He wasn’t there to be a great field general. He was there to be an air-freshener. Everyone knew it, most of all Baker, who took the job anyway. If the Astros were going to use him to achieve their aims, he could also use them to achieve his. It was, both in concept and in the way it ultimately played out, a win-win scenario.
Late Friday night, Minute Maid Park was filled with many different scents: the smoke from the fireworks and confetti cannons; the mist of champagne bottles being uncorked; sweat, dirt and grass mixed with sweet victory.
The Astros had just finished off the Boston Red Sox, 5-0, in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, earning their third World Series berth in five years, and at the center of the celebration was their 72-year-old manager, whose story of redemption and validation, though intertwined with that of the Astros franchise as a whole, was fully his own.
Stepping off the makeshift stage, where he had held aloft the ALCS championship trophy, Baker hugged wife Melissa and son Darren — the latter a 22-year-old Washington Nationals farmhand. He posed for pictures with Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell. He dutifully bounced from interview to interview — Fox Sports, MLB Network, the assembled local and out-of-town reporters.
His responses to the questions tossed at him were less answers than soliloquies. He said he could “feel” his late father’s presence Friday night, along with that of the late Hank Aaron, Baker’s longtime friend and mentor. He name-checked Al Kaline, Sparky Anderson, former Temptations singer Eddie Kendricks (“You gotta keep on truckin,’” Baker said) and God.
“Like I tell these [players], you don’t have anything to prove,” Baker said. “The only entities you have to satisfy are God, family and yourself. The other people can see you later.”
Though Baker is now the second-oldest manager to get to the World Series (behind Jack McKeon), the ninth manager to win pennants in both leagues and the second-winningest active manager in the game (behind Tony La Russa), his career is often defined more by the things he doesn’t have — namely, a World Series title — and the attributes he is often said to lack. Some 24 years into his managing career, they don’t sting any less.
“I’ve heard mostly criticism: ‘You didn’t do this, or you’re not good at that. You don’t know how to use your bullpen, or you don’t like young players,’ ” Baker said. “I heard a whole bunch of stuff. Most of it not complimentary, you know what I mean? As an African American, most of the time they don’t really say that you are of a certain intelligence. That’s not something that we usually get, and so I’ve been hearing a lot of this stuff most of my life.”
But an interesting thing happened in this ALCS. While Red Sox Manager Alex Cora, widely regarded as the sharpest dugout mind of his generation, pulled one wrong lever after another across the series’ six mostly lopsided games, Baker could seemingly do no wrong. It wouldn’t be entirely fair to say Baker outmanaged Cora — because randomness and human fallibility play as much a role in baseball outcomes as managerial acumen — but at the very least, the perceived advantage the Red Sox had in the respective dugouts never materialized.
Baker showed a knack for pulling his starting pitchers at the exact right time and for piecing together the remaining outs with his bullpen. He gave backup catcher Jason Castro exactly three at-bats in the series, one of which produced a home run, another of which was the go-ahead single in the ninth inning of Game 4. He otherwise stuck with starter Martin Maldonado, despite his .071 batting average in the series, and was rewarded when Maldonado threw out Alex Verdugo at second base on the front half of a critical, botched hit-and-run in Friday night’s seventh inning.
“This was the best I’ve seen him,” Astros bench coach Joe Espada told Fox’s Ken Rosenthal on Friday night. The loss of ace Lance McCullers Jr. to injury in the Division Series, Espada said, “got him thinking more like: ‘I’ve got to be efficient. I’ve got to be precise. I need to use the guys right on time, because I don’t have any margin for error.’ ”
The conventional wisdom holds that Baker needs a World Series title — topping off a résumé that has pretty much everything else — to punch his ticket to Cooperstown. That may or may not be the case, but Baker has spoken honestly about the pursuit, saying a championship wouldn’t change the way he views his own managerial career but that he wants one because it’s the sport’s ultimate achievement.
“You keep on knocking on the door, man. If you don’t keep knocking on the door, you don’t have a chance,” he said earlier this postseason. “The way I look at it — Thomas Edison. He tried a thousand times — you know what I mean? — before he discovered the lightbulb and electricity. … If it’s going to happen, [it’s because] the Lord wants me to have it. If it doesn’t, it’s still been good. You know how I really feel inside: I need it, and I got to have it.”
When the Astros gave Baker the managing job, it came with a one-year guaranteed contract with a team option for a second year, which Houston eventually picked up. But as Baker celebrated a monumental career milestone Friday night — his return to the World Series for the first time taking the 2002 San Francisco Giants there — he did so as a man without a contract beyond this season.
Baker, as one might expect, has been diplomatic about his lame-duck status during the Astros’ pennant drive this month — perhaps because he knew the team’s success on the field would leave owner Jim Crane little choice but to bring him back.
In the aftermath of the clinching victory in Game 6, Crane stood near home plate at Minute Maid Park and said essentially that.
“Dusty deserves another shot for next year,” Crane said. “We’ll see where it goes. He’s done a great job here, and I don’t think there is any reason we wouldn’t visit about [a new contract] after the World Series … I love Dusty. We’ll put it like that. You take it from there.”
It wasn’t “Dusty is a phenomenal manager,” or “Dusty will be back in 2022 — with the big, fat raise he deserves.” But by this point, Baker wouldn’t have expected anything more.