Culture / Sporting Life

Inside Dusty Baker & Kelvin Sampson’s Growing Friendship — This is the Houston Sports Crossover That Everyone Should Be Behind

UH's Coach Used to be a Standout Baseball Player and the Astros Manager Is Absolutely Obsessed With Basketball

BY // 01.24.23

When Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker headed back home to Sacramento the day after the world championship parade, he called up University of Houston basketball coach Kelvin Sampson on the way. One determined coaching lifer who’d just reached the mountaintop reaching out to another, keeping a fairly new friendship going.

Shortly after, a big package arrived for Sampson bearing the label of the winery Baker owns. “He had some Hank Aaron pinot noir made for me,” Sampson tells PaperCity. “He sent it to me. We’ve spoken more after that. Dusty’s just a classy guy.”

Dusty Baker made his first trip to the Fertitta Center on Sunday, spending some time with Kelvin Sampson before the Houston coach’s team took on Temple. Sampson left that meeting impressed with who Baker took to the game — and who he didn’t.

“He brought in (longtime Astros third base coach) Gary Pettis and two of his buddies he’s known for a long time,” Sampson says. “And we just kind of chopped it up.”

Like Baker, Kelvin Sampson has little use for hanger-on types or overbearing publicists in his ear. On Monday night, Sampson shows up for his weekly radio show at Acme Oyster House by himself and leaves by himself. Shaking the hand of every UH fan who comes up to him before he does.

It’s should be no real surprise that Dusty Baker and Kelvin Sampson have found they have plenty to talk about and a lot of common ground. These are two old school guys who know how to relate to modern athletes and get the best out of them.

Getting out to see a UH game clearly seemed to be important to Baker, who was adamant about getting to his seat before tipoff and stayed the whole game — a 56-55 Temple win.

“It means a lot,” Baker tells PaperCity. “I admire (Sampson). He told me he used to watch me (play) with the Braves when he was a kid. First time I’ve been in this gym. There’s a lot of history here.”

Dusty and Kelvin should be one sports crossover that everyone is behind, more feel-good than even Bo Jackson.

“I used to go down and watch the Atlanta Braves,” Sampson says of the closest Major League team to his hometown of Pembroke, North Carolina. “My guy was Hank Aaron. And my dad’s guy was Willie Mays. But the left fielder for the Braves when I’d go watch them was Dusty Baker. And I followed Dusty. And when he left Atlanta and went to the Dodgers, I just always liked him.

“I just thought he was classy. He could hit. Winner.”

The University of Houston basketball team, led by head coach Kelvin Sampson, faced the Northern Colorado Golden Bears in their 2022-2023 season opening game at the Fertitta Center
UH coach Kelvin Sampson celebrated 700 wins with his son and lead assistant Kellen Sampson at his side as usual. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Kelvin Sampson loves baseball with a passion. It’s the sport he enjoyed most as a kid, the one he thought he might have a chance to go professional in.

“People don’t realize he was an ACC level baseball recruit,” Kellen Sampson, UH’s lead assistant and Kelvin Sampson’s son, says. “If he hadn’t had this itch and this bug to be a basketball guy, he probably could have worked his way into a draft pick. It was far and away his best sport all the way through.

“He was just part of a basketball family with my grandfather (longtime high school coach John “Ned” Sampson).”

Dusty Baker is equally obsessed with basketball. It’s one of his favorite things to talk about and the man who’s participated in six World Series (and now won one as both a player and a manager) tells PaperCity that the Final Four “is the greatest event that there is.”

Baker’s managed to attend two Final Fours during his 50-plus years in professional baseball. (Baseball guys tend to be very busy in late March/early April.)

Kelvin Sampson’s baseball obsession has also never wavered. Just ask his son, who sees it every summer.

“One thing I laugh about all the time, we’ll be on the road recruiting in the month of July and there are times he ain’t paying a lick of attention because he’s checking baseball scores,” Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity. “Not only is he checking scores, he’s checking boxscores. He can tell you who the best rookies are in either league. He can tell you which pitcher is having a great year.

“And there are some things where he happily admits, I’m at the KMA stage of my career. Which is Kiss My Ass. So if he wants to check a baseball boxscore, he’s checking a baseball boxscore. And there’s not anything anybody can do about it. Watching a kid play for the 100th time in July doesn’t register really high on his to-do list.

“Checking a boxscore? That’s a big part of his day.”

Considering the success Kelvin Sampson and his handpicked, excellent staff have in recruiting — turning Houston, a place no good players wanted to go to before, into a Top 10 destination program — more coaches may want to consider summer boxscore breaks.

“When you read stories about Dusty — one of the things that I’ve always admired about him — is how much his players respect him. That says a lot about him as a person as much as a baseball manager.” — Kelvin Sampson

Both the 73-year-old Baker and the 67-year-old Sampson are two of the best in the world at what they do. But you get the idea that they’d both also love to be doing what the other is too.

