From the Archives | Dusty Baker: The God Factor Interview
In this revelatory interview with Baker, then-manager of the Chicago Cubs, now on his way to the World Series with the Houston Astros, the baseball legend discusses the faith that centers him.
From The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People,
by Cathleen Falsani (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006)
Professional Baseball Manager
You can be a Christian and be hard-nosed.
A.K.A.: Johnnie B. Baker Jr.
BIRTH DATE: June 15, 1949
RAISED: Southern Baptist and Methodist
ATTENDS: Hermon Baptist Church in Chicago
WORDS TO LIVE BY: “Just because you’re spiritual doesn’t mean you’re perfect, because you’re not.”
The toothpick. The dark sunglasses. The seemingly unflappable, ultracool exterior.
They’re all accoutrements of Dusty Baker’s personal battle between good and evil, an eclectic spirituality that the Chicago Cubs manager explains takes discipline, prayer, and periodic divine intervention to maintain.
“I have to work on it, I’m tellin’ ya,” Baker says, stretching back in his office chair in the Cubs clubhouse at Wrigley Field before a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. “Because I can get—I’ve got a wild side to me that I don’t like too much. It’s fun, but, you know, like I said, I’m not exactly a saint. But I know what’s right and what’s wrong.”
When he talks about his faith, and the spiritual journey that brought him to Chicago, Baker describes a kind of existential tug-of-war between the Good Dusty and the Bad Dusty. “I believe that if there’s a north, there’s a south. That if there’s heaven, there’s hell. That if there’s God, there’s a devil. I believe that I’ve been full of both of them at some point in time. At times, it’s been fun being wrong, even though you know it’s wrong,” he says, his serious, dark eyes, the ones he usually obscures behind his trademark shades during the game, gleaming with intensity. “The good part is that you know you can be forgiven. You know where and how to repent for what you’ve done, thought, and said. I know I’m not perfect, and the Lord knows I’m not perfect. A lot of people, you tell them you’re Christian, and they see you having too many drinks or doing this or that, and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s a hypocrite.’ But you’re human. Just because you’re spiritual doesn’t mean you’re perfect, because you’re not. And you’re not going to be.”
Making the right choice takes practice, Baker says, and he works at it. Like his ubiquitous toothpicks. They’re supposed to keep him from chewing tobacco.
Raised in a religious home in Northern California by his Southern Baptist father and his Methodist mother, Johnnie B. “Dusty” Baker Jr. has been entrenched in faith, church, Scripture, and the power of prayer since he was a small child. As an adult, he peppers deeply held Christian beliefs with Eastern philosophy and other religious traditions, New Age ideology, and what he says are firsthand experiences with the supernatural. It’s a sort of all-truth-is-God’s-truth approach to theology.
“Who’s to say one’s better than the other one? Know what I mean?” he says. “Jesus is the only way for me, but I understand how somebody else in another country or another whatever could feel differently about some things. We had to go to church every Sunday. It wasn’t always pleasant, but the Bible says, ‘Raise a child in the way he should go, and he will someday return,’ or something like that. I’m paraphrasing.”
For more than a decade, Baker has read from the biblical book of Proverbs each morning, picking the chapter that matches the day of the month. (There are thirty-one chapters.) It’s a spiritual discipline that he says gives him a daily dose of wisdom and direction. “There are some things in the readings each day that I’m about to think or do, and it’ll say don’t do that or whatever. It helps,” he says.
On a corner of his clubhouse desk, amid stacks of team paperwork and piles of light blue envelopes filled with game tickets, sits a copy of The Purpose-Driven Life, its dust jacket tucked into the middle of the book. Written by the California megachurch pastor Rick Warren, the book is a kind of spiritual home-improvement guide that takes readers through forty days of Bible study and questions designed to jump-start their faith. “I’ve read about three-quarters of it,” Baker says, getting up from his chair to rifle through a nearby bookshelf that’s topped with unopened bottles of wine that appear to have been gifts.
He’s looking for another devotional book he’s been reading recently called Secrets of the Vine: Breaking Through to Abundance. That one was written by Bruce Wilkinson, a Christian author who also wrote The Prayer of Jabez, a tiny book that expounds on an obscure verse of Hebrew Scripture about a man named Jabez who prays for God to bless him “and enlarge [his] territory.” And, apparently, God does.
