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Baseball wasn't always No. 1 for Baker

Nationals manager has carved out solid career for third-best sport
MLB.com @TracyRingolsby

Growing up, Dusty Baker had dreams of being a basketball star. He would think on occasion about being a wide receiver in the NFL. Baseball? It was basically something to do during the summer, between basketball and football.

Life took a strange turn, though. Baseball became part of Baker's DNA, first as a player, then as a coach and finally as a manager with the Giants, Cubs, Reds and currently the Nationals.

Growing up, Dusty Baker had dreams of being a basketball star. He would think on occasion about being a wide receiver in the NFL. Baseball? It was basically something to do during the summer, between basketball and football.

Life took a strange turn, though. Baseball became part of Baker's DNA, first as a player, then as a coach and finally as a manager with the Giants, Cubs, Reds and currently the Nationals.

Baker talked about his career choice in this week's Q&A:

MLB.com: I know at least one team that wanted you to play football when you came out of high school, University of Wyoming. So I'm assuming, other than baseball, you had your options in some other sports, too.

Baker: I had a lot more options than I had in baseball. To tell you the truth I had none in baseball. I had a number of scholarships for football, a number of scholarships in basketball, a couple in track, and not one in baseball. My dad actually wanted me to go to University of Santa Clara, and I asked the coach during my recruiting trip, "Hey, man, I play baseball, too." So they let me work out. I asked Carroll Williams, who was the assistant coach then, "Hey, man, what'd they say after I got to the big leagues?" He said that you were OK.

The next summer I played my first game in San Francisco, and Coach Williams, unbeknownst to me, had talked to Coach [Sal] Taormina and said, "Hey, man, remember that kid that you said was just so-so? He's playing center field today." And Coach goes, "Where?" He goes, "Candlestick Park!"

MLB.com: Was baseball your primary sport?

Baker: My dad was a baseball coach, my Little League coach, and Bobby Bond's Little League coach. We all played baseball because you loved it, you needed something to do that time of the year, and I couldn't imagine not playing all sports like a lot of these kids do now. I was pretty good at all of them, but I was probably not that good at baseball because I was a tall skinny kid that could hit, run, field and doing everything, but I couldn't hit home runs. Everybody wants a power hitter.

MLB.com: But you overcame that?

Baker: I overcame that just because I grew. My dad was a late bloomer, and my son is like that now. He's built just like I was, 155, 160 pounds. Your frame is such where you can carry weight and gain strength. But actually my first love was basketball. That was my very first love.

MLB.com: So basketball is your love. You've got college scholarship offers to play that sport. You had college scholarship offers for football. So what gets you to say, "I'm going to go ahead and play baseball"?

Baker: My dad told the scouts coming around, "Don't waste your draft. My son is going to go to college and play football or basketball." One scout, Mr. Bill Wight, was a long-shot scout. He signed Joe Morgan with Houston. I think he signed Keith Hernandez, low-round Draft choices. He came around; he knew my parents' situation. They had just gotten divorced. I'm the oldest of five, and the spokes on the economic wheel were off. When your dad has to get an apartment and still carry the house payment.

I didn't want to be a burden on my mom and dad. My mom was in college at the same time. My brother was going to be in college a year after. My sister the year after him. My dad always taught us to be responsible, although he was against me signing a baseball deal.

We didn't speak for like three years after I signed. The State of California was appointed as a trustee over my finances until I was 21. And my dad invested my money, and I got, second-round money, even though I was a 25th-round Draft choice. He put me in Standard Oil of California. Me and my dad didn't speak. At least, I didn't speak to him. I thought he was being a mean old man. It was like, "I'm 18 now. I can do what I want." I'm hoping my son doesn't tell me that same thing. But that's what happened.

My money tripled. That's when I started watching the stock market as a young kid. I ended up being a broker later in life. And that's what kind of got me interested in that. Next thing I know, I'm saying, "Ooh, maybe my dad's not this mean old man. He's tried to help me." And we became best friends after that and remained so until he died.

