Clear blue sky turns Dusty for playoffs
The paradox for some Dodgers fans entering the playoffs is rooting against the Washington Nationals without hurting the feelings of their manager — the one still wearing wristbands and known by a cool nickname at age 67.
Dusty Baker, the former All-Star and Gold Glove outfielder, is the first L.A. Dodger icon to face his former team as a manager in the postseason. In 1959, Los Angeles patrons weren’t attached to Al Lopez, the former Brooklyn catcher who was piloting the Chicago White Sox in the World Series at the Coliseum. Other opposing managers had played for the Dodgers, including second baseman Willie Randolph (2006 Mets) and reserve outfielder Charlie Manuel (2008-09 Phillies). Danny Ozark (1977-78 Phillies), Bobby Cox (1996 Braves) and Terry Collins (2015 Mets) were former minor leaguers in the Dodger organization.
The Dodgers acquired Baker prior to the 1976 season in a trade with the Atlanta Braves. Hampered by a knee injury, Baker hit only four home runs during his first season in L.A. ,and the Dodgers finished in second place, 10 games behind the Reds in manager Walter Alston’s final year.
But Baker made history in 1977 with a memorable home run on the final day of the regular season. The Dodgers were already headed for the playoffs, but the storyline was Baker needing a home run to join Steve Garvey (33), Reggie Smith (32) and Ron Cey (30) as Major League Baseball’s first 30-homer quartet. Smith stirred the pot by calling the opposing pitcher, Houston’s J.R. Richard, on the clubhouse telephone at the beginning of the weekend series and telling the 6-foot-8, 222-pound ace that Baker was going to hit the home run against him. A mortified Baker shook his head and waved his hands, mouthing “no, no” as Smith made his announcement.
In Baker’s final at-bat against Richard in the sixth inning, Baker homered on a pitch that Baker swears “stopped” in mid-flight. Prior to the at-bat, manager Tommy Lasorda had given Baker a motivational talk about believing himself and a Biblical reference about Moses parting the Red Sea. As Baker reached home plate after the home run, rookie Glenn Burke excitedly raised his hand in the air, an act which urban legend now considers the first “High Five” handshake.
Baker’s playoff homecoming is similar to the 1949 World Series, when former Dodger outfielder Casey Stengel returned to Brooklyn as manager of the New York Yankees. Brooklyn fans had a soft spot in their hearts for Stengel, who made a famous return to Ebbets Field as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1918. When he stepped to the plate for his first at-bat, he doffed his cap and the small bird hidden by Stengel flew away to the delight of the crowd.
Stengel was a member of the first Dodger World Series team in 1916 (Today’s playoff opener is the 100th anniversary of the Dodgers’ first World Series game). Stengel also hit the first home run in Ebbets Field history in 1913 during an exhibition game against the Yankees. On the evening before the 1949 Series opener, Stengel attended a Dodger party that featured a reunion of the 1916 Brooklyn team.
The nostalgia for Stengel wore off during the next decade when his Yankees won American League pennants 10 times in a 12-year span and beat the Dodgers in 1949, 1952, 1953 and 1956 World Series. The only Dodger victory in a Fall Classic was a seven-game thriller in 1955.
Stengel lived in Glendale during the offseason, so the Dodgers’ move to the West Coast in 1958 kept him in the local spotlight. Stengel managed the expansion New York Mets from 1962-65 before retiring at age 75. When the Dodgers retired the first three uniform numbers in their history in 1972 – Sandy Koufax (32), Roy Campanella (39) and Jackie Robinson (42) — the theme of the afternoon was actually a “Salute to Casey Stengel” and his Hall of Fame career. During introductions, Stengel tipped his cap when he arrived at home plate – and another bird flew away.