Twenty months ago, the Houston Astros, knee-deep in scandal, could not have made a more perfect hire than Dusty Baker. Into the chaos swirling around Major League Baseball’s most despised team stepped one of the game’s great gentlemen and most successful managers.
With Baker came dignity and credibility to a franchise that had squandered both. If Johnnie B. Baker Jr.—with 1,982 victories, twelfth-most in MLB history—couldn’t keep the Astros on track, no one could.
He has largely done that, with Houston on the verge of clinching the American League West title and going to the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons. Last year, Baker’s first with the franchise, the Astros reached the postseason, then blew past Minnesota and Oakland before taking the Tampa Bay Rays to seven games in the American League Championship Series. Their season ended one game short of a World Series appearance.
But that doesn’t mean all is well. Despite the team’s success, the marriage of convenience between Dusty Baker and the Astros may have run its course. That’s the message the franchise is sending by allowing the 72-year-old Baker’s contract to expire after this season. Such tactics typically aren’t used with veteran managers unless change is imminent.
Perhaps the Astros may have viewed Baker as a short-term fix since the moment they hired him. Baker took over the franchise during the immediate aftermath of the sign-stealing scandal that stained Houston’s 2017 World Series victory and cost general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A. J. Hinch their jobs. With 2020 spring training about to begin, Astros owner Jim Crane hired Baker and then new general manager James Click a few days later. Baker signed a one-year contract with a team option for a second season, which the Astros quickly exercised. But the franchise apparently has not engaged in discussions about extending the manager’s deal, even though Baker has said he’d like to return.
Baker and Click appear to have a productive and professional working relationship, but Click, who came to Houston from Tampa Bay, may prefer to hire a manager from Tampa Bay’s wildly successful data-driven universe—like Rays bench coach Matt Quatraro.
Baker’s presence gave the Astros a calming presence as all hell broke loose around the team. In 2020, even without hostile fans jeering from the stands, some opposing pitchers sought revenge by drilling Houston players with occasional fastballs, and rival teams hurled taunts from dugouts. This season, with ballparks filled, fans at stadiums all over the country showed up in big numbers to curse and boo Houston players. An inflatable trash can or two were hurled onto the field to symbolize how the Astros had banged trash cans to relay stolen signs gathered from television monitors behind the dugout.
All throughout, Baker was steadfast in his defense of his players. They only time he seemed fazed—and genuinely hurt—by the derision was when he sensed boos directed at him at Dodger Stadium, where he played eight of his nineteen seasons in the majors. Over twenty-four subsequent seasons as a manager, Baker has taken five different franchises to the playoffs. Beyond that, he’s beloved by players for his honesty, sense of humor, and encyclopedic knowledge of the game.
About the only thing Baker hasn’t done—and perhaps the only thing keeping him out of the Hall of Fame—is win a World Series as a manager. (As a player, he won a championship with the Dodgers in 1981.) Baker is adamant that he didn’t take the Astros job with any sort of unfinished business in mind. “But I want it,” he told the Washington Post in July. “And I’ve always said if I win one, I’ll win two.”
Instead, Baker says he returned to managing after two years away from the sport because baseball has been one of the constant loves in his life. He was drafted by the Atlanta Braves 54 years ago, and having spent most of his adult life in ballparks, they’re where he’s most comfortable. “This job was a gift from God, really,” he told the Post, regarding the opportunity to lead the Astros. One reason for Baker’s effusive tone is that he got something new-manager hires almost never get: a championship-caliber team. That the Astros had spoiled their reputation and inspired fans from coast to coast to root against them presented Baker with a different kind of challenge.
But Baker has experienced so much in baseball and in life that he became the perfect choice to restore stability to the Astros’ dugout. He survived a bout with prostate cancer in 2001. He is part-owner of a successful winery in Northern California. He prides himself on a collard greens recipe honed over decades. He attended the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, saw Jimi Hendrix, and then smoked weed with him in San Francisco a year later. He was on deck for the Atlanta Braves in 1974 when his buddy, Hank Aaron, hit his 715th career home run and broke Babe Ruth’s all-time record. Aaron was inundated with racist threats and hate mail during his pursuit of the home-run mark, and Baker has said that Aaron told fellow Black players to avoid sitting next to him in the dugout in case someone tried to shoot him.
Baker has done a masterful job with the Astros. After a 29–31 regular season in the unusual, pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, the Astros battled their way into that seven-game heartbreaker of an ALCS against Tampa Bay. That postseason began a transition in which the Astros folded an assortment of young players into the mix. This season, with Baker at the helm, that transformation has continued, yet the Astros haven’t missed a beat. They took over sole possession of first place on June 21 and have been atop the division ever since. They’ve got baseball’s highest-scoring offense and fourth-lowest earned run average. Their plus-216 run differential is tops in the American League.
Apart from the lineup moves and pitching changes, two of the the most reliable measures of a manager’s worth are whether the club played hard and whether it played cohesively. Baker’s always have. If there’s a realistic path for Baker to return to Houston, it would be with a second consecutive deep run into the postseason. If that happened, he could create a mandate for himself to keep the manager’s position.
Baker has been down this road before, despite the likelihood that this season will mark the eleventh time in 24 seasons his clubs have made the playoffs. He led the Washington Nationals to 95- and 97-win seasons in 2016 ad 2017, but was fired after both years ended with first-round playoff exits. He was