Dusty, dugout diplomat, example all of America believes it is

  •  Programming note: Watch "Race in America: A Candid Conversation" on Wednesday, March 8 at approximately 8:30 p.m following the Giants' game against Team USA on NBC Sports Bay Area.

Dusty Baker is by vocation a baseball man, down to the sweatbands adorning each of his 73-year-old wrists from first pitch to last out. Limiting him to that identity, however, is criminally insufficient, like ending a game after two pitches.

He defies narrow definition. Within his soul is the reflective serenity of Gandhi and Mandela, the insightful rhythms of Wonder and Marley, the abiding courage of LBJ and MLK and RFK, the innate aplomb of Aaron and Federer and Ali.

Away from the relentless pursuit of victory on the diamond, Johnnie B. Baker Jr. possesses the spirit of a global diplomat, a position for which he is as spectacularly suited as baseball. 

Which makes him a particularly good choice to discuss our fractured society, which he did during a guest appearance on “Race in America: A Candid Conversation,” premiering Wednesday night.

What would Dusty do?

“No. 1, I would put different people, different races, different social and economic backgrounds, in a room on a daily basis,” Baker says. “I would have them spend as much time as possible to see that a lot of the stereotypes about each other aren’t right. Some of the stereotypes about each other are real, but most of them aren’t.

"And then feed them different foods from different races on a daily basis. Have them understand, or try to understand, different religions. That’s what makes the world go around.

“You may not like it, but you’ve got to at least respect another person’s space and try not to be judgmental. When you’re judgmental, you put up these walls and barriers that aren’t fair to anybody.”

Baker’s relationships are in line with his upbringing. He spent his early childhood in Riverside, a diverse Southern California city with a notable Black population, before the Bakers moved to a mostly white neighborhood northeast of Sacramento during his teen years.

He adapted because, well, to go against it in the 1960s would have been counter-productive to his goal of becoming a professional athlete. It also would have required straying from the lessons of his parents, who valued content of character over such box-checking distinctions as race, ethnicity, religion, and gender.

Assimilation was not without its challenges. Johnnie B. Baker Sr., warned about a possible cross-burning by Ku Klux Klan members took it upon himself to spend a few weeks sitting in the living room overnight, shotgun in his lap, ready for war. Cops? Wouldn’t call police because “cops could be in the Klan, too.”

“I learned a lot about people,” Baker says of his time at Del Campo High School in Fair Oaks. “I learned a lot about people on the white side of town. I learned a lot about people on the Black side of town because the Black side of town thought I was white boy because I was going to that school. That gave me a great understanding on how to get along with people.”

All of which prepared Dusty for a life in the deep end of the experience pool. The rebellious phase, when he considered changing his name to “Dusty X.” Six years as a U.S. Marine reservist. He has survived cancer, partied with Jimi Hendrix, endured a ministroke, entered the winemaking business, tends his own garden, gone fishing with hundreds of people of every stripe and won World Series championships as a player and manager, including the 2022 Series with the Houston Astros.

And he is, like most of us, troubled by the relatively recent revival of naked racism and unsubtle bigotry afflicting the United States. Police shootings of unarmed citizens. The book-banning movement to delete the many sharp edges of American history in hopes of creating a wall against equality.

“It’s a sad state of awareness that’s happening in our country,” Baker says. “It’s supposed to be a sophisticated, intelligent country. But you see all these different murders daily.”

During his 10 seasons as manager of the Giants (1993-2002), Baker, who tends his own garden, would routinely prepare a home-cooked spread for players and staff to enjoy. He also recalls overhearing a white player refer to Black-on-Black crime as “the best crime there is.”

The national agita does not apply to Dusty’s broad circle of relatives and friends; of his godsons, Gerald Hannahs, a white basketball player with the G League Santa Cruz Warriors, is the son of Gerry Hannahs, a former Dodgers teammate of Baker. The father gave the son a nickname to honor his favorite teammate.

Dusty. That’s how Hannahs is introduced during games in Santa Cruz. Nobody calls him Gerald.

This is but one of many examples of the Dusty Circle. It represents not the polarized America that is but the one most would consider ideal, for its demographic is the tapestry of our nation.

RELATED: Bonds gives Baker heart-felt shoutout after World Series win

Of course. Baker wouldn’t have it any other way. He is old school and new school, warm and cool, tough and tender. He is a practically perfect example of all America declares itself to be, a man who opens his doors to all simply because it feeds his mind and fills his heart.

We’d all be better off if there were a few more Dusty Bakers roaming the halls of power and influence, shaking hands, slapping backs and breaking bread as a way to best connect and nourish humanity.

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