books Dusty and Jimi
Kiss the Sky: My Weekend in Monterey for the Greatest Rock Concert Ever (Music That Changed My Life)
It’s one of the most widely pitied facts in all of sports: the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series in 1908. There have, of course, been glimmers of sunshine at Wrigley since then: Greg Maddux, Ryne Sandberg, Sammy Sosa. The 2003 Cubs, managed by Dusty Baker and led by Sosa and Moisés Alou, were one game away from returning to the series for the first time since the Second World War. Then they lost three straight to the Florida Marlins, blowing leads in games six and seven and confirming, to some, the “Curse of the Billy Goat.” (Or, if you prefer, of Steve Bartman: he famously plucked an eighth-inning foul ball from the gloved reach of Alou, thereby setting the Marlins comeback in motion.) Baker lasted three more years in Chicago, but his team sank in the standings each season, along with the fortunes of the Tribune Company—ready to dump the Cubs—until he was finally let go, in 2006.
“We went from damn near the World Series,” Baker, now sixty-six, told me before game two of the National League Championship Series, in which the Mets took a two-games-to-none lead over the Cubs, “to dismantling the team. I thought we were gonna reload! I was like, Man, how are we trying to win when we’re getting rid of Sammy and Moisés at the same time!” (They both left in 2005.) “I lost damn near ninety home runs and two hundred and thirty R.B.I.s between them. Then Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramírez were hurt. We pretty much had a Triple-A team out there.”
Baker went from savior to scapegoat. “The city turned on me. It was tough, man. Every time I stepped on the field, I was booed. My wife was afraid of letting me go out in public by myself. She quit taking my young son to the games, where he’d hear his father booed and cussed at. That had a big effect on my life. But you try not to be a hard person. You try not to carry anything negative forward in your life.”
Johnnie B. Baker Jr., born in Riverside, California, got his nickname from his mother, because, as a boy, he was constantly dirty. She ran a charm school and his dad had a civilian job in the military. They both loved music and Dusty fell for the blues early: “I liked the melody of it and the rhythmic sounds that the blues had,” he writes in Kiss The Sky, his account of attending the three-day Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, which will be published by Wellstone Books next month. Baker, at his mother’s behest, learned the piano, and he was poised to be lead singer of an otherwise all-white garage band in Sacramento, where the family had moved, before his parents intervened. “I was going to be Hootie and the Blowfish before Hootie,” he writes.
He was all-city in baseball, and all-county in basketball, football, and track. But Baker, inspired by Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, wanted to be a writer. (He studied journalism, briefly, at American River College.) He was the five-hundred-and-third selection in the 1967 amateur-baseball draft, taken by the Atlanta Braves, and signed with the team later that year. (The bonus enabled his mother, siblings, and himself to attend college.) For his eighteenth birthday, a few weeks later, his mother gave him, he writes, “one of the great presents a mother could ever give a son: two tickets to the three-day Monterey Pop Festival that weekend, along with twenty bucks and use of the family car.”
The teen-agers slept in the car and agreed on a rule to preserve their athletic futures: “No grass!” The last day, they watched Hendrix set his guitar on fire. “I knew what I was hearing and that was a guy who could give his music a crackle and growl and scream, could detonate it like a stack of dynamite, but do it all in the music, in the groove, true to the integrity of his musical sources,” Baker writes of Hendrix. “And best of all, he was having himself one heck of a great time.”
At its best, the book evokes not only the pleasure of music, but the connection between that experience and the joy of sports:
When I think back on it now, the look on Jimi’s face between songs that day was a look I know all too well: It was the look of someone who has just hit a home run. To fans the feeling you have when you hit a home run must seem like the ultimate in self-congratulation or exultation, and there is some of that in there, especially with certain homers, but most of all the feeling you have is a kind of calm exhilaration and wonder, a sense not that you had done something in launching that ball over the fence but that you were part of something, the swing of your bat striking a ball rushing your way and connecting to make something special happen. You almost feel that the bat did the work, it feels so light in your hands, the swing feels so easy. Hendrix had that exhilarated look of being as amazed as all of us at what was happening with his guitar.