“The greatest compliment I ever had — it is from Dr. Jack Ramsay when I was with the (San Francisco) Giants — he said you manage like a basketball coach,” Dusty Baker tells PaperCity.

Chopping It Up Dusty and Kelvin Style

So what do Dusty Baker and Kelvin Sampson talk about when they get together? It turns out that the late Hall of Famer Joe Morgan is a shared link. Morgan was another baseball star who absolutely loved basketball and he and Kelvin Sampson became close friends.

“One of the guys I got to be really good friends with was Joe Morgan,” Sampson says. “Joe and I would talk a lot and Joe would talk about Dusty. Dusty and I talked about that (before the Temple game). We were talking about Joe being a big basketball guy.

“All those Major League guys, they really do love basketball.”

Kelvin Sampson remembers getting put in the same charity golf tournament foursome as Roger Clemens and getting peppered with Oklahoma-Texas basketball questions from The Rocket. And Houston’s coach was just as excited to talk to Clemens about his Cy Young seasons and pitching on the world’s biggest stage. After that, Clemens and Sampson would seek each other out at charity golf tournaments.

“The greatest compliment I ever had — it is from Dr. Jack Ramsay when I was with the (San Francisco) Giants — he said you manage like a basketball coach.” — Dusty Baker

Kelvin Sampson, Dusty Baker and the Power of Persevering

The friendship between Baker and Sampson is still relatively new. Baker is six years older than Sampson and UH’s coach really was still a kid when he’d go watch 21-year-old Dusty Baker play left field for the Braves. But they’re both coaches who came back from being dismissed and left for done, essentially cast aside and thrown into sports purgatory with no guarantee of ever getting out.

Sampson found himself hit with an NCAA show-cause penalty — one of the harshest sanctions the often-out-of-touch college sports overlords can administer — for sending many more texts to recruits than was then permitted. Considering what’s happened in big-time college sports in the last decade — and the fact that it’s no longer even against the rules — banning Sampson for coaching in college for five years seems absurd in retrospect. But that didn’t stop several prominent sportswriters for calling for the end of Sampson’s coaching career back then.

Kelvin Sampson would get back into the college game by taking a Houston job that no other established major winners would touch and turning the Cougars into one of the nation’s new superpowers. Sampson pushed UH to its first Final Four in 37 years in 2021 and came within a basket of making it two straight years with an injury-riddled team last March.

Unless someone brings Holy Cross or CCNY back to a Final Four, Sampson may have authored the most incredible return to glory in college basketball history.

University of Houston Cougars men’s basketball team were beat by the Temple Owls Saturday at the Fertitta Center
Astros manager Dusty Baker shared a moment with UH and Houston Rockets legend Elvin Hayes. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Baker found himself out of baseball after the Washington Nationals fired him after the 2017 season, a dismissal that he admitted “really hurt.” He spent two seasons away from the game that dominated his entire life since he was a teenage, unsure he’d ever get another chance to manage. Many dismissed him as too old and out of touch with the modern game. It took the fallout from the unprecedented Astros’ electronic sign steal scandal for Jim Crane, an owner who isn’t afraid of bucking convention, to bring Baker back.

Dusty Baker would then help guide the Astros to two World Series in three years — and that long-awaited first championship for himself.

So yeah, these two resilient sports lifers, two Black men who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s (Baker in Southern California, Sampson deep in the South), have some things in common. Sampson is a Lumbee Indian whose father stood up to the Ku Klux Klan and fought back. Baker saw the racism Henry Aaron faced as he chased Babe Ruth’s career home run record, experienced plenty himself.

These are two men who’ve been through a lot and persevered.

“Dusty is one of those guys that will never get the credit from the public that he deserves or that he’s due,” Kelvin Sampson says. “But I don’t think that matters to Dusty. Because he has it from the people in the industry. Especially his players and former players.

“When you read stories about Dusty — one of the things that I’ve always admired about him — is how much his players respect him. That says a lot about him as a person as much as a baseball manager. Dusty’s a brilliant tactician. A great strategist. And whoever his assistants are, like Gary’s his third base coach, they’re lucky to be able to learn from him.

“Everyone thinks baseball is taking out the pitcher when he should or putting them in whenever. The armchair guys can all do that. It’s managing a team through a 162 game season so you’re playing your best at the end.

“That’s the mark of a true manager. That’s what Dusty does.”

Making a team better during the course of a long season is what Kelvin Sampson does too. UH’s jump from December to March has become an annual thing with his powerhouse program. Of course, the Final Four is in Houston this spring. The Astros will be home that weekend, set to host the Chicago White Sox on semifinal Saturday and the Detroit Tigers on championship Monday. The times for those games haven’t been set yet. If the Astros play early, Baker will be ready to attend his third Final Four.

Especially if his new friend Kelvin Sampson is coaching in it.

“I’m pulling for Coach,” Baker says. “Hopefully, we can both be No. 1.”

After all,  friends are there for one another.

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