HOUSTON — When it was finally happening, when the decades of disappointment in October were finally about to lead to joy in November, a calm settled over Houston Astros Manager Dusty Baker. It was, his bench coach Joe Espada said later, as if he knew the time had finally come — as if, perhaps, he had known it all along. Because as the final outs of the Astros’ 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 6 of the World Series ticked away, Baker was quiet.
What his coaches didn’t know was that Baker was quiet because he was listening. He was listening to his father and mother and late brother, late friends Don Baylor and Hank Aaron. He was begging another late friend, old fireballer J.R. Richard for a good slider or two for closer Ryan Pressly in the ninth.
And when the last slider finally came, and Nick Castellanos popped it up to foul territory and Kyle Tucker caught it, Baker found himself pinned to the side of the Astros dugout, mobbed by his coaches as his players ran out onto the field to celebrate. They jumped on him and hugged him and chanted his name, so vehemently that it was as if everyone forgot he had not only won his first World Series title as manager, but done so at age 73 — the oldest to ever do it.
“I was telling everyone, let’s not kill him,” Espada said. “But we wanted to embrace him.”
His players embraced him. The fans chanted his name. One fan down the right field line held a sign that read “a date with Dustiny,” and perhaps that was exactly what it was. Because Baker said later he thought that after all he had been through, all the hirings and firings, near misses and long waits, he had a feeling this would be the year, his third World Series try, 20 years after the first.
“It’s not relief,” Baker said. “It’s just sheer joy and thankfulness.”
In the end, the winning equation was simple: Framber Valdez threw six dominant innings. Yordan Alvarez hit a three-run homer in the sixth to give the Astros a lead. Their bullpen held it. The Astros completed a postseason in which they lost two games on their way to their second title in six years — their first since the sign-stealing scandal that forced them to clear out their coaching staff, the one that left them in need of a manager capable of weathering inherited storms to come.
Whether this win qualifies as redemption for the Astros’ tainted 2017 title is a question for the collective baseball consciousness, which can rarely agree on much of anything. But one of the things it does agree on is Baker, a presence beloved around the sport. He is not a perfect manager. He is not a perfect person, something he has brought up many times since taking over here. The Astros made mistakes, he says. But so has every single person that boos them, so has he.
Fortunately, baseball does not reward perfection. It rewards resilience. It unearths truth. And the truth about Baker, three decades into his managerial career, is that few people in this game are as universally respected — as constantly, consistently, kind.
“He deserves this more than anyone on the planet,” said his bullpen coach Dan Firova, who had never had a big league coaching job when Baker plucked him from a long Mexican League managerial career and added him to his staff with the Washington Nationals six years ago. He has been with him ever since, all the way to a champagne-soaked World Series clubhouse in Houston on Saturday night.
After all the years of waiting, it took Baker, himself, awhile to get back into that clubhouse after the final out. He was onstage as the crowd roared for him. He joined the Fox broadcasting team, where he lit up the on-field set and got long hugs from David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez and Frank Thomas. He went to the MLB Network set, where he chatted with a few of his players until someone tapped him on the back. It was his son, Darren, the three-year-old batboy from Baker’s first World Series trip with the San Francisco Giants 20 years ago. Then, Darren was the tiny kid who had to be plucked out of harm’s way at home plate by Giants first baseman J.T. Snow. Now, he is a Nationals’ minor leaguer, fully aware of what it all means.
“My son, my town, the world, there’s a bunch of people out there that are happy for us,” said Baker when he finally joined the clubhouse celebration, which he endured with goggles and a champagne bottle about as big as Darren was in 2002.
Ever since that year, Baker wondered if his decision to pull starting pitcher Russ Ortiz from what could have been a decisive Game 6 would be his lingering World Series legacy. The Giants bullpen couldn’t hold the lead Baker handed it that year. His father told him afterward he might never get another chance. He talks about it often. He said he prayed for the series to end in Game 6 Saturday, to vanquish his nemesis.
But as it happened, Valdez did not force Baker into a similar decision Saturday. The lefty entered Saturday’s start having allowed three total earned runs in three postseason starts this year. He left Saturday having allowed four earned runs in four postseason starts this year. At one point, he struck out the first five batters in the Phillies order in a row, the second lefty in World Series history to do so. The only other one was a guy named Sandy Koufax.
But Phillies starter Zack Wheeler matched him nearly every step of the way Saturday night. They both pitched into the fifth without allowing a runner to get to third base, let alone to score. In fact, it was Valdez who blinked first when he allowed a no-doubt homer to Kyle Schwarber in the top of the sixth.
Then the Astros put two men on in the bottom of the inning. So it was Phillies Manager Rob Thomson who had to decide how best to hold a lead in a potentially decisive World Series game — to stick with Wheeler, who had been dominant, or to go to his top reliever and cross his fingers.
And it was Thomson who would be left wondering for years to come what might have been, because the first batter José Alvarado faced was Alvarez. Alvarez — one of the best hitters in baseball this season, who has been conspicuously absent offensively since the division series — hit a three-run homer 450 feet to center field.
When Alvarez got back to the dugout, Baker was down at the end furthest from home plate. He usually camps out down near home plate, but when the offense is struggling, he heads down the other way — “the hit spot,” as he calls it.
Alvarez made his way all the way down, climbed the steps, and shared a high-five with Baker that might well have been the most vehement either man had ever shared in his life. Legend has it that Baker invented that move during his playing days. Baker’s life has never been short on legend. In fact, it hadn’t been short on much of anything — save a World Series win as a manager.
“I thought about it a lot. I tried not to dwell on it, but tried to have faith and perseverance and knowing that with the right team and the right personnel and the right everything that this is going to happen,” Baker said. “Had this happened years ago, I might not even be here. So maybe it wasn’t supposed to happen so that I could hopefully influence a few young men’s lives.”
The list of those influenced by Baker is as long as the list of those he says influenced him. And it may still grow. Baker is not under contract for next season, but he says he wants to manage. He always said if he won one World Series he would win two.
“But you got to win one first,” Baker said Saturday night. “The one was hell to get to this point. But it was well worth it.”