Bill Ladson

Baker, Lopes reflect on influence of Gilliam

Baker, Lopes reflect on influence of Gilliam

WASHINGTON -- Jim Gilliam was known as "Devil" because of his antics in the pool hall. But to Nationals manager Dusty Baker and first-base coach Davey Lopes, Gilliam was a mentor and second father to them -- as he was to many other players who crossed his path.

There is not a week that goes by that Baker doesn't mention Gilliam's name at a news conference.

"He is with me all the time," Baker said. "I can see his face. I can hear his voice sometimes. He used to say, 'Come on, Baby.' He meant a lot to us."

Gilliam debuted with the Dodgers in 1953 and remained with the organization until his death in '78. He took over for Jackie Robinson at second base when Robinson moved to the outfield in '53, winning Rookie of the Year honors. By '64, he was a player/coach before becoming a full-time first-base coach after the '66 season.

Neither Baker nor Lopes ever met Robinson, who broke the color barrier in the Major Leagues in 1947, but knowing Gilliam was the next-best thing.

"He was the guy that was binding us as a group," Lopes said. "Jim could do a lot of things. The people that knew him realized he was a gifted baseball person. He was good at what he did and he did it very quietly."

Decades after Gilliam passed away at 49 because of a brain hemorrhage, Lopes still gets emotional talking about his mentor.

"He had that personality that Dusty has -- like he is having a good time," Lopes said. "He was a talented man in many aspects. He was a young man, a gifted man, had a beautiful family, looked extremely healthy. That's the last thing you thought of. He was here and the next day he has an aneurysm and is fighting for his life. It was tough."

It seems like every week Baker makes the public aware of Gilliam. For example, after Bryce Harper swung at the first pitch and hit a two-run double in the eighth to help the Nationals defeat the Braves on April 12, Baker told the local media, "Usually, the best pitch to hit with runners on base or in scoring position is usually the first pitch. I was always taught by Jim Gilliam and some quality hitters -- like Tony Perez -- that that first pitch is usually the best pitch because [the pitcher is] going to try to get ahead of you, and then he's going to work on you."

Whenever Baker sees a personality change in any of his players, he thinks of the time Gilliam approached him in the late 1970s and sensed something was wrong. It turned out Baker was having problems with his first marriage.

"[Gilliam] would ask, 'Boy what's wrong with you?' I said, 'Nothing.' He said, 'Are you having problems at home?' I thought somebody told him, but he could tell," Baker remembered. "I use that now when I see personality changes [on a club]. I would approach that particular player and ask if he wants to talk about it."

Baker had Gilliam in mind when he decided to bat Anthony Rendon second in the lineup. Gilliam was an excellent second-place hitter who protected Maury Wills.

"That second hitter has to be a double leadoff man, patient. You hope he can run, take pitches, so the guy ahead of him can steal. He almost has to be your smartest guy in the lineup," Baker said.

Not only did he teach baseball, Gilliam would give them advice off the field. If something was going wrong at home, Lopes and Baker would lean on Gilliam.

"He would be somebody I would ask questions about things that weren't going right in my life," Lopes remembered. "He would say, 'Did you ever look at it this way?' He would throw questions back at me: 'Are you happy?' Just different things in everyday life."

Gilliam even gave Baker and Lopes history lessons on Jackie Robinson and the Negro Leagues, especially Gilliam's time with the Baltimore Elite Giants.

When the Dodgers went to St. Louis, Gilliam would take Baker to Cool Papa Bell's house. Baker was like a fly on a wall, taking in the stories told by Gilliam and Bell. Gilliam would take Lopes to a hotel where Negro Leaguers stayed. According to Lopes, Gilliam never expressed the bad experiences he encountered in those days.

"It was an eye-opener. You could feel the history there," Lopes said.

"[Gilliam] talked the game in an easy manner. I never saw him raise his voice," Baker remembered. "He used to tell me stories. I don't know if they were all true, but they were very entertaining."

Bill Ladson has covered the Nationals/Expos for since 2002.and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the Time. He also can be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.