MLB.com: So obviously you turned to baseball out of necessity more than desire. I guess you can't really complain, though, about what happened to you in the world of baseball.

Baker: I think about it. How long would I have lasted in football with my little skinny self? I had speed, but one hard tackle from some of those guys that I saw out there playing ... At the time, I felt like I was the same size they were, and I'd been Tiny Dusty Baker instead of Tiny Archibald because I was older. I couldn't get basketball out of my system. That was my former training in the offseason. I remember Don Baylor and I played basketball when we were in Puerto Rico for winter ball. I hurt my knee playing basketball about two days after I got traded to the Dodgers. It almost ended my career.

Then, and only then, did I realize what I had almost lost, and then I fell in love with baseball. I was 27 years old before I fell in love with baseball. It became difficult to play the next 10 years, but I became a better player because I got into my game. I try to tell these kids now, "Fall in love with it, and then you'll see things that you never saw before." It's a beautiful game.

MLB.com: Did you ever think of yourself as a manager?

Baker: No, never. I never thought of myself as a coach because coaches wear shorts. I got skinny legs, and I don't own a whistle, except for my dog whistle when I'm training my dogs. Al Rosen was a guy that saw something in me that I didn't see in myself. Al Rosen was general manager of the Giants and solicited me. He said I'd probably be a great field manager, and I took exception to him saying, "Be in the field." I said, "Hey, I want to be your general manager, your assistant." And he said, "I have an assistant."

I was getting divorced, which changed my life at the time, and my brother and I went to Lake Arrowhead to see if I wanted to get back into baseball. I went up there to pray. Like my dad tells me, "Go to the mountaintop, Son, and ask for guidance." I was standing in line to check in at the hotel and some guy taps me on the shoulder. It's Bob Lurie, the owner of the Giants. He goes, "You need to come join us." I say, "What are you doing here?" He goes, "My first time here." And I said, "Well, my first time here, too." I went right to the phone and called my dad. I said, "Dad, what do you think, is that a sign?" He says, "Son, you just don't want to see it. You went up there to ask for guidance and you got guided before you even checked in the hotel."

So that's what started my career. I gave myself five years to be the manager, or I was going to go into broadcasting or something. Almost five years to the day, I was chosen as the manager of the Giants. A lot of this was already written for me. All I had to do was don't mess it up.

MLB.com: And you can't get it out of your blood now, can you?

Baker: It's gonna get out of there pretty soon. My son is going to Cal. I'd like to see him play ball, and eventually pro ball. It's in there, it's in my blood big-time.I missed it when I was gone for a couple of years. But life goes on. I started a couple of other businesses. I'm in the wine business and also I'm in the alternative energy business as well. This is still number one. When I put my name in the hat again for the Nationals' job, I called Matt Williams (who had been fired as the manager). I asked Matt's permission. He's one of my favorite players that played for me.

Video: Baker on life away from baseball, return to managing

And I called Joe Gibbs. I never met him before. I got his number and I said, "It's Dusty Baker. Can you help me? How can I keep my business that I had just started, and they're going to end up being pretty lucrative, and be in baseball at the same time?" He gave me some tips, some things which I have practiced to this day. Then at the end of our conversation, he said, "Let me pray for you, Son." And I was like, "Huh?" So I closed my eyes and he prayed for me over the phone. That's a conversation that I'll never forget.

MLB.com: It's amazing how something that you did because you felt like, "I've got to do this for survival" becomes such a passion in your life.

Baker: It's a blessing. It's not only been a blessing to me, it's been a blessing to a lot of my relatives, a lot of my friends. It's brought a lot of joy. A few tears along the way to a lot of people ... One of my favorite movies is "It's a Wonderful Life." I watch it every Christmas. This is how I look at myself because there were times when I was just like him in the movie, but it all ended up well.

Tracy Ringolsby is a national columnist for MLB.com.

Washington Nationals