Strolling across his Northern California estate, Dusty Baker stops to pull weeds, checks out the solar paneling that provides energy to cool and heat his new home, and fixes the drip irrigation system in his vineyard.
He takes a quick breather on a rock at one of two meditation spots, where he likes to go at night to think.
Baker has had more than enough going on this year to take his mind off a disappointing departure from the Chicago Cubs last fall. Aside from a gig as a broadcaster with ESPN, his primary project has been finishing the custom-made, energy-efficient house outside Sacramento about a mile from a lake where he grew up swimming, fishing, hunting and camping.
Gone is the signature toothpick dangling from his mouth - as much a part of Baker's baseball persona as the No. 12 jersey he wears while managing.
``No stress,'' he says.
Yet that could come soon. The 58-year-old is eager to get back in the dugout and believes his best days as a skipper are ahead.
His contract was not renewed last fall after he spent four years managing the Cubs. In his final season, Chicago dealt with numerous injuries and finished with the worst record in the National League at 66-96. That's after the Cubs came within five outs of reaching the World Series in his first year.
They replaced him with Lou Piniella. Baker also managed the San Francisco Giants for 10 years from 1993 through their World Series season of 2002.
``I'm pretty close,'' the native Californian says of being ready to return to the field full-time. ``This year's been good. It has to be the right spot. People say, 'Are you through?' Heck, I'm only halfway to Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa. Chicago was tough. I learned from it. If you don't learn, you're not living. I learned a lot about people and a lot about myself. I was tough before. Nothing fazes me now.''
Baker is out of uniform for the first time since a brief stint as a stockbroker in 1987 after retiring from his 19-year playing career. He became a coach with San Francisco the following season.
While he takes monthly cross-country flights for ESPN, the three-time NL Manager of the Year has slept in his own bed more often than not.
``At least my home base is home,'' he says.
He has enjoyed having more time with his wife, Melissa, and their 8-year-old son, Darren - not to mention some close friends who have helped make Baker's nearly completed dream home a reality.
Solar strips line the top of his 4,000-square-foot workshop to heat and cool the 8,750-square-foot main house. The panels on the roof of Darren's nearly completed batting cage, which will feature bleacher seats from ballparks where Baker played, heat a beautiful pool nearby.
This house has been in the works for years, practically since the days Baker and best friend and former high school teammate Dennis Kludt were teens and started discussing the idea of one day living in the area as adults. Kludt lives a couple of miles away and is now project manager for the house. Baker has a long-standing interest in energy and water issues and has mailed Kludt many articles about related topics.
``This is Mr. Solar - Dusty Solar Baker,'' jokes Kevin Boedecker, the solar expert on the project.
The sprinkler system is solar-powered, too, and so is the backup system. Baker also earns credits when he puts energy back into the grid.
His electric bill would be upwards of $3,000 a month, but he will hardly hand over a cent come winter. And he expects to save money in the long run.
Baker will also be helping to market and promote the company, Solar Pro, that is doing the work on his house.
``I was really into it, to try to save power and be world conscious, and save money, too. I believe this is the wave of the future,'' Baker says. ``We thought of just about everything.''
And he's not kidding.
Melissa got her wish to have a lavish living space for Bailey, an 11-year-old German shorthaired pointer. The pooch, Baker's hunting partner, even has her own bathtub.
Not far from Bailey's wing, Baker carefully removes the plastic covering from a large painting of Opus One wine - one of his favorites - to be hung on the wall across from the entry to his 1,300-bottle wine cellar.
On the opposite side of the house, he has a fitness room with weights, cardio equipment and steam room, as well as a hot tub right outside.
A large barbecue and patio area are complete with misters.
With the push of a button, Baker clicks on the spraying mist to offer a reprieve from the California heat.
``Darren loves this,'' he says, ``more than anything he loves this.''
Darren also has a basketball court and a pathway around the property to ride his bike.
Baker repeatedly bends to pick weeds while walking along, then stuffs them into an empty water bottle.
``I'm always pulling weeds,'' he says.
Baker's detached workshop features ample space for vehicles or a boat, and also has an office complete with a small kitchen, couches, surround sound and a TV. He touches a small control panel on the outside wall and music fills the entire building as Baker bounces to the beat and sings along.
``Everybody could use a mini clubhouse,'' he says with a smile.
There are dozens of photos and sentimental paintings - like an original Dr. Seuss ``Cat in the Hat'' - he has collected during various trips to Hawaii, where he went when he found out he had prostate cancer. He underwent surgery for the illness in December 2001 and returned to lead the Giants to the World Series in '02.
That experience reminded him about keeping life in perspective as much as anything else.
The Bakers are keeping their Bay Area home in San Bruno and enjoy their time in San Francisco. The new house is only 20 minutes from Baker's father.
Baker bought the nearly 4 1/2-acre lot almost five years ago and it was completely undeveloped - basically just dirt and weeds on a space formerly used for a horse stable.
Baker has been making his rounds at local sporting events. He was in the stands for the California football team's season-opening win over Tennessee and for the Golden State Warriors' playoffs. He's seen the Oakland Athletics and attended NCAA men's basketball at Arco Arena in Sacramento back in March. He participated in a goodwill trip promoting baseball in Ghana in February and then took Darren to Disneyland later that month.
Back home now, Baker has yet to put the finishing touches on an upstairs game and memorabilia room that will exhibit his trophies and other keepsakes from his days playing and managing.
``Baseball's been great to me,'' he said. ``My house still has some baseball theme. It's impossible not to.''
Now, he can hear the crack of the bat at a nearby school. The fields are just beyond one of his fences.
``I like hearing kids, the sound of kids,'' he says. ``It keeps you young.''
Still young enough, he hopes, to chase Cox and La Russa for years to come.

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