SACRAMENTO — “Be right back,” Dusty Baker said on a chilly, recent Saturday morning at his home here. The veteran manager had made some final cuts earlier in the week and now it was time to pick up the pieces.
When he returned, he did not have a lineup card in hand, nor was a general manager nearby. Instead, he came roaring down a path at the wheel of his trusty Kawasaki Mule, a small all-terrain vehicle. The cuts had come while pruning grape vines. A lockout may be pausing the business of Major League Baseball, but Baker, 72, is still managing.
His small vineyard and Baker Family Wines business require more attention to detail than even the highest-maintenance of sluggers. And, just as he’s learned certain hitting and managing tactics over his 50-some odd years in professional baseball, so, too, has he learned outside the dugout.
He pauses between scooping piles of clippings onto the back of the Mule for dumping elsewhere to explain how the north side of a particular vine is cut shorter than the south side, so the grapes can soak up the morning sun. The south side is allowed more growth to shield the fruit from the afternoon sun, which, in the summertime here, becomes far too intense.
“It’s called an umbrella,” Baker said of the technique. “Too much sun, then you get raisins. And I don’t want no raisins.”
He is putting into practice theories he began learning long ago, back when he was a slugging outfielder in the 1970s and 1980s.
“I’d be on first base and Willie Stargell would explain to me, hey, this was a dry year, this was a wet year, you ever try this wine, you ever try that wine?” Baker said. “He was my man.”
Now, Baker has plenty of industry friends. The Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver had been something of a curiosity as he transitioned into a highly respected and successful vintner after his playing days. But in time, Seaver, who died in 2020, became a de facto grandfather to others in the sport who wanted to make a similar transition.
Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts and Rich Aurilia, a shortstop for Baker’s San Francisco teams from 1995-2002, are partners in Napa Valley’s Red Stitch label. Greg Vaughn, who smashed 50 home runs in helping lead the 1998 San Diego Padres to the World Series, runs 23Wines in Lodi, Calif. Chris Iannetta and Vernon Wells, who had been teammates on the Los Angeles Angels, created Jack Winery and Joe Blanton, a retired pitcher, is farming for his Selah label in Napa.
M.L.B. Hot Stove and Off-Season Updates
- Locked Out: With M.L.B. and its player union unable to come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement, the league enacted a lockout, freezing all transactions and starting baseball’s first work stoppage since the 1994-95 strike.
- Little Movement: In a pair of negotiating sessions, M.L.B. made an offer and the union countered. Delays could eventually impact spring training or the start of the regular season.
- Women to Watch: In a pair of significant firsts, Genevieve Beacom pitched professionally for one of Australia’s top teams and Rachel Balkovec was named as the manager of a team in the Yankees’ minor league system.
- Getting Their Guy: The Mets finally found a general manager and Steven Cohen, the team’s owner, says the move got universal praise at the owners’ meetings.
- Free-Agency Tracker: Look back at some of the signings, contract extensions and trades that happened before the lockout began.
“With athletes, we’re so all-in with what we do to be successful,” said Roberts, who taste-tested from chemistry beakers when Red Stitch started but now has more of an ambassadorial role. “And to have wine and food, it makes you more of a whole person. I think that’s something people crave. I know I do. When I have wine, I appreciate food, and that lends itself to travel and baseball.”
Roberts’s path started when he and his wife, Tricia, toured Napa Valley in 2002 along with Shawn Green, Roberts’s Dodgers teammate at the time, and Green’s wife, Lindsay Bear.
“Meeting vintners and hearing their stories diffused any pretense and daunting stuff about wine and the industry,” Roberts said. “It kind of simplified it to what you like and what you don’t. We became invested in the people.”
Baker’s first foray into winemaking occurred when he was managing in San Francisco. One of the club’s minority owners, Phil Greer, introduced Baker to Robert Mondavi’s son, Michael. They fly fished together in Montana and Quebec, and Michael invited him onto the board at Robert Mondavi Winery. It was a good deal for Baker: He would get paid to attend a few dinners a year and Mondavi would supply Baker and his coaches with cases of wine.
Then, when Baker built his current home on five acres about 15 years ago, he planned to include a fishing pond. When he was warned that a pond could flood his neighbor, Baker veered toward a vineyard instead.
“It says in the Bible to plant your outdoors before you build your house,” Baker said. “Makes sense, because you need the food.”
