Dusty Baker was deep in prayer the night he was drafted into Major League Baseball. “Dear Lord,” Baker told hundreds of fans and supporters Saturday night at William Jessup University in Rocklin. “Please don’t let me be drafted by the Atlanta Braves.”
The year was 1967 and Baker, a native Californian, was troubled by the prospect of playing in the racially segregated South. So when the fateful phone call arrived, the Del Campo High School star answered it nervously. “Congratulations,” said the voice from far away. “You’ve been selected by the Atlanta Braves.”
Baker’s heart sank. “I guess God didn’t hear me,” he told the crowd. But sometimes, he confided, God works in mysterious ways. Baker joined the Braves and got to play in the same outfield with Hank Aaron, one of the game’s greatest players.
After eight years in Atlanta, Baker was traded in 1976 to the Los Angeles, where he would lead the Dodgers to three National League pennants and a World Series championship in 1981. Before hanging up his spikes in 1986, the two-time National League All-Star hit 242 Home Runs, with 1.013 Runs Batted In, with a lifetime .278 batting average.
But Baker’s true influence on the game was only just beginning and it would take form not only on the field but in the dugout. Baker served 20 seasons as manager for the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds. He took the Giants and the Cubs to the World Series, becoming only one of three African-American managers to get there. He’s also only the ninth manager to lead three different teams into the playoffs. I had the privilege of meeting Dusty — and his team of Sacramento legends, at a Major League Baseball reunion dinner Saturday night.
Throughout his storied career, Baker became a mentor for a whole new generation of Major Leaguers, players with roots in Northern California — including Willie McGee, Greg Vaughn, Ricky Jordan, Derrek Lee, Butch Metzger and many others who were on hand Saturday night to honor Baker, along with Jerry Manuel, who managed the Chicago White Sox (Manager of the Year in 2000), before he took helm of the New York Mets from 2008 – 2010.
Jerry Manuel is a great teacher, both in the classroom and on the field. His Jerry Manuel Foundation is a rigorous academic magnet program in the Elverta School District, designed for kids who love baseball. Jerry’s son Anthony Manuel, a former minor leaguer, is a baseball instructor and coach at the school. The fundamental building blocks at JMF are education, character development and the training of baseball skills on a daily basis. Here’s the link to learn more about the Jerry Manuel Foundation.
One of JMF’s goal is to overcome one of baseball’s shameful secrets: the game has lost it’s appeal to kids living in America’s inner cities. Today just 8 percent of Major League ballplayers are African American, compared to 33 percent some thirty years ago. JMF’s mission is to “increase the number of African American men becoming leaders and ignite a new-found passion and commitment to pursuing America’s favorite pastime at all levels.”
Manuel is now the head of baseball operations for William Jessup University, where he hopes some of his kids may one day play on what is now just a field of dreams.
Dusty Baker is committed to helping Manuel reach that goal and he’s not alone. Dozens of former players and scouts are supporting Manuel’s mission of teaching kids the nine core values practiced by Jackie Robinson: courage, determination, teamwork, persistence, integrity, citizenship, justice, commitment and excellence.
The list of supporting players reads like an All-Star roster:
Willie McGee grew up in Richmond, California and helped the St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series in 1982 as a rookie. The center fielder won three Gold Glove Awards and collected 2,254 hits in 18 seasons with St. Louis. In 1985, he led the National League in hitting with a .353 average.
Greg Vaughn was born in Sacramento and graduated from Kennedy High School. The left fielder played for the the Milwaukee Brewers (1989–96), San Diego Padres (1996–98), Cincinnati Reds (1999), Tampa Bay Devil Rays (2000–02) and Colorado Rockies (2003), and finished with with 355 home runs, 1072 RBI, 1017 runs, 1475 hits and a .242 batting average.
Derrek Lee graduated from El Camino High School in Sacramento, along with KCRA 3′s Lisa Gonzales. Lee helped the Florida Marlins capture a World Series championship in 2003 and he won the National League batting title in 2005 as a member of the Chicago Cubs. The two-time All-Star also won a Gold Glove Award three times. Derrek’s father, Leon Lee, played professional baseball in Japan.
Also in attendance, Richmond’s Ricky Jordan who played first base for the Phillies and the Mariners from 1988 – 1996. He’s now active in the construction business in Sacramento and told me he’s hiring more people now that the economy is heating up.
But the biggest beneficiaries of Saturday’s baseball bash for Baker were the kids from the Jerry Manuel Foundation. They got to mingle with all the former players, who graciously answered their questions and signed autographs.
These players believe that baseball can be the catalyst for change. Baseball made the difference in their lives and now they are dedicated to giving their time and resources back to the community where they grew up, so that other kids can have a chance. If you’d like to help, you can contact the Jerry Manuel Foundation at P.O. Box 1127, Loomis, CA 95650 or just click here: How to Donate
It’s through the magic of baseball that sometimes, dreams can come true.