The summer after the Monterey Pop Festival, Baker was briefly called up to the Braves, the first of his nineteen seasons as a professional ballplayer. After his first stint in the bigs, Baker writes, he ran into Jimi Hendrix on the streets of San Francisco one night and, having abandoned the “no grass” rule, smoked a joint with him. (He’s mum about the words they exchanged, if he remembers them.) All of this by nineteen.
He became a full-time big leaguer in 1972, and played until 1986. He was in the on-deck circle when Hank Aaron—or “Ham,” as he called his friend—broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. He won a World Series and made two All-Star teams. He was credited, perhaps dubiously, with participating in one of the first-ever high fives. After retiring, he became a coach, managing the San Francisco Giants for ten years, winning three “manager of the year” awards and taking the team to a World Series, in 2002, before the Cubs lured him to Chicago.
As a coach, he was improvisational, like the musicians he loved, more rhythm section than bandleader. “Deep down inside,” he writes, “I don’t think of myself so much as a baseball man as I see myself as a music man, a blues man and much more than that…. I always felt that I could never really express myself as a ballplayer, no matter how I played, like I could as a musician.” He got to know the legendary blues men Elvin Bishop and Buddy Guy, whom he invited to Cubs games. Guy often returned the favor with moonshine at his club afterward.
Before leaving the team, Baker recalled hearing one Cubs executive say to another: “Dusty’s going to the Reds. That means another ten or eleven victories for us.” The Reds did hire him a year later, and that comment never left him: “It was quite the contrary,” he told me. “We’d beat them pretty good.” His theme song as the Reds manager was “Too Long in Exile,” by Van Morrison: “Well that isolated feeling / drives you so close up against the wall/ ’Til you feel like you can’t go on / You’ve been in the same place for too long.” He missed home.
Despite having fallen behind early in this series, the Cubs remain four games away—thirty-six innings, two hundred and sixteen outs—from their first World Series in seventy years. Moonlighting as a game analyst for TBS and entitled to plenty of schadenfreude, Baker is willing to cheer for his old team. Though he’s not ready to root as hard as his wife or son are.
“I’m not as conflicted anymore,” he said. “Time heals all wounds. I’ve got a lot of friends over there still: the grounds crew, the clubhouse people, training staff. Lester Stroud,” the longtime bullpen coach, “I just talked to him this morning.”
Baker has managed three major-league teams and played for four; he tries not to get emotionally attached to the organizations. “I call it like I see it. I don’t want to be an announcer that makes my decision on my heart. Like game one, I picked the Mets. It had nothing to do with being against the Cubs.”
Pressed to make a series pick, Baker—whose unorthodox opinions in recent years have included endorsing NHL-style fighting—demurred: “I don’t have a dog in the fight. But I’m usually for the underdog. As a kid, ‘Underdog‘ was one of my favorite cartoons. We’d be playing cowboys and Indians and I wanted to be the Indians so the Indians wouldn’t lose, like they did in the movies every time. I’m an underdog-type dude. We’ll see who that is in a few days.”
Baker is now in the running to become the next manager of the Washington Nationals, who fired Matt Williams after finishing a disappointing 83–79 this year. That would be a good fit from the perspective of the underdog appreciator, though D.C. is not known for its blues clubs the way Chicago is. Whether he returns to baseball or not, though, attending the World Series is out of the question this year.
“I can’t go, man, even if the Cubs make it. I got stuff to do. I’ve got a book tour to go on. I’ve gotta go fishing. Duck-hunting starts soon. And I’ve got a wine company—Baker Family Wine—that I grow grapes for in my backyard. We’re having our coming-out party. And I also have another business, Baker Energy Team, which is doing alternative energy, wind and solar. I’m busy, man. But I’ll watch it big-time, wherever I am. If I’m not home, I’ll listen in the car until I get home.”
His wife, Melissa, shouted something to him from the other room. “She says I’ll be at the watering hole,” he told me, laughing. “And she hopes the Cubs go further than when I took them. But I’m still three games ahead of where they are right now. That’s a lot of ground to cover this time of year.”
Charles Bethea is based in Atlanta. He is a regular contributor to Sporting Scene section of The New Yorker.