JOHNNIE B. “DUSTY” BAKER, JR.
Johnnie B. Baker, Jr.
You mean the 72-year-old ‘kid’ from Riverside, CA. with the toothpick hangin’ from his right lower lip?
That’s just who(m) I mean.
The one with the pretty hip specs?
The fellow with Darren, his young son at the time, serving as a wide-eyed mascot/batboy of his manager/father’s SF Giants…who was rescued from impending doom by J.T. Snow during Game 5 of the 2002 World Series, when the three-year-old was about to be steamrolled by an oncoming Giant, poised to score?
He’s the one.
What else do you want to know?
Because there’s plenty to tell.
Working backwards, let the record show that Dusty Baker has managed more big-league games than anybody else in baseball’s rich history…without winning a World Series title.
And now he has another chance.
Last night (October 22), Baker’s Astros finished off the Boston Red Sox 5–0, to win the American League Championship Series 4–2.
In so doing, he joined a select group of managers who have won pennants in both the AL and the NL.
(Joe McCarthy, Al Dark, Yogi Berra, Dick Williams, Sparky Anderson, Tony La Russa, Jim Leyland, and Joe Maddon are the others).
Baker is inching ever so close to exorcizing twin traumas — demons in fact — which have been haunting him for nearly two decades.
Leading 5–0 in the sixth inning of a League Championship Game 6 elimination contest, should offer a comforting backdrop.
Not so fast.
And not for Baker.
The scoreboard also read 5–0 in Anaheim, CA., when Baker’s San Francisco Giants had a chance to close out the 2002 World Series.
The Angels stormed back to win, and took the title the next night.
Then there was 2003.
In the sixth game of that season’s NLCS, Baker’s Cubs were 5 outs from closing it out, when all hell broke loose.
Cubs fan Steve Bartman innocently (and infamously) reached for a foul ball — and thereby interfered — touching off an epic firestorm.
The Cubbies lost the game and the series in 7, to the Florida Marlins.
Ruined Bartman’s life for a while, and probably Baker’s too.
Everywhere Baker has managed since — Cincinnati, Washington and now Houston — he has guided his teams to the playoffs, and is one of six major league managers to reach the postseason, at least ten times.
Pontificated the avuncular and venerable skipper, “Game 6 has been my nemesis in most playoffs, and that’s what I was thinking [against Boston]…
I mean, you’ve got to get past your nemesis.
I was afraid of electricity when I was a kid, so now I’m an owner of an energy company.
You try to get past things in your life.”
Which he did as a hard-hitting outfielder in a 19-year big league career, primarily with the Braves and the Dodgers.
And which he’s doing now.
In a sense, Baker and his Astros are taking parallel journeys together, each yearning to grab the brass ring, but for different reasons.
For Baker, a World Series victory would be the cherry on top of a sterling 24-year managerial career.
For the ‘Stros, it would prove that they could win it all, without the help of electronic sign-stealing.
That scandal is what brought Baker to Houston.
The Astros’ scheme aided and indelibly besmirched their 2017 title, and led to suspensions and firings when a league investigation confirmed the cheating in early 2020.
Team owner Jim Crane hired Baker to manage the team and the crisis.
“I interviewed a bunch of guys, and the first time I talked to him, we talked for two hours and I felt like he was my best friend,” Crane said.
“So I was very comfortable with him immediately and, boom, I made the decision.
I knew he had a lot of experience, he kind of calmed a lot of the nonsense we were dealing with and kept these guys on track.”
In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, stadiums were empty.
In 2021, they were not.
Fan vitriol — outside of Houston, undoubtedly — has been deep, widespread and relentless.
The wily Baker acted as a buffer, advising, mentoring and shielding his troops.
Remarked shortstop and face of the team, Carlos Correa, “He’s a leader and he’s a friend, so we can go into his office whenever we feel like it and talk about it.
He’s such a wise man and he’s been through it all in baseball.
It’s the right mind to pick from.
He just told us to go out there and show the world how good we really are, and it will fall into place and take care of itself.
That’s what we did.”
They did indeed.
As the eighth inning began in Game 4, Houston trailed by 2–1 in the game and in the series.
From that point on, they outscored the Red Sox 22–1, capping things off with a combined 2-hitter in the Game 6 shutout.
Pitching coach Brent Strom’s critical adjustments midway through Game 4 — having his hurlers aggressively attack the Red Sox with fastballs — should be lauded.
But Baker’s managerial acumen was displayed vividly throughout.
In Game 4, he called on the backup catcher, Jason Castro, who singled in the go-ahead run in the ninth.
In Game 5, he allowed starter Framber Valdez to work eight innings without pulling him, in pursuit of matchup advantages — unheard of in today’s baseball times.
Those eight innings of work were the most by any pitcher this postseason.
And in Game 6, he sagely disregarded light-hitting catcher Martin Maldonado’s series struggles at the plate (.071) in favor of his proven abilities behind it.
Maldonado guided rookie pitcher Luis Garcia through 5 ⅔ dominant innings and later thwarted a Red Sox threat, with a strike-him-out/throw-him-out double play, taking all the wind out of Red Sox sails.
As a player, Baker’s accomplishments were impressive.
He was in the on-deck circle on April 8, 1974 when teammate Hank Aaron blasted home run #715 to pass Babe Ruth; a 2-time All-Star (1981; 1982); a World Series champion (1981); the NLCS MVP (1977); a Gold Glove Award winner (1981); and a 2-time Silver Slugger (1980; 1981).
As a manager, he is a 3-time NL Manager of the Year (1993; 1997; 2000).
This year he could be so recognized in the AL.
Regardless, a World Series championship is the singular goal and Baker has yet another chance.
In fact, his storied chase of this elusive prize might even make some fans comfortable rooting for a team they still intensely dislike.
Noted GM James Click, “I think that speaks to why he was the right decision for this franchise 18 or 19 months ago.
Can you think of anybody else in baseball who people would actively say, ‘You know, I wouldn’t mind if the Astros actually won — because of Dusty?’
Is there another person who could change the narrative of a franchise the way that he can?
I can’t think of anybody.”
Nor can I, Mr. Click…
Nor can I.
[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in October 2021.]
[Addendum–Not an Omission–A/O 10/23/2022:
Baker’s Astros lost the 2021 World Series to the Braves 4–2.
His 2022 Astros edition lead the Yankees 3–0 in the ALCS, one victory away from yet another World Series appearance.]