After a few minutes, Baker finds what he was looking for—another book by Wilkinson called A Life God Rewards: Why Everything You Do Today Matters Forever—a few crowded shelves below a biography of Sammy Sosa. “I read these just to stay grounded,” Baker says, “because I can get … well … wild.”
Bible-related literature isn’t the only thing Baker reads, he’s quick to add, lest he sound too pious, and points toward another stack of books and papers behind his desk. “I read Sun-tzu and The Art of War, trying to get some understanding, too. A Book of Five Rings [by a seventeenth-century Japanese samurai], and a book on Attila the Hun about leadership. I try to understand, like I said, that if there’s a north, there’s a south. If there’s an east, there’s a west. Know what I mean?”
Baker’s sister and brother-in-law run a bilingual church in Sacramento, California, that Baker has spiritually and financially supported over the years. Baker and his wife, Melissa, donate money regularly to half a dozen congregations, he says. “I tithe, that’s why I’m blessed,” he says, referring to the biblical concept of giving 10 percent of one’s income back to God. “Well, I don’t tithe ten percent like you’re supposed to, but I do pretty good. Sometimes I tithe to a couple of small churches. One time it was a church that didn’t know it was me. I signed the check ‘Johnnie’ and sent them something every month. It was a Catholic church. My wife was raised Catholic. And one day a letter came from the church, it said, ‘Good luck in the playoffs, Dusty,’” he says, laughing.
Baker’s faith plays a significant role in how he manages his baseball team. “It’s all about faith, which is what life’s about, which is what my job’s about here,” he says. His players, with whom he has, by all accounts, forged close relationships, know he’s “not afraid to spare the rod.” When it comes time to “chastise” a player, Baker says he does it privately, out of respect and because his faith demands it.
“We don’t have the chance to sit down and talk about Christian things, but the time that we do have, he always shows how he feels about God,” says the Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano, a Pentecostal Christian from Venezuela known for displaying his own spirituality by praying on the field. “He believes a lot. He’s very communicative. He likes to talk a lot with the players. He’s a great man, and he believes in God. Any man who believes in God is a good man.”
But Baker’s deep faith and generally beneficent character don’t mean he’s a softy when it comes to keeping his players on course. “I’ve had to work on patience, believe it or not,” he says. “I expect a lot. I try not to give out too much grief, but I don’t take any at all. I really try to be as fair as possible—firm, but fair. Love with discipline. And that’s what spirituality and Christianity [are] about, to me. Love, discipline, and patience. I believe God gives me the strength to do what I’ve got to do, instead of just giving me the strength to wait there for things to happen. I believe he gives me the strength and the mind and the feeling and the motivation to go get it. Know what I mean?
“I’m not a turn-the-cheek type of Christian,” he says, bobbling the toothpick balanced on his lip as he talks. “I believe in a more gladiator-warrior type. A lot of people think because you’re a Christian, you’re not going to be a hard-nosed player. That’s not what the Lord wants, to me. You can be a Christian and be hard-nosed. Like Reggie White and a whole bunch of dudes that will kick your butt, and help you up.”
There is one thing Baker does not seem to believe in: It’s the so-called Church of Baseball. He shies from overspiritualizing the game. He says the hallowed ground of Wrigley Field is no more or less a sacred place for him than the streams he enjoys fishing. Not once does he mention praying to win a game. As for the infamous curse that allegedly has dogged the Chicago Cubs since some unfortunate usher at Wrigley Field turned William “Billy Goat” Sianis and his pet goat, Murphy, away from game four of the 1945 World Series, Baker equivocates. A little. “They talk about that around here, about the curse and stuff,” he says quietly. “That’s not from the good side, know what I mean? The dark side has some real power, especially in the world today. To me, it seems like it’s getting stronger. Evil’s more accepted and more prevalent. But the good shall prevail. No matter what happens—the curse or whatever—the good shall prevail. Maybe that’s why I’m here.”
Baker’s experiences have made him an unflinching believer in the spirit realm, the world that exists beyond what he can see with his eyes. A Hawaiian kahuna once told him that he has spiritual gifts. “He told me I have special gifts and power that I had kind of felt but didn’t want to believe, know what I’m sayin’? Cuz I see things,” he says, leaning in as if he were telling a secret. “I can see things.” Like, more than what’s here? “Yeah. I feel things. I’ve got a pen and paper next to my bed, and every night, if I wake up with a thought, I’ll write it down or something. There are just a number of things that have happened in my life that let me know what I believe is real. I’ve been delivered a bunch of times.”
