Dusty Baker was a four-sport star – football, basketball, baseball, track and field – at Del Campo High School in Sacramento, California. Although baseball would be his eventual claim to fame, Baker excelled in all four sports during his high school days in the 1960s. He set scoring records for touchdowns as a running back and punt returner in football. He averaged 15 points and 13 rebounds in basketball, and he set a school record of 9.8 in the 100-yard dash. Despite basketball scholarship offers from two Division I schools, Baker pursued baseball after being drafted by the Atlanta Braves. That decision turned out favorably as he had a highly successful 19-year career with four teams – mainly the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers. Baker hit 242 home runs and had a .278 lifetime average and helped the Dodgers to the 1981 World Series title. After his playing career, Baker managed the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds and Washington Nationals for 22 years with a .532 winning percentage.
Question: What sport were you most passionate about during your upbringing?
Baker: Without a doubt, I was most passionate about basketball – baseball was actually last. For me, I could relate to that song “Basketball Jones.” That’s what I had. You could play it by yourself, with another person, or with five or six people. You could play it day or night. My dad put lights on top of the house so we could play at night. I would watch Elgin Baylor or Dr. J (Julius Erving) make a move and then I would go out and emulate that move. The games that you could make up were endless.
Question: How did you eventually settle into – and ultimately excel – in baseball?
Baker: I was good in baseball but I wasn’t great in baseball. Baseball is something played in the spring and summer. Baseball had a longer season. I played in the spring with the school team and, in the summer, I would play with the American Legion, Little League or Pony League. I came all the way up. I was skilled in all departments, but I just wasn’t strong. I didn’t have power until later in life.
Question: Today, there is more of a focus on specializing in one sport. What are your thoughts about focusing on one sport vs. multi-sport participation? Do you think playing multiple sports made you a better overall athlete?
Baker: I like multi-sport participation because you don’t get burned out, and you have less chance to hurt the same muscles that you’re using all the time. You also learn different skills and techniques by playing multiple sports. For example, you learn how to avoid collisions from football. Or, if you do have one, you learn how to roll. If you play soccer, you learn at a young age where your feet are. With basketball, you learn how to have body control and about timing with a rebound. You also learn how to stop on a dime and change direction. In track, I always liked to run and I had speed. Different sports teach you so many different things.
At 12 or 13 years old, your body can dictate playing one sport over another. Then, by 17, 18 or 19 years old, your body may dictate playing another sport. Back in the day, I talked to so many NBA players who would swear that they could play baseball. I remember talking to Clyde “The Glide” Drexler, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They were all baseball players coming up, and they loved baseball, but their bodies dictated what sport they excelled at. The same goes for football players. I remember Anthony Muñoz telling me that he was a pitcher. Their bodies just grew out of proportion to be a baseball player, so they had to go into basketball or football. Imagine Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s strike zone.
That’s why I like today’s kids to play multiple sports. Plus, they have a lot of downtime. They learn how to maximize their time and how to study when they’re an athlete. Time management’s a top priority if you’re going to be a student-athlete.
Question: Do you have a memorable high school experience as a student-athlete?
Baker: I still think the greatest thing in the sports that I played is scoring a touchdown. I scored many touchdowns in many ways, and I could feel great about it because it was teamwork by 11 different guys. When looking back after scoring a touchdown, I would feel like I conquered the world. Secondly, I remember going to the American Legion state finals in Yountville, California. I had a coach, Spider Jorgensen, who played with Jackie Robinson. That was something that I never even knew until around my seventh or eighth year as a professional. He had us doing drills and things that nobody else was doing. Once I got into pro ball, I saw exactly where those drills came from.
Question: Reflecting on that time, what did it mean to earn induction into the National High School Hall of Fame?
Baker: It meant a lot to me. For one, I didn’t know there was a National High School Hall of Fame. Then, I saw all of the great student-athletes – men and women in all sports from across the country – who have been recognized by the people of their state. Not only were they recognized for being great athletes, but also for being outstanding people. There’s been some mega athletes inducted. You then ask yourself, “Am I really one of them?” People then let you know that you are. I was inducted into quite a few other halls of fame but this one really means a lot.
Question: What words of advice would you pass along to today’s student-athletes?
Baker: I have a son who is a junior in college. I’ve always stressed to him that the order is student-athlete, not athlete then student. There’s a good chance that your education is going to be with you a lot longer in life than your athletic career. After your career, what are you going to do? What do you have left to achieve for the rest of your life? My greatest advice to them would be to not complain and, two, to maximize their time.
Question: After your 19-year playing career was finished, you were manager of four teams over 22 years. What were a few highlights in each of those roles?
Baker: Your first job is usually the most memorable. So for me, in San Francisco, the highlights were going from a coach to manager with the same team and seeing the progress of the players and their families. You see them grow from boyfriend and girlfriend to married with kids, and sometimes to divorced and remarried with kids. San Francisco was also just my home. How many people get to play or manage where they’ve called home. When playing with the Dodgers, that was my team being from southern California. When I moved to northern California where my family is, that’s naturally home where everybody wanted to be.
Question: You’re widely known as a player’s coach. What advice would you give to coaches and parents of today’s emerging student-athletes?
Baker: Today’s young players haven’t really changed from when I played. I know for a fact that a lot of people have good intentions but – through one bad occurrence or another – some kids have been turned off and never return. We’ve lost a lot of great athletes because they’ve been turned off along the way by a coach who thought his intentions were good but may have been coaching in a negative way. Negative motivation may have used to work but now it doesn’t at all. Back then, if somebody said something negative to you, you’d want to prove that person wrong. Now, if you deal in the negative, a lot of kids will sit down or quit. We need the kids to continue to play.
Cody Porter is coordinator of publications/communications in the NFHS Publications/Communications Department.