In Dusty Baker, the Astros have a manager who deserves to be rooted

HOUSTON – Twin traumas have haunted Dusty Baker for nearly two decades. Late Friday night, they merged as he tried to land a pennant as manager of the Houston Astros. If Baker had chosen to go into hiding until the storm was over, you would have understood: He was leading 5-0 in Game 6 of a championship series.

Normally that would be a very good thing. But the scoreboard also showed 5-0 in Anaheim, Calif., When the San Francisco Baker Giants had the chance to close out the 2002 World Series. The Angels came back to win and won the title the following night.

If this sixth game seemed overwhelming, Baker’s next was even worse. With five strikeouts from winning the 2003 National League Championship Series with the Chicago Cubs, Baker saw the pennant disappear when a fan unleashed hellish scenery while innocently searching for a foul ball.

Wherever Baker has succeeded since then – Cincinnati, Washington, Houston – he has led his team to the playoffs. But for now, he holds a record that no one wants: most wins for a manager who has never won the World Series, with 1,987.

As the Astros captured the American League pennant on Friday, finishing the Boston Red Sox 5-0, Baker faced his fears.

“Game 6 has been my nemesis in most of the playoffs, and that’s what I thought,” he conceded. “I mean, you have to get past your nemesis. I was afraid of electricity when I was a kid, so now I own an energy business. You are trying to get past the things in your life.

In this way, Baker and the Astros are on parallel journeys, both aspiring to win for different reasons. For Baker, a World Series victory would crown an otherwise remarkable 24-year managerial career. For the Astros, that would prove they can hoist a banner without the aid of electronic panel theft.

The scandal brought Baker here. The Astros’ ploy helped their 2017 title and led to the suspension and firing of their manager, AJ Hinch, when a league investigation confirmed the cheating in early 2020. Jim Crane, owner of the Astros, said hired Baker, now 72, to manage the two. the crisis and his baseball team.

“I interviewed a bunch of guys, and the first time I spoke 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 down a lot of the nonsense that we were facing and kept these guys on track.

The Astros played in stadiums without fans during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, but this year they’ve been regularly taunted on the road; some ALCS fans in Boston gave second baseman Jose Altuve a profane salute. Baker helped his team deal with the hate.

“He’s a leader and he’s a friend, so we can go to his office when we want to and talk about it,” said shortstop Carlos Correa. “He’s such a wise man and he’s been through it all in baseball. It’s the right spirit to choose. He just told us to go out there and show the world how really good we are, and he will set himself up and take care of himself. That’s what we did.

After falling to the Tampa Bay Rays in a neutral-venue ALCS last October, the Astros won this time with a sudden and explosive comeback. As the eighth inning began in Game 4, Houston trailed 2-1 in the game and the series. From that point on, they outscored the Red Sox by 22-1, topping things off with a two-batting combination in Game 6.

Yordan Alvarez hit 0.522 (12 for 23) to win the series MVP award, and the Houston pitchers, under coach Brent Strom, made a critical adjustment midway through the game. 4, attacking the Red Sox more aggressively with fastballs. But Baker also left his mark.

In Game 4, he inserted backup receiver Jason Castro, who then drove the go-ahead in the ninth. In Game 5, Baker let starter Framber Valdez work eight innings – the most pitchers in the playoffs – without removing him early to seek game advantage.

In Game 6, Baker’s confidence in receiver Martín Maldonado paid off. Maldonado hit .071 for the streak but guided rookie Luis Garcia through five dominant innings and two thirds. Maldonado later thwarted a Red Sox threat with a double play that ruled him out and ruled him out.

“This guy will soon be a Hall of Fame member,” Maldonado said of Baker, who easily did enough to earn the honor. A championship would suffice though, and Baker’s pursuit might put some fans at ease to put down roots for a team they still don’t like.

“I think that explains why he made the right decision for this franchise 18 or 19 months ago,” said managing director James Click. “Can you think of anyone else in baseball that people would actively say, ‘You know, I wouldn’t mind if the Astros won – because of Dusty’? Is there someone else who could change the narrative of a franchise in the way they can? I can’t think of anyone.

Indeed, there is perhaps no one more loved in the sport than Baker, who has played for 19 seasons and will face one of his former teams – the Atlanta Braves or the Los Angeles Dodgers – in the World Series. As the final strikeouts rolled into Game 6, Baker said he remembers some of the baseball family who passed away: Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Joe Morgan, Bob Watson, Jimmy Wynn.

“I felt they were with us,” he said.

Yet for as much honor that Baker brings to the game, there have always been rumors of his keen sense in the dugout. Never mind that Baker was the NL Coach of the Year in his first season on the job with the Giants in 1993 and has won over 1,800 games since. The affronts still sting.

“You haven’t done this, or you’re not good at it, you don’t know how to use your enclosure or you don’t like young players – I’ve heard a whole bunch of things,” said Baker. “Most are not complimentary, you know what I mean?”

“As an African American, most of the time they don’t really say that you are intelligent. It’s not something we usually get, so I’ve heard a lot of these things most of my life.

Part of the reason he suited the Astros so well, Baker said, is that they both had stigmas to overcome. This World Series could change people’s minds about a manager and a franchise. But whatever happens, Baker will endure.

“It just depends on how I feel for myself, how they feel for me, and how the Lord feels for me,” he said. “And like I tell these guys, you don’t have to prove or show anything to anyone. The only entities you need to satisfy are God, family, and yourself, and then other people can see you later. “

Jacques Wagner contributed reports.

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