O.C. lawyer brings en­ergy, vi­sion to Pro Foot­ball Hall of Fame

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - SAM FARMER ON THE NFL

David Baker is an enor­mous man with even big­ger ideas.

Baker, 6 feet 9 and nearly 400 pounds, is al­ways look­ing to do things on a grander scale, whether it was as an Orange County at­tor­ney, mayor of Irvine or com­mis­sioner of the Arena Foot­ball League.

Some peo­ple aim to rein­vent the wheel. Baker wants to fit it with mon­ster truck tires.

“If my dad owned an Arby’s, he’d want to make it the most ex­trav­a­gant Arby’s you’ve ever seen — times 10,” said his son, Sam, a USC fix­ture at left tackle dur­ing the Pete Car­roll days.

But at some point in life you have to down­shift, even a man as en­er­getic and am­bi­tious as David Baker. So when he took over as pres­i­dent of the Pro Foot­ball

Hall of Fame in Jan­uary 2014, en­ter­ing his sev­enth decade of life, his fam­ily breathed a sigh of re­lief.

“Tak­ing noth­ing away from the Hall of Fame,” his son said, “but it was kind of a mom-and-pop place. We thought he’d be able to go there, mel­low out, and just kind of be a fig­ure­head.”

The elder Baker had dif­fer­ent ideas.

“It wasn’t too long be­fore my dad called and started talk­ing about build­ing a Hall of Fame vil­lage,” Sam said. “He said, ‘It’s go­ing to be big­ger than Dis­ney­land!’ I’m think­ing, ‘Oh, here we go…’ ”

A one­time UC Irvine bas­ket­ball player who tow­ers over ev­ery­one, even most of the Hall of Fame play­ers he rep­re­sents, Baker has es­tab­lished him­self as a mon­u­men­tal fig­ure in the na­tion’s No. 1 sports league.

“The best games I ever played in were ones where when they were over you were to­tally spent and had noth­ing left,” Baker said. “But you kind of had this smile on your face like, ‘Man, this was great.’ Win or lose, you shake the hand of your op­po­nent, and it’s, ‘I can’t wait for the next one.’ ”

Baker, 64, is a close con­fi­dante of NFL Com­mis­sioner Roger Good­ell — even though the un­af­fil­i­ated Hall of Fame de­rives only 3% of its an­nual rev­enues from the league — and has won the trust of heavy hit­ters.

“We haven’t re­ally been giv­ing the Hall of Fame the true recog­ni­tion it de­serves,” leg­endary Cleve­land Browns star Jim Brown said. “David has been un­real at re­ally keep­ing it go­ing.”

Said Jerome Bet­tis, an­other Hall of Fame run­ning back: “David has been ab­so­lutely in­cred­i­ble in terms of what he’s brought to the Hall of Fame. He un­der­stands his role, and he cham­pi­ons our causes.”

That will con­tinue this week­end as the lat­est class of Hall of Famers is in­ducted: play­ers Morten An­der­sen, Ter­rell Davis, Kenny Easley, Ja­son Tay­lor, LaDainian Tom­lin­son and Kurt Warner; and Dal­las Cow­boys owner Jerry Jones.

Baker isn’t about blus­ter and grandiose dreams that never come to fruition. He draws up a blueprint and fol­lows through. Ac­cord­ing to the Hall of Fame, the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s net as­sets grew 161% un­der the first three years of Baker’s lead­er­ship. He has breathed life into a mu­seum that had turned a tad musty over the years. And that foot­ball Dis­ney­land he en­vi­sioned is rapidly tak­ing shape, com­plete with a $100-mil­lion nam­ing rights deal.

Progress is un­der­way at John­son Con­trols Hall of Fame Vil­lage, a $700-mil­lion mixed-use de­vel­op­ment at the Hall of Fame’s cam­pus in Can­ton, Ohio. The vil­lage in­cludes the Hall of Fame mu­seum; a Black Col­lege Hall of Fame; 23,000-seat Tom Ben­son Sta­dium; eight state-of-the-art turf fields for youth foot­ball; an up­scale foot­ball-themed ho­tel; a retail prom­e­nade; a con­ven­tion cen­ter; and a player care cen­ter for re­tired Hall of Famers and oth­ers.

“Dave has done a tremen­dous job,” Hall of Fame quar­ter­back Joe Mon­tana said. “It’s a 180de­gree turn from the way the place used to be. He’s try­ing to make it bet­ter and grow it all the time. Be­fore, it was what it was, and it stayed that way. Now, he’s con­stantly look­ing for ways to make peo­ple want to go there, whether you’re a player or a fan.”

On a cre­denza in Baker’s of­fice is a glow­ing clock that’s 10 dig­its long. Whereas Baker is a for­ward thinker, this time­piece moves back­ward. It’s count­ing down — days, hours, min­utes, sec­onds — to Sept. 17, 2020, the kick­off to the NFL’s 100th sea­son.

One of Baker’s big dreams is, by that cen­ten­nial sea­son, to have a ro­bust dig­i­tal data­base with a full pro­file of each of the roughly 27,000 peo­ple paid to play, coach, of­fi­ci­ate or ad­min­is­trate in the NFL.

“The goal for the 100th an­niver­sary is to have some­thing where ev­ery guy who ever played can come in and call it up, or call it up on­line,” Baker said. “Then his grand­chil­dren’s grand­chil­dren can say, ‘He did this in the NFL.’ Even more im­por­tantly, ‘This is what he be­lieved. This is who he was. This is his voice.’ ”

Baker is big on es­tab­lish­ing tra­di­tions. He trav­els from city to city dur­ing the NFL sea­son, pre­sent­ing up­dated rings to Hall of Famers dur­ing half­time cer­e­monies and al­low­ing them to bask in the ap­plause of a full sta­dium yet again. He has par­tic­i­pated in out­reach pro­grams in the U.S. and abroad, with New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots owner Robert Kraft bring­ing Baker and 18 Hall of Fame play­ers to Is­rael in June, and an­other group of Hall of Famers trav­el­ing to Italy for an au­di­ence with the pope.

Then there’s “the knock,” a tra­di­tion Baker started dur­ing Su­per Bowl week, when Hall of Fame hope­fuls are in­formed they have been voted into Can­ton by Baker knock­ing on their ho­tel room doors. It used to be that the 18 fi­nal­ists stayed home dur­ing the vot­ing and learned of the out­come ei­ther by a call or by watch­ing on TV.

“Now we bring all 18 guys to the Su­per Bowl,” Baker said. “It’s dif­fi­cult for the guys who don’t make it. It’s still a spec­tac­u­lar honor to be a fi­nal­ist, but these are the most com­pet­i­tive peo­ple in the world. …

“Then I go knock on the doors. It’s al­ways a sit­u­a­tion where the turn-down ser­vice has knocked, or some­body else, so un­til they re­ally kind of see it or hear it, they’re never quite sure. You see a lot of peo­ple cry­ing when they get in.”

For Baker, his own knock came four years ago when he was con­tacted by a head­hunt­ing firm to gauge his in­ter­est in run­ning the Can­ton in­sti­tu­tion. He was flat­tered but didn’t in­tend to take the job. He was over­see­ing the de­vel­op­ment of an in­te­grated health­care vil­lage in Nevada and wasn’t plan­ning to leave … un­til he men­tioned it to his wife, Colleen.

“I for­warded her the email and said, ‘Guess what hap­pened to­day,’ and then I erased it,” he said. “She called me about 15 min­utes later and said, ‘Hey, we’re go­ing to go do this.’ I said, ‘Sweet­heart, I al­ready told them no.’ And she said, ‘You can call them back.’”

Baker has had his share of chal­lenges in the job, none more daunt­ing than the one a year ago when, be­cause con­gealed paint had made the field un­playable, he had to can­cel the Hall of Fame game less than two hours be­fore kick­off.

That led to a class-ac­tion law­suit seek­ing $5 mil­lion in dam­ages on be­half of fans who had tick­ets to the planned game be­tween the In­di­anapo­lis Colts and Green Bay Pack­ers.

“We apol­o­gize to those fans, and we’ve tried to make it right with as many of them as we pos­si­bly can,” Baker said. “We’re go­ing to make sure that never hap­pens again. But, yeah, that was a tough time.”

When he thinks about how much longer he wants to do this job, Baker of­ten re­calls a mem­ory of his fa­ther’s work ethic.

“My dad wasn’t a very so­phis­ti­cated guy, and he couldn’t read or write and he worked at the lum­ber­yard,” he said. “One day he’s 64 years old — he’s my age — and he’s still work­ing at the lum­ber­yard. It’s dirty, hard, filthy work.

“He takes his shirt off and he kind of col­lapses into his chair. I was a col­lege kid then, and I was wor­ried about him. I said, ‘Dad, are you all right?’ And he said, ‘Oh, son,’ and he got this slow smile across his face and said, ‘We moved a lot of lum­ber to­day.’”

Forty years later, his son moves it by the ton.

Jared Wick­er­ham Getty Im­ages

DAVE BAKER, right, is pres­i­dent of the Pro Foot­ball Hall of Fame, a job that puts him in touch with en­shri­nees such as for­mer Steel­ers great Jerome Bet­tis.

Gene J. Puskar As­so­ci­ated Press

DAVE BAKER was at the cen­ter of a con­tro­versy last year when the Hall of Fame game had to be can­celed.

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