with a lot more wins than losses in his major league career, which stretches all the way back to September of 1968. That year, the 19-year-old got his first taste of the big leagues with the Braves.
He became a permanent fixture in the Braves outfield in 1972, hitting a cool .321. The next year, he hit .288 and knocked in 99 runs. In 1974, he became the answer to a trivia question.
Baker was on-deck when Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run. He followed the hoopla with a double that Baker has often said “nobody saw and nobody cared.”
Baker became part of another trivia moment on October 2, 1977. In “The History and Mystery of the High Five,” Jon Mooallem of ESPN described the scene.
“It was the last day of the regular season, and Dodger leftfielder Dusty Baker had just gone deep off the Astros J. R. Richard. It was Baker’s 30th home run, making the Dodgers the first team in history to have four sluggers — Baker, Ron Cey, Steve Garvey, and Reggie Smith — with at least 30 homers each.
“It was a wild, triumphant moment, and a good omen as the Dodgers headed to the playoffs. Glenn Burke, waiting on-deck, thrust his hand enthusiastically over his head to greet his friend at the plate. Baker, not knowing what to do, smacked it.
“‘His hand was up in the air, and he was arching way back,’ says Baker. ‘So I reached up and hit his hand. It seemed like the thing to do.’”
Baker always caught your eye as a player. He looked like an inverted pyramid: Broad shoulders, barrel chest, thin waist, long, thin legs. He looked so top heavy that you expected a stiff breeze to topple him.
But he had a fine career: .278 career average, 242 homers, 1,013 RBIs with the Braves (1968-1975), Dodgers (1976-1983), Giants (1984) and A’s (1985-1986) He won two silver slugger awards and a gold glove, played in two All-Star Games, and was the MVP of the 1977 NLCS.
Still, we think of Baker as a manager today, for that career now spans 20 years. And it started with quite a bang.
After serving as a Giants coach for five years, Baker became their manager for the 1993 season. All he did was take a team that finished 1992 with a 72-90 record and bring it home with 103 wins.
That was enough to win the National League Manager of the Year award, but it wasn’t enough to reach the playoffs. In the last true pennant race, the last season without the safety net of a wild card, when you either won your division or went home, the Braves beat the Giants to the finish line by one game.
In 2002, Baker’s Giants won the wild card, and rolled all the way to game seven of the World Series before losing to the Angels.
Incredibly for a guy who hates losing, Baker moved on to manage the Cubs in 2003. He took a team that finished 67-95 in 2002 and won the Cubs first division title since 1989.
Baker almost led the Cubs to their first World Series since 1945 but, these being the Cubs, fate intervened in the form of Steve Bartman.
Baker’s been in the Reds dugout since 2008. After two losing seasons, in 2010 he led the Reds to their first playoff appearance in 15 years. Last October, he signed a two-year contract extension with the Reds. His mindset might enable him to manage a lot longer.
“With my background, where I come from, there isn’t too much that bothers me,” he told Jerry Crasnick of espn.com. “I know who I am and how I am. I feel comfortable in my own skin.”
Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for The Times. His column appears on Thursdays.