Soon after the Houston Astros completed a two-game sweep of the Minnesota Twins in their first-round playoff series last week, Dusty Baker’s phone went into overdrive: Scores of congratulatory texts, emails and calls came pouring in from friends, family and many others around baseball.
“It was like Father’s Day and my birthday all rolled into one,” said Baker, the Astros manager.
It was no surprise. For as much as the baseball world despises the Houston Astros, and wishes epochs of misfortune upon them for their sign-stealing caper in 2017, who could muster that kind of animosity toward Baker, one of the most popular figures in the game?
For five decades — Baker made his debut in 1968 as an outfielder for the Atlanta Braves — he has spread good will across Major League Baseball and engendered undying loyalty by dint of a magnetic personality, a wisdom borne of deep experience, a splash of spirituality and an unyielding sense of honor.
In return, he has earned the near-unanimous admiration of former players, coaches, fans and fellow managers.
“It’s a very egotistical, very selfish world, but not when you talk to this man,” Chicago White Sox Manager Rick Renteria said. “He’s timeless. Everybody changes, but everybody loves him.”
That is part of the reason Jim Crane, the Astros owner, hired Baker in January. The Astros were facing a crisis of credibility after they were found to have illegally stolen opposing team’s signs during their 2017 championship season, and Crane immediately fired the team’s manager, A.J. Hinch, then hired Baker and picked up his option for 2021.
There is also his long track record on the field. He has 1,892 regular-season wins over 23 seasons as a manager. That’s an average of 86 wins in each of 21 full-length seasons. (The average does not include this year or the strike-shortened 1994 season.) This month, Baker suddenly has one more chance at the only thing that has eluded him as a manager: a championship.
“It’s a piece of something that is missing,” he said over the weekend. “You hate to go through life missing anything.”
In a mad scramble, Baker took over as Astros skipper two weeks before spring training and began cramming for what was bound to be one of the most unusual experiences of his career even before the pandemic. He was 70 at the time and had thought he would never get another chance to manage after the Washington Nationals fired him in 2017 following a first-round exit in the playoffs.
“I just came from Washington after winning two years in a row,” he said, “and I didn’t get even a phone call for two years. There was no way I envisioned this.”
The season has been bumpy, to be sure. Take the fallout of the cheating scandal, add a series of injuries and slumps, and the Astros finished two games under .500. But with the expanded playoff format (16 teams made the postseason this year instead of the usual 10), the Astros qualified. Baker is now the first manager to lead five teams to the postseason (the Giants, Cubs, Reds, Nationals and Astros). And despite going only 9-23 on the road in the 60-game regular season, the Astros swept the Twins in Minneapolis in the first round.
“Everywhere he’s gone, he’s won,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said. “He’s a winner and it’s fun to play for him.”
Bregman and the Astros have taken a two-games-to-none lead against the Oakland Athletics in their division series, perhaps fittingly at Dodger Stadium, where Baker was a champion and an All-Star outfielder for the Dodgers. A win in Game 3 on Wednesday would get Baker back to a league championship series for the first time since 2003, when he managed the Cubs.
It’s a long way from the first several weeks of this season, when Baker said he felt like a substitute teacher struggling to connect to his students. This was a particularly serious obstacle for Baker, whose primary strength is his ability to forge deep personal connections with his players. The bonds are carefully constructed over time, in conversations in his office, at the back of airplanes during team flights, in bars and taverns on the road, or even on the mound in the middle of a game.
“A lot of tough love,” said Shawn Estes, the former pitcher who played seven of his 13 seasons under Baker on both the Giants and Cubs. Now an analyst on Giants’ television broadcasts, Estes said Baker always knew the right moment to spew hot rivets at a player and when to offer a verbal hug. Sometimes both were wrapped in the same sentence.
“He’d come to the mound with his toothpick in his mouth, his shades and batting gloves, look me in the eye and say, ‘No one is better at getting into trouble than you, and no one is better at getting out of it,’” Estes recalled. “He’d tell me to put my big-boy pants on, but he left me in the game. He showed faith in you when you deserved it. Players love that.”
Estes said Baker came as close as a manager could get to being a player while still maintaining command of the team, and conversations with him could sometimes take a spiritual turn, too.
“He believes in energy and the universe, and he is such a great communicator,” Estes added. “He knew the right buttons to push with every guy. He’d give out books, too. We’d talk, and ultimately I’d end up with a book.”
Baker once handed Estes “The Art of War,” by Sun Tzu, and another time it was a book by Phil Jackson, the Hall of Fame N.B.A. coach. But Baker’s book club did not extend to every player because, as Baker noted, people are different.
“No sense giving a book to someone you know isn’t going to read it,” Baker said. “Estes was an intellectual guy who would appreciate it. Other guys, you have to find different ways to reach them.”
Now, Baker said he no longer rides in the back of the planes, in part because players today don’t congregate as they once did. Headphones have replaced boomboxes, and screens have taken over where card games once ruled.
“I miss being in the back of the bus and the plane,” he said. “I never really belonged up in the front.”
But this unique year has disrupted even Baker’s well-honed managerial techniques. He lamented that, about one month into spring training this year, just as he was starting to shed the substitute teacher role, the season stopped for almost four months because of the pandemic.
But perhaps the biggest challenge he faced was a string of defections and injuries. Gerrit Cole, Houston’s ace in 2019, joined the Yankees in free agency. Justin Verlander had Tommy John surgery last week; Yordan Alvarez, last season’s American League rookie of the year, only played two games because of knee issues that required surgery; and Roberto Osuna, the closer, has been out since early August with an elbow injury. Baker has had to rely mostly on rookie relief pitchers.
On Aug. 10, the Astros acquired Brooks Raley, a 32-year-old left-hander from the Cincinnati Reds, to bolster the relief corps. When he arrived, Baker called Raley into his office, drawing a smile when he told Raley, “I love older lefties.”
“Since that day he’s leaned on me and given me opportunities,” Raley said. “I’m going to work for that man.”
That kind of sentiment serves as an antidote to the general hostility aimed at the Astros this year. That even includes Brendan Donley, a Cubs fan from Chicago who started the popular Twitter account Astros Shame Tour, which has focused the ire of some 300,000 haters on the Astros this year. Donley acknowledged that Baker brought a dose of likability to a team he cannot otherwise stomach.
“I wish he hadn’t taken the job,” Donley wrote in a text message. “He’s a good man, of course, and is doing his best and is acting classy.”
One could almost sense Donley’s gritted teeth between each grudging keystroke. For the Astros to win the World Series after what happened in 2017 would make him and many others around baseball groan. But it would also mean that Baker, in his 23rd season, would have the last missing piece to his career — if the baseball’s gods deem it so.
“I’ve always believed that this is already written,” Baker said. “We just have to play it out and believe.”