Through his Mondavi connections, Baker met his current partner and winemaker, Chik Brenneman, who helped pick out root stock, wires, poles and lines.
“I told him I wanted to grow Cabernet grapes,” Baker said. “He said, ‘You can’t grow Cabernet grapes because you’re in the wrong climate.’ I’m like, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘You’re in the perfect climate for Syrah.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to grow Syrah.’ He said, ‘I guess you don’t want a vineyard!’”
Baker laughs hard at the memory, which seems like a lifetime ago. What started as a “gentleman’s vineyard,” from which they produced Syrah in the basement under Brenneman’s garage, has lifted off. In those early days, Baker would share his homemade bounty with friends, including Sacramento baseball buddies like Jerry Royster, Rowland Office, Jerry Manuel, Leron Lee and Vaughn.
“People were loving it, and that made us go, hey, let’s go commercial,” said Brenneman, who at the time was the winemaker and facilities manager for the department of viticulture and enology at the University of California, Davis, which boasts one of the finest programs in the world.
They partnered to start Baker Family Wines in 2012 and, with Baker between managing jobs in 2014 and 2015, he had the time to help build a solid foundation. His daughter Natosha, a graphic artist, designs the labels. By the 2016 M.L.B. season, when Baker returned to the game as the Washington Nationals’ manager, the winemaking was in full force. Brenneman left U.C. Davis to go full time at Baker Family Wines in 2019.
Their deal is Baker sells the first bottle and Brenneman the second. Meaning: Many people will buy a bottle out of curiosity because of the attachment to Baker, but the product has to be good enough to ensure return customers, which is Brenneman’s domain.
“That was our agreement because I bought a bottle of Scotch with a famous guy’s name on it and it was the worst,” Baker said. “I took one sip and said I cannot drink this. I told Chik, I want nothing with my name on it unless it’s good.”
Baker’s lifelong friend, Henry Aaron, invested a few years back, asking Baker about a Baker label Cabernet. They didn’t have one at the time, but Brenneman went to work sourcing those grapes at Aaron’s request. Now, the 2019 Cabernet Savignon Hammerin’ Hank is nearly ready for unveiling. The 2018 vintage sold out.
The winery sources grapes from throughout the region, including Mendocino, Shenandoah Valley, Russian River and Amador County. Baker’s backyard vineyard yields, in a good year, about 80 or 90 cases of Syrah. This year it was only half because of drought conditions in California. Stargell’s words — “dry year, wet year” — keep Pops in Baker’s heart, especially now, when dramatic climate events regularly occur.
“Bees come and poke holes in each grape,” Baker said of the effects of a dry climate, which has insects looking for moisture anywhere they can find it. “Usually, they’re not like that. That’s what I’m telling you, man, we’re all affected by this weather.”
The lockout has made Baker’s February plans uncertain because of the unknown spring training start date. Just a few months after managing the Houston Astros to Game 6 of the World Series against Atlanta, the only time the free agent shortstop Carlos Correa comes up — Baker is forbidden to talk about labor issues or his players — is in reference to Baker’s Walk Off Red variety.
“I was our best customer for awhile,” he said. “I’d buy cases and my players would buy cases. I remember when Carlos Correa walked off the Minnesota Twins, the first thing he asked for was, ‘Hey, where’s my Walk Off?’”
Whenever the season begins, Houston’s 13th win will deliver Baker career victory No. 2,000, which should cement his eventual entry into the Hall of Fame. Of the 11 managers with at least 2,000 wins, all are in the Hall except for Bruce Bochy, and that’s only because Bochy hasn’t been retired long enough.
Baker points out that he would have won his 2,000th long ago if not for unwanted breaks between jobs. But the time off also allowed him to fully enjoy his daughter’s wedding, grieve at the passing of his brother and father and begin his businesses (he also has an energy company, Baker Energy Team).
“I guess I am where I am supposed to be, in my life and my career,” Baker said. “Only a couple of things are missing now, a championship and the 2,000th win. I’d be the only African-American in that club, know what I mean, brother? And I’m hoping that I can help convince other owners that me and Dave Roberts shouldn’t be the last, that we should have a lot more.”
One day when they slow down, perhaps Baker and Roberts — M.L.B.’s only Black managers working today — will enjoy it all together over a nice red.
“I’ve sent him some wine,” Roberts, 49, said. “He’s sent me some wine. We know some of same people in the valley. I’ve never really sat and had dinner and run through wines and geeked out all night long with him. I’d love do that at some point.”