In the late eighties, Baker had a brush with evil. “I’ve seen a lot of stuff,” he explains, “that’s why I know what’s bad and what’s good. I witnessed an exorcism once. About fifteen years ago. I was frightened. That let me know that it’s real, know what I mean?” he says, stuffing a pinch of tobacco under his lip. “But you tell people different spiritual things that happen, and they think you’re some weirdo.”
The fear of being labeled a weirdo, however, does not stop him from talking about his “grand council,” a kind of baseball communion of the saints to whom he says he turns for advice. “I’ve got some people up there who help me make decisions during the game,” he says, pointing toward the ceiling. “A grand council of guys I know are looking out for me, guys that help me. Bill Lucas, [Hank’s brother] Tommy Aaron, Joe Black, Roy Campanella, Lyman Bostock—guys who were influential in my life that are gone,” he says, listing famous African-American baseball players from the past. “I can just sort of tell sometimes. I’m at a crossroads here. Now, help me. Tell me what to do. And I know. Most of the time I get the answers immediately.”
Baker believes in the power of prayer, he says, because he’s seen it work miracles. He’s got a lot of stories about answered prayers, but the one that seems to move him deeply (he starts to tear up) is about his youngest child and only son, Darren, who was born in 1999. “The joy and the miracle of having my son at a late age, after my wife had two miscarriages trying to have him—I didn’t think and she didn’t think we’d be able to have a son, a child, period,” he says. “There’s just a number of things that have happened in my life that let me know that what I believe in is real.”
He believes God answered his prayers and intervened the time one of his relatives went missing. “One who tripped out, he’s manic-depressive and stuff, and we couldn’t find him,” Baker says. “I was praying one day, looking all over town. Nobody’s seen him in months. And I was just leaving town—me and my wife—and I said a prayer, and there he was, sitting at the bus stop as I was leaving town. That’s one of thousands of examples.”
In the middle of batting practice before his Cubs beat the Pirates 4-1, Baker ambles to the dugout to tell me another prayer story. This one’s special, he says. It’s about how he ended up coaching in the major leagues after an eighteen-year career as a player that ended in 1986.
“I had had enough baseball by 1987,” he says, launching into a long tale about what happened the following year, in 1988, when he was first approached about becoming a coach. “The Giants were after me at the time. Al Rosen and Bob Kennedy had approached me about joining the Giants, and I said, ‘Nah. I don’t think so.’ But they kept asking me and asking me. I was a stockbroker at the time. So I went to Lake Arrowhead to pray, me and my brother and our daughters, looking for a sign. Go to the mountain, you know? And I’m checking in at the Marriott, and right behind me in line is the owner of the Giants checking in at the same time. I called my dad and said, ‘Is this a sign?’ And he said, ‘Son, you went up there looking for a sign, you prayed, and even before you got to the mountaintop, your answer is here.’ So that’s how my coaching career got started.” Baker signed on as first base coach of the Giants in 1988 and in 1993 became manager. He joined the Cubs as manager in 2003. “I thought it was important to tell you that. It’s pretty deep, real deep. And I had nothing to do with it besides trying to seek direction.”
And then there’s the story of Baker’s bout with cancer. On a flight from San Francisco to Hawaii in 2001, a few months after Giants team doctors had diagnosed him with prostate cancer, and shortly before he had surgery to remove the malignancy, Baker read an article in an Aloha Airlines magazine that changed his physical and spiritual life. “They had a thing about a healing center in Hawaii, the Lawai International Healing Center on the island of Kauai,” Baker says. “I visited before I went to the hospital. It’s a spiritual place where there are shrines up on this hillside, and I just go there to think. I knew when I got there that everything was gonna be all right, once I had been there, once I had walked the mountain with my wife and son.”
When he returned to California, Baker had a successful operation to remove his prostate, and he remains cancer-free. He’s now an honorary member of the Lawai center’s board of directors and spends time at the center each December.
“I believe I was saved at a very early stage of cancer for a reason and a purpose,” he says, adding that it’s probably not to be a major-league baseball manager. “I have a bigger purpose in life than what I’m just doing right now. What I’m supposed to do, I do not know, but I know it isn’t this for the rest of my life.”