Baseball legend Dusty Baker reinvents himself with solar venture

 

Baker juggles making wine and electricity from his home office. (Bloomberg pic)

NEW YORK: It’s a familiar sight for baseball fans: a grinning Dusty Baker leaning back in his office chair, a box of toothpicks within arm’s reach, chewing over lineups and pitching changes.

But Baker isn’t plotting double switches anymore, and he didn’t plan to join the wheeling and dealing at Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings this week in Las Vegas. He’s about 640 km away pursuing a very different prospect: solar power.

The avuncular baseball legend, who played with Hank Aaron and managed Barry Bonds years before the Washington Nationals fired him in 2017, is competing in a new arena. His Baker Energy Team, a startup based outside Sacramento, California, is developing, pitching and working on large projects for historically black universities, cannabis-growing operations, tribal reservations and commercial businesses. He’s just come back from touring the site of a 15,000-square-foot estate in development that needs an energy plan.

Baker, 69, has been a major-league Zelig. He was on deck when Aaron became baseball’s all-time home-run leader, eclipsing Babe Ruth. He won a World Series in 1981 as an outfielder with the Dodgers and then managed four franchises to the postseason. The last two teams he managed, the Reds and the Nationals, fired him after playoff appearances.

“I figured if they don’t want me on their team, I’ll create my own,” he says. “I can put a team together. That’s why I named it the Baker Energy Team.”

His business has thus far taken a different path than that of many industry stalwarts. Early solar innovators pursued vertical integration: They found residential customers, arranged financing and installed the panels. Big developers seek power-supply contracts with utilities and tech giants. But the Baker Energy Team is prioritizing large projects and partners that spring from a unique Rolodex—its founder’s.

“You don’t see people like Dusty Baker, period, not just in the solar industry,” says Germaine Nicole Gurr, a lawyer at Holland & Knight who works with him. “In order to tap into the solar industry, it does require access to capital and contacts. Those tend to be areas where there are glass ceilings for minorities and women.”

Baker, she says, is looking at mentorships with historically black colleges, such as internships for engineering students. He’s also working to start a similar business in electricity-hungry parts of Africa.

So far, his US company has completed about 2 megawatts of solar projects, equivalent to powering about 1,500 homes. But it has several hundred megawatts of projects in development and about US$200 million of proposed projects with one of its partners, Salt Energy Group. The Baker-Salt model: designing, owning and operating systems for companies under energy service agreements.

Baker Energy Team’s products aren’t limited to solar. Since he left the Nationals last year, he’s expanded its offerings, which now include microgrids, battery and electric-vehicle charging stations and energy-management systems. “We don’t assume solar makes sense,” says Dustin O’Dell, the company’s vice president of business development & strategic partners.

The company leases space in a stone and Spanish-tiled office building in Roseville, after initially being based out of Baker’s home nearby (“I was like, ‘Shoot, I’m never leaving my office.’ I could be in my underwear until 4pm”). Today, it has five employees, five strategic advisers and about 10 independent sales representatives. Baker is aiming to turn a profit next year.

He founded Baker Energy Team four years ago, between managerial stints with the Reds and Nationals. He wasn’t considering a second act in solar; he already had an upstart wine business. But he took up a longstanding offer to go pheasant hunting with an investment banker he had met in a Chicago hotel bar, which led him to clean-tech conferences in Newport Beach and Las Vegas. “There were no minorities, very few women,” Baker says. “This is an opening for me.”

Suddenly, he needed to learn about things like payroll taxes and workers compensation. Baker came with some business experience. He had been a car salesman and did insurance at times. He lost some money in real estate. In the late 1980s, after his playing career, he was briefly a stockbroker before returning to baseball as a coach.

While with the Nationals, he juggled baseball and his energy business. “We got text messages at 2.30am from the tarmac and during rain delays,” says John Ryan, a strategic adviser for Baker Energy Team.

As a coach and manager, Baker was in the middle of the organization chart. With his businesses, he’s the boss. “The firings helped me see how tenuous it all is and how temporary it all is,” he says.

So why is a man approaching 70 juggling wine and energy businesses? Baker says he can’t wait around for a full-time baseball job to materialise, “That’s definitely something I learned about losing these jobs: You still got to live.”

Part of it is that he literally lives solar and wine. He designed his 4.75-acre home outside Sacramento with solar in mind. Panels flank “the barn” (a garage building with an adjoining carport) and he also mounted some behind his vineyard. In the evenings, he pinches and prunes his Syrah grapes and tends a garden that features elephant garlic, collard greens and kale.

But there may be something else.

Inside Baker’s house, he reminisces about mentors and friends, music and culture. He walks past uniforms from his career, photos of himself and the legends who preceded him and framed letters from baseball icons including George Steinbrenner and Tommy Lasorda.

“My best life might have been when I was playing,” Baker says. “But this is close.”