It’s funny to hear Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker praised as the first manager to win division titles with five different teams, as if that was a badge of honor. More people ought to be asking why a guy who has won every place he’s ever managed—13 wins shy of 2,000, 11 postseason appearances in 24 seasons—had to change jobs as often as he did.
Only 11 managers have won more games than Baker. Ten are in the Hall of Fame. The 11th, Bruce Bochy, won three World Series with the San Francisco Giants before he retired in 2019 and almost certainly has a placeholder in Cooperstown.
Baker? San Francisco, Chicago, Cincinnati, and Washington – See ya laters from all of them. Never enough, mostly because the biggest prize — the World Series — has eluded him. At least that’s the usual explanation offered.
Maybe it would have all played out differently if the Giants had held on to their 5-0 lead in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series, when Baker came out to take starter Russ Ortiz in the seventh inning and handed him the ball as he departed. A gesture intended to convey appreciation for a job well done was interpreted as an insult and sign of premature celebration by the Angels, who roared back to win that game and hen bounced the Giants in Game 7. Giants owner Peter Magowan did not renew Baker’s contract.
In 2003, it was on to Chicago and the madness and heartbreak of the Steve Bartman meltdown game with five outs from a trip to the Series, the closest the Cubs would come there in his four seasons before they let him go. In Cincinnati, he was fired in 2013 after the Reds lost to the Pirates in the wild card game. In Washington, Baker’s Nationals won consecutive division titles in 2016 and 2017 with 95 and 97 wins, respectively, but back-to-back Game 5 elimination losses at home, knocking the Nats out in the first round, led another owner, Ted Lerner, to decide a change was needed.
So, all this fuss about five teams, five division titles after the Astros won the AL West? Baker: Thanks, but no thanks.
“I don’t really think nothing, other than why was I on so many different teams,” he said recently when the subject was raised. “I’m serious. I feel fortunate to have gotten that many jobs, but I feel unfortunate that I shouldn’t have lost jobs when I was winning.”
He did assert, however, to Claire Smith of The Athletic, that managers of color are held to a higher standard.
“If you’re an African-American, if you don’t win it all, you’re considered a failure, you know what I mean?’’ he said.
Baker is playing with house money now. He was 68 when the Nats cut ties, and pretty much resigned to a life of tending to his vineyards and watching his son, Darren, play ball at the University of California-Berkeley when, after two years out of the game, the Astros came calling. Houston was desperate. They’d just fired manager A.J. Hinch in the wake of the trashcan-banging, sign-stealing scandal and needed an instant dose of credibility, character and integrity. Baker possesses all of that in abundance, and even though he was hired just a couple of weeks before the start of spring training — he said he felt like a substitute teacher — the Astros made it to the ALCS last season and are back again in 2021, this time to face the Boston Red Sox in a series that begins in Minute Maid Park on Friday.
The Astros, who swiftly dispatched the White Sox in four games, are favored over the wild card entry Red Sox, whose manager, Alex Cora, was suspended a year for his central role as Astros bench coach in the sign-stealing machinations. The cross-pollination of cheating will almost certainly be visited and revisited during this series.
During the White Sox series, after a season of watching his players vilified wherever they went, Baker openly wished that people could move on, and rejected the notion that the Astros feed off the vitriol.
“You know, there’s too much good stuff in life to have to live your life in the past forever and ever and ever and, you know, how long must you pay for a crime? You know? I don’t know. What more can I say other than these guys are … I don’t think anybody thrives on it. I mean, everybody thrives on love. They don’t thrive on hate or thrive on whatever people are saying.’’
Baker, in another media session when asked how the Astros continued to win in the face of so much negativity, recounted a conversation with a name that will certainly resonate in Boston.
“I remember talking to Bill Russell years ago, a few years ago, and I asked him, ‘Man, how did you win all those championships in Boston?’ I thought he was going to say Red Auerbach, you know, lot of hard work, but he told me that they loved each other. And love can take you to heights you never thought you could get to. And they feed off each other and pull for each other on a daily basis. And one guy falls down, and the next guy, you know, picks him up.’’
A White Sox pitcher, Ryan Tepera, insinuated that the Astros had not fully abandoned their underhanded ways, saying there was something “sketchy” about how well the Astros hit at home. Baker, noting that the White Sox numbers were even better when they were home, countered with the words of a famous musician.
“And so, I don't have much, you know, response to that other than I was listening to Eric Clapton this morning, and he had a song, you know, ‘Before you accuse me, you need today to look at yourself,’ " Baker said.
Last week, Baker, whose passion for music is legendary, dipped into that world again when asked how as a manager, he was able to marry an old-school approach with analytics. The numbers have always been there, he said, they were just called something different earlier in his career.
“So, I think it’s advisable that you combine the two,’’ he said. “You see some of the older managers doing pretty well in this game combined with some of the younger things that are done now. I like to harken it to musicians. You know, when you see the [Rolling] Stones combine with John Lee Hooker or somebody. Old blues dude combined with Johnny Winter or Santana or some of the dudes, you know, you can learn from us, and we can learn from you.’’
Baker is secure enough about his place in the game that whether he wins a World Series will not be a defining event. But yes, at 72, the desire still burns within.
“You keep knocking on the door, man,’’ he said. “If you don’t knock on the door, you don’t have a chance.
“The way I look at it, Thomas Edison, he tried a thousand times before he discovered the light bulb and electricity. Look at Bobby Cox. How many division titles did he have? I ain’t even close to that. The way I look at it, if it’s going to happen, the Lord wants me to have it. If it doesn’t, it’s still been good. That don’t mean, you know, how I really feel inside. I need it and I got to have it.’’
Baker has watched as his good friend Gaston, winner of two World Series as a manager, never receive serious consideration for the Hall of Fame. He hated seeing how Chicago chewed up his dear friend Don Baylor; the pangs of guilt that came from succeeding “Groove” on the Northside as manager still gnaw at him. Regarding Baker’s unceremonious dismissal from the top job with the Giants, Cubs, Reds and Nats? At each stop he took teams to the postseason. And he was always lauded for his deft handling of lightning rods like Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Harper, drawing from them some of their finest seasons.
And yet …
“If you’re an African American, if you don’t win it all, you’re considered a failure, you know what I mean?” he says softly. “I refuse to acknowledge that. That’s why I don’t read articles about me. Because, you know, why should somebody else control my self-esteem?”