One afternoon in early August, Baker found himself sitting in the visitors’ dugout again, gazing out at the mountains a few hours before the largest crowd to see a baseball game since 2019 booed his Houston Astros with all its might for a scandal in which he had no part. He looked out over the San Gabriel Mountains and recalled the times when the smog sat so thick over Los Angeles that he couldn’t see those mountains from the dugout.
He reminisced about the possibilities of a city in which the kid who used to wash his car became a famous movie producer. He talked about watching his son, Darren, grow from the kid looking up at major league stars in his dad’s clubhouse to a 10th-round draft pick of the Washington Nationals. He has watched close friends and mentors such as Hank Aaron pave the way, then pass the torch — then, more recently, pass away.
And after all that time and all the winding roads, what was clear as he sat atop the familiar bench in that familiar dugout was that time has hardly lessened the emotional load Baker carries after decades in a sport that has loved him and hated him, treasured him and underestimated him, and consistently, reliably and relentlessly broken his heart.
“They say the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat,” Baker said. “Well, I’m still trying to figure out why the thrill of victory is never as satisfying as the agony of defeat.”
Baker has won more than most in his 50-plus years in the major leagues. He played in four World Series with the Dodgers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He won one of them. As a manager with the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Nationals and now the Astros, Baker is 1,969-1,719 with a .534 winning percentage. His teams have made the playoffs 10 times in 24 years. One of them won the pennant.
But Baker is, to this point, known as much for the games he hasn’t won — Game 7 of the 2002 World Series with the Giants, Game 7 of the 2003 National League Championship Series with the Cubs, Game 5 of the 2016 and 2017 NL Division Series with the Nationals. Baker remembers every one of them, every missed call, every bad bounce — every confluence of baseball circumstances that colluded to make him the most prolific manager to never win the big one, or something like that.
Baker was fired by the Giants after he led them to their first NL pennant in more than a decade. The Reds fired him after they failed to advance past the NLDS in consecutive years. The Nationals did the same, despite a full season of assurances that Baker would return. Of all the teams he has managed, Baker says, that’s the one team he didn’t feel ready to leave at the end — the one split that still stings.
“They make you want to feel like you’re a failure,” Baker said. “But I haven’t failed at all.”
Even now, after years of questions about winning a World Series and what it could mean for his legacy — like, perhaps, if that’s the one thing he needs to push him into the Hall of Fame — Baker is quick to declare that he doesn’t need a World Series to prove anything to anyone.
“But I want it,” he said in the dugout that day. “And I’ve always said if I win one, I’ll win two.”
He wants it enough that Baker agreed to the most unenviable job in all of baseball — leading the Astros out of their cheating scandal, agreeing to spend years answering questions about a problem that preceded him, agreeing to be a patient punching bag. Even in Los Angeles, fans seemed quick to dismiss Baker’s history there. Some booed him that afternoon as the Astros took batting practice. A few called him a traitor, something people around the Dodgers said they didn’t even remember happening when Baker first managed the archrival Giants in the early 1990s. Baker is used to love being bestowed and withdrawn, a staple of life as a big league manager who sticks around and wins enough to foster disappointment.
“It shocks me for L.A. some. You expect it in other towns,” Baker said. “Plus, there were only a handful of guys who were here before. You wonder, are they booing the person or are they booing the uniform?”
But that Astros uniform also symbolizes one last chance. The Astros are a complicated but talented team with a juggernaut offense that has compiled the best on-base-plus-slugging percentage in all of baseball. That offense may or may not be enough to overcome a slightly less predictable pitching staff in October, but it has done plenty so far: The Astros have been in first place in the American League West since June 20 and own a winning record against the AL teams that would qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today.
And no team in baseball has experienced more noise than the Astros. They are booed everywhere they play, and fans seem to have endless energy to direct at the stars of the team found to be stealing signs in the 2017 season — Carlos Correa and José Altuve. They are so hated that some fan bases have been known to chant expletives at Altuve when the Astros aren’t even in town.
But their complicated history has whittled the Astros into something unprecedented, too: They were already oozing with playoff experience from spending much of the past five years as credible World Series contenders. They have played in the most hostile environments a major league team can face these days. None of that necessarily makes the Astros more likable. But all of it may just combine to make them more formidable.
“I admire them. Especially Altuve and Correa, because they get the brunt of it. And [Alex] Bregman when he’s here. They’re great players,” Baker said before pausing and considering for a second. “This job was a gift from God, really.”
Baker said that something about this job, this time, feels preordained. He might never have had a chance to manage a team this good again if it weren’t for the scandal, for the Astros needing someone they could trust, someone with experience, someone different.
Plus, the Astros hold spring training in West Palm Beach, Fla., the same town in which Baker attended his first major league spring training with the Atlanta Braves more than 50 years ago — the same town where Darren will attend his first professional spring training with the Nationals in 2022. Baker is under contract only through the 2021 season, and he knows as well as anyone that nothing is guaranteed until the contract is signed. But he said he plans to re-sign. After all this time, maybe the thrill of victory is still within reach — and maybe, just maybe, it looks a little different than he imagined.
“I plan on re-signing,” Baker said. “Then think, we get to spring training and [Darren] goes to the Nationals facility on the right, I go to the Astros on the left. Same town. Same place. Fifty years later. That’s not a coincidence.”