Dusty: 'I grew up idolizing Jackie Robinson'

April 15th, 2020

HOUSTON -- Instead of proudly wearing the No. 42 jersey like the rest of baseball on what would have been Jackie Robinson Day on Wednesday, Astros manager Dusty Baker was at home in Sacramento tending to his grapes, watching cowboy movies and throwing batting practice to his son, who plays at the University of California.

That's become part of the stay-at-home routine for Baker, who has been keeping up with news about the coronavirus and wondering when baseball would be able to return and what that might look like. It's been a month since the pandemic forced the sports world to come to a halt, abruptly ending Spring Training and sending Astros players back home from Florida. The lack of games on Wednesday didn't stop Major League Baseball from celebrating Jackie Robinson, the man who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947 and was a hero to Baker and so many others.

"I grew up idolizing Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers because my dad was a Dodgers fan like most African Americans back in the day because of Jackie," Baker said. "All the time I was growing up as a kid, my dad would always remind me when I would get in a scrap or scuffle or something, especially like a racial scuffle, my dad would also tell me to think about what Jackie would do. Then I was fortunate enough to grow up as a man. I didn't get to meet Jackie, but I heard so much about Jackie."

Baker heard about Robinson from Hank Aaron, the former all-time home run king who was Baker's teammate when Baker broke into the big leagues with the Braves in 1968. He listened to firsthand Robinson accounts from Jim Gilliam, the former Negro Leaguer who played 14 years with the Dodgers. And he was surprised to find out his former American Legion coach, Spider Jorgensen, made his Major League debut for the Dodgers on the same day as Robinson -- April 15, 1947.

"I was walking down the hall at Dodgertown and I saw this mural, and there was Spider Jorgensen tagging somebody out at third base," Baker said.

Since then, Baker has met the entire Robinson family and was at the dedication of Jackie Robinson Stadium at UCLA, where Robinson was a four-sport letterwinner. He has a wall full of photos at home that include many of Robinson.

"He was the man that made it possible for me to not only play and manage but gave us all a great sense of pride about being a black American," Baker said.

During his time away from the Astros, who hired Baker two weeks before the start of Spring Training following the firing of manager AJ Hinch in January, Baker has been checking in with players and staff from time to time via the phone.

"You see how they're doing and you see how their mental state is," Baker said. "You see if they're working out. We've got one of the finest training staffs I've been around, and they keep me abreast of who's throwing and how they're feeling and if they go to the doctor. I've talked to [general manager] James Click and I talked to [owner] Jim Crane. I talked to everybody at some point in time and tried to stretch it out some and stay connected."

Baker is anxious for the season to resume, but not necessarily worried. At 70 years old, he's pretty much seen it all in baseball and has learned that worrying doesn't help in any situation. Baker prays the world can return to normal in the summer but adds he's not sure if normal will be the same as it was before.

"I think there's going to be some lingering effects, but I'm not worried," he said.

Baker has been in touch with the league office throughout the break and has seen the proposals of baseball perhaps returning to play in a bubble in Arizona, or Arizona and Florida. He doesn't like the idea of playing without fans in the stands but knows it might be a necessity for the game to resume.

"Everything is going to depend on the health of the players, health of the fans, health of the world," Baker said. "That's No. 1. Everything else after is secondary. And it seems like they're getting a handle on it, sort of. The whole world has to feel comfortable first, I think, to feel some normalcy before we can resume. ... Right now, we're in a situation where we don't know."