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Houston Astros hire Dusty Baker as manager in wake of sign-stealing scandal

Since being let go by the Nationals, Dusty Baker has made no secret that he wants to manage again. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post) (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Still sifting through the aftermath of a cheating scandal that necessitated a remake of their top management, the embattled Houston Astros on Wednesday selected Dusty Baker as their new manager — a move that gives the franchise instant credibility and likability at a time when it is in desperate need of both.

Baker, 70, has 3,500 games of managerial experience, having last skippered the Washington Nationals to 97 wins in 2017. Since his dismissal by the Nationals following that season, he has been working as a special assistant in the San Francisco Giants’ organization.

Baker replaces A.J. Hinch, who, along with general manager Jeff Luhnow, was fired by owner Jim Crane on Jan. 13 in the wake of the electronic sign-stealing scandal that gripped the sport for much of this offseason and tainted the Astros’ 2017 World Series title. A Major League Baseball investigation released this month found the Astros stole signs in 2017 and 2018 using a center field camera trained on the opposing catcher and a video monitor behind their dugout. Hinch and Luhnow were suspended a year each by Commissioner Rob Manfred, then subsequently fired by Crane.

Boswell: Cheating ruins everything about sports. The Astros got what they deserved.

If the Astros were the most hated team in baseball following the cheating revelations — Manfred’s report also criticized the franchise’s aggressive, analytics-driven culture that, he said, “valued and rewarded results above other considerations” and created the “environment” that allowed the cheating scheme to occur — Baker might be the sport’s most universally beloved figure.

A veteran of 22 seasons as a manager, on top of a 19-year career as a player in which he made two all-star teams, Baker has guided four franchises to division titles — most recently the Nationals in 2016 and 2017 — but has taken only one of those teams to the World Series: the 2002 Giants, who lost in seven games to the Anaheim Angels.

His hiring also puts Baker back in the Nationals’ orbit, if only peripherally. The teams — which met in the 2019 World Series, with Dave Martinez’s Nationals beating Hinch’s Astros in seven games — share a spring training complex in West Palm Beach, Fla., and open the Grapefruit League season against each other Feb. 22 at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Additionally, the Astros visit Nationals Park for an interleague series July 3-5.

Although Baker brings a reputation for rapid improvement — the four teams he took over saw gains of 31 wins (1993 Giants), 21 wins (2003 Chicago Cubs), two wins (2008 Cincinnati Reds) and 12 wins (2016 Nationals) in his first season — he may have a difficult time pulling that off in Houston, where the Astros won a franchise-record 107 games in 2019. (Manfred’s report determined the Astros had discontinued the sign-stealing scheme by then.)

But while the Astros were hit hard by Manfred’s penalties, which included the maximum $5 million fine and the loss of their top two picks in each of the next two drafts, they are still expected to be a top contender in 2020, with a starting rotation headed by 2019 American League Cy Young winner Justin Verlander and a lineup anchored by 2017 AL MVP José Altuve and 2019 runner-up Alex Bregman.

Dusty Baker made his own sort of peace with Nationals exit, and still doesn’t care what you think

The Astros’ hiring of Baker leaves the Boston Red Sox as the only remaining franchise without a manager, with pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training in about two weeks. The Red Sox fired manager Alex Cora after Cora, as bench coach for the 2017 Astros, was named as a primary conspirator behind the sign-stealing scheme. Cora’s World Series-winning 2018 Red Sox are being investigated for a similar scheme.

The New York Mets fired Carlos Beltrán as their manager after Beltrán, a designated hitter on the 2017 Astros, was named in MLB’s report as an active participant in the scheme. Beltrán, hired in November, never managed a game for the Mets, who last week promoted former quality control coach Luis Rojas to be their manager.

With Baker’s hiring, MLB now has two African American managers in its ranks. Baker joins the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Dave Roberts, who is of African American and Asian descent. Roberts’s Dodgers lost to Hinch’s Astros and Cora’s Red Sox in the World Series.

In a coincidental twist, Baker also replaces Hinch as manager of the American League in this year’s All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium, where he won a World Series as a player.

Read more:

What is sign stealing? Making sense of Major League Baseball’s latest scandal.

Former Astros ace becomes first player to apologize for team’s sign-stealing scandal

Los Angeles City Council calls on MLB to give Dodgers 2017 and 2018 World Series trophies

MLB pitchers cheat, too. They use pine tar instead of trash cans.

Carlos Beltrán out as Mets manager amid MLB sign-stealing scandal