Reuniting with Kaline, Horton a thrill for Baker

Nats manager also catches up with former skipper Leyland

Reuniting with Kaline, Horton a thrill for Baker

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The walks toward the visitors' dugout before games during the Nationals' spring road trips have served as mini-reunions for manager Dusty Baker.

He has run into former players turned coaches such as Barry Bonds, legends such as Joe Namath or players with whom he has played or coached during his nearly 50 years in baseball. The latest came Wednesday afternoon at Joker Marchant Stadium, when he ran into two Tigers greats he idolized as a player, Al Kaline and Willie Horton, and chatted with longtime former manager Jim Leyland.

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Baker recalled his first Spring Training visit to Lakeland -- where his father was born -- as a wide-eyed, intimidated 18-year-old with the Braves in 1968, thinking he was "a little kid playing against men."

Eventually he got to meet all of his heroes because he spent so much time around Hank Aaron. Baker remembers Kaline telling him that he liked his style and the way he played, which meant a lot to Baker, who had grown up watching Kaline win a batting title at the age of 20.

"I had visions of doing that," Baker said. "I wanted to be like Kaline. He was smooth."

On Wednesday, Baker and Horton chatted about the 40-ounce bat Horton used to swing and Baker said he would urge a few of his players to talk to Horton about hitting.

It brought Baker back to Spring Trainings when he played for the Dodgers, when legends such as Sandy Koufax, Tommy Davis, Roy Campanella and Maury Wills would spend a few days in camp. The Nationals have only been in Washington since 2005, and they do not have the history of most franchises to be able to bring back former players as guest instructors.

"That hurts," Baker said. "They can pass on some valuable information."

Baker did invite Nick Johnson to camp to serve the same role, and would consider tapping into more of his connections to help the Nationals.

"You can't just come in spending other people's money," Baker said with a laugh. "Not yet."

Jamal Collier is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.