Baker felt like something of an underdog when Atlanta drafted him. The Braves of the early, pre- Ted Turner '70s were a conservative bunch, and Baker had a brashness about him that didn't endear him to his peers. "My music, my clothes, my talk weren't acceptable," he says. "I was arrogant. I was young. I liked to talk a lot and much of it was wrong talk—both to the press and to my teammates. We were losing and I didn't like it. All I heard was what I didn't do, not what I did do. Playing on a winning team is easy. The game gets hard when you're losing. Everybody blames everybody else."
Eventually Baker learned to like the South, and he met his wife, Harriet, while she was a student at Louisiana's Grambling University. Still, he longed for California and urged the Braves to trade him West. "I kept telling them, trade me to the Coast and you'll see how good I can play," says Baker. When he hit only .261 in 1975, the Braves happily complied, dealing him to the Dodgers. It was a dream fulfilled. Baker had grown up a Dodger fan and had worn the uniform No. 12 of another boyhood hero, Tommy Davis. But in the off-season, he tore a cartilage in his knee while running with his dog and limped through a wretched 1976 season, batting only .242 with four homers and 39 RBIs in 112 games. "I was booed," he says. "People were leaving crank notes on my car windshield. They broke some lamps outside my house. It was the lowest point of my career. I told the Braves to wait and see how good I was when I got home again. They must have been laughing out loud."
He had corrective surgery in the off-season, and on the advice of Dodger trainer Bill Buhler, he strengthened the knee with exercises, built his upper-body strength with weightlifting and improved his stamina with swimming. Lasorda became the Dodger manager in 1977 and informed Baker that he would be the team's leftfielder no matter what. Baker preferred either center or right, but he responded to this vote of confidence by hitting .291 with 30 homers in 153 games. True to his word, but a season late, he had shown the Braves what he could do once he got back home. The fans who once reviled him now cheered him, and last November the Dodgers signed him through 1985 for a cool $4 million.
This is the untidiest of all baseball seasons, but Baker considers his Dodgers to be the best of all teams in this best of all worlds. "We got a great mix, the right balance between veterans and kids," he says. "It's the closest team I've ever been on. Look at the outfield we've got. Pete Guerrero is only 25, Kenny Landreaux is 26, and at 32 I feel like I'm approaching my prime years. I've got that good feeling again."