The best thing for Dusty Baker’s spirit was probably the two-year break that he’s enjoyed since the Washington Nationals unfairly let him go following a two-year run in which he won 97 and 95 games.
If anything, it gave him time to watch his son Darren, a standout at Cal, do his thing on the diamond.
At 70 years old, Baker’s had some time to take a break from the nonstop baseball grind, reflect on his career and reassure himself that he wants to return to the dugout and embrace the emotional and physical challenge of a 162-game MLB season.
I spoke to Dusty via a phone interview from his office in the Washington Nationals clubhouse, right before the 2016 playoffs were about to pop and he was calmly dealing with the pressure from fans and media about the fact that he hasn’t won a World Series.
“I’m not going to let nobody tell me I’m a failure. “I’ve done the best job I could do. You can’t fool yourself,” Baker said.
At the time, his belief in himself was going to have to be enough because shortly after we spoke, Washington was eliminated from the playoffs, Dusty was gone.
One Last Try
If not for the Houston Astros cheating scandal that rocked baseball and led to the firing of Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch, who knows if Dusty would have gotten the call, signing a one-year deal with a club option for a second year, with the Stros’ on Wednesday.
But when heads started flying, putting the integrity of the franchise at stake and creating a situation that called for credible, experienced, winning leadership, then Dusty was an obvious choice.
And now MLB has two Black managers; Dusty and Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts. No new blood, but true blood as the two Black Knights faced off in the playoffs in 2016.
One might ask, why would he want to return to this mess? There’s a lot of extra baggage that comes along with managing the cheating ‘Stros now. That answer is simple. Deep down, nobody wants a title more than Dusty. Few, if any, managers deserve the thrill of a World Series victory as much.
“My son, who will be attending Cal next year, said to me, ‘Dad this is when you’re at your best (the hunt)”, Baker told me back in 2016.
So I’ll just let the Lord, my gut feelings, the computer when necessary, plus my experience as a manager and player direct me to make the correct decisions and changes to keep us flourishing and moving towards a World Series.”
I guess we can apply the same philosophy to this situation. The itch is always there.
Pedigree and Resiliency
Usatoday.com laid out Dusty’s past tribulations and triumphs as an MLB manager to perfection.
He withstood the heavy scrutiny during the 80s when some of his closest friends were implicated in the Pittsburgh drug trials, resulting in mandatory drug tests the rest of his playing career.
He endured the public embarrassment of the IRS coming after him for $4 million in back taxes and penalties when a series of tax shelters were disallowed, garnishing his paychecks.
He insulated Barry Bonds from the media circus in 2001 when he set the single-season home run record with 73 amid the BALCO fallout, and kept the feud between his two best players, Jeff Kent and Bonds, from dividing the clubhouse.
He will remind the Astros the importance of staying together, just as he kept his two best players, Bonds and Jeff Kent – who once fought in the dugout – from dividing the clubhouse.
He has been fired four times as manager and hired five times.
He has had glory, winning more games than any active manager, and horrific heartbreak. He was one game away from winning the 2002 World Series when the (Barry Bonds-led) San Francisco Giants lost the World Series in 7 games to the Los Angeles Angels in 2002, and his Chicago Cubs’ team squandered a 3-to-1 lead to the Miami Marlins in the 2003 NLCS.
He survived prostate cancer, an irregular heartbeat, and a stroke.
He also persevered through racism in his playing career, and later as a manager, deluged with hate letters when managing the Chicago Cubs.
Now, he has to help the Astros endure chants of “cheater”, as well as increased scrutiny, ridicule, and skepticism from social media, fans, and opponents. But that’s why the Astros are in the midst of negotiating a contract with Dusty.
His track record as a guy who gets down and dirty — but within the rules of the game — is just what the Astros need to keep a competitive edge and be shielded from the inevitable backlash and media mosh pit that is sure to be on the Astros — in the words of the great Q-Tip from ATCQ — “like a fly on sh*t.”
If there was ever a time when Baker had to flex his 22-year managerial acumen and use every ounce of his acquired baseball knowledge — including his 19 as a dope player — it’s now.
Baker’s 1,863-1,636 record with the Giants, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, and Nationals, places him 15th all-time in wins.
A manager who was always known for doing more with less or at the very least maximizing his team’s potential, Baker made nine postseason appearances and won three National League Manager of the Year awards (1993, 1997 and 2000).
Dusty is the kind of old school, no-nonsense, baseball savvy vet that the talented Astros need. It might not even be for more than a couple of seasons, but Baker will be entering the best situation of his illustrious career.
All he really has to do is steer the ship in the right direction. Return to an emphasis on talent and not trickery. The Astros surely have enough to win without banging on garbage cans or wearing devices that tell them what pitch is coming.
Gaining an advantage is what Baker has built a career on. Studying opposing players’ nuances, using the metrics to gain an advantage but not totally dictate the flow of the game. Going with his gut instinct at times, relying on his thousands of innings in the managerial classroom.
Executing the lost arts, rarely practiced by the general manager-controlled skippers of today. The Astros who have an elite analytics team, will now also have the benefit of a baseball mind who has been doing this for five decades as a feared MLB batter and an accomplished manager.
Houston should be excited. Astros fans have spent the winter being embarrassed and angry and ashamed. Now it’s time for them to bring the pride back.