SAN DIEGO–Dusty Baker’s in pursuit of the holy grail—his first World Series title in 23 years of managing.
But there had to be some more heartbreak first: the sudden death of Jimmie Lee Solomon, a former high-ranking Major League Baseball executive who had just joined Baker’s fledgling Turn2 Equity Partners as a division president.
Solomon was found dead in his Houston condo Friday, the victim of an apparent heart attack as Baker’s tainted Houston Astros prepared for their fourth consecutive appearance in the American League Championship Series.
“This sort of puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?” Baker said Sunday before the Astros dropped Game 1 to the Tampa Bay Rays, 2-1, in the neutral field bubble of Petco Park. Game 2 is today.
“He was a good friend of mine and he was the highest-ranking African American in Major League Baseball,” Baker added. “He had just joined our company. I hope he didn’t suffer. It just shows you how volatile we are and how unimportant all this stuff we worry about really is. We put too much emphasis on it. All of it. No matter what the outcome, this will soon be forgotten in the overall picture of things.”
Solomon served as MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations under then-Commissioner Bud Selig from 2005 to 2010. He and chief financial officer Jonathan Mariner were at the time the highest-ranking African Americans in the sport.
Solomon was responsible for expanding baseball’s youth academy program around the country and for founding the Civil Rights Game, a now-defunct annual affair staged by MLB. The game and surrounding community events honored civil rights and those who had a role in helping baseball break its color barrier in 1947, when Jackie Robinson made his debut in the big leagues.
On Sept. 25, Turn2 Equity announced that Solomon had become a partner and, as a company president in charge of its Playr division, was helping to raise about $30 million in capital for the acquisition of tech companies that are having trouble acquiring funding during this COVID-19 financial environment.
“He had just joined it,” Baker said about Solomon, who was only 64 when he died. “He could do whatever he wanted to do because he was a Harvard [Law School] grad. This guy was a brilliant man, but also a commonsense man. He was a country guy and [law] school guy. That’s what he brought to the table.”
The new company plans to offer active and former ballplayers advanced marketing and business opportunities, and it’s way too soon to determine who might fill Solomon’s role.
Solomon was also named one of Turn2’s eight founding partners, alongside Baker, former MLB general managers Jim Duquette and Bobby Evans, and Dinn Mann, a former executive vice president of MLB Advanced Media, who is the new company’s chief content officer.
Chicago Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward became the first player investor in August. And Mann’s content company, Players Studios, was Turn2’s first acquisition.
Baker, 71, had been out of baseball for two years after he was fired in 2017 by the Washington Nationals despite a 97-win season and two-year record of 192-132. The Nats had failed to make it out of the National League Division Series during his tenure, losing both times in five games.
Baker sought another shot at managing in the big leagues, but at the same time began preparing for life without baseball. A native of Sacramento, Calif., in 2019 he opened a vineyard in the area of the state’s capital, and earlier this year joined the team that gave birth to Turn2 Equity.
Baker was hired to manage the Astros this past Jan. 29 in the wake of the 2017 sign-stealing fiasco that led to the firings of general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch as well as a number of other penalties leveled by MLB.
Bringing the team beyond the pall of that scandal was a seemingly thankless task. The coronavirus then hit, sidetracking that issue. MLB delayed the start of the season for four months, and when the labyrinth of the 60-game season was over, the Astros had qualified for the expanded 16-team playoff field, finishing second in the American League West at 29-31 and seven games behind the Oakland A’s.
They defeated the A’s last week in a four-game AL Division Series, the first team since the inception of the League Championship Series in 1969 to have made that round with a sub-.500 record.
The Rays finished with an AL-best 40-20 mark, having just dispensed with the powerful New York Yankees in a five-game ALDS.
Due to the regional schedules during this abbreviated season, the Astros hadn’t played the Rays since last fall, defeating them in a five-game ALDS on the way to losing the World Series to the Nationals, who are managed now by Davey Martinez.
“Yeah, that’s very bizarre, but this whole year had been bizarre,” Baker said. “You just chalk it up to bizarreness No. 892 for the year. All this isn’t as important as we make it out to be. It’s important for today, but when you see all the people who’ve come and gone it really is meaningless.”
In the good old days, Baker had a 19-year playing career as a two-time All-Star outfielder, ending in 1986. With the Los Angeles Dodgers, he won pennants in 1977 and 1978 and the World Series in 1981.
As a manager, he had success everywhere he went, from the San Francisco Giants to the Cubs to the Cincinnati Reds and the Nationals. But he could never win the big one, coming closest in 2002 when the Giants of Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent blew a 3-2 lead and lost that World Series to the then-called California Angels in seven games.
Still, Baker’s .532 winning percentage is third-highest among active managers, behind only Terry Francona at .543 and Joe Maddon at .537. Those two have what Baker doesn’t: World Series wins as a manager.
“His career as a player or a manager, you talk about a guy who’s been there, done that,” said Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash, managing against Baker for the first time. “The job he took on, without getting into the details, there probably aren’t too many people equipped to handle that. It’s fortunate for Houston and I just have the utmost of respect for him.”
Baker has spent nearly 50 years in a big-league uniform as a player, coach and manager, dating back to 1968.
He has mourned many of baseball’s deaths this year, including his former Dodgers teammate Jay Johnstone and the Hall of Fame quintet of Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and Whitey Ford, whose passing was also announced Friday. Another dear friend and Hall of Famer, Joe Morgan, passed away yesterday.
“Not only Jimmie Lee, but we’ve lost something like 15 people this year that I knew or that I was close to,” Baker said. “When I got the news about Jimmie that morning, that one really tore me up. And he was younger than all the others that have passed.
“All my partners are leaving. They have a heck of a pitching staff and outfield in heaven. It got me to wonder who the Lord would start. Seaver? Gibson? Whitey?”
It depends on the manager, Baker was told.
“It’s been a heck of a crazy year,” Baker concluded.
(This story has updated Dusty Baker’s quote in the ninth paragraph to clarify that Solomon was a graduate of Harvard Law, rather than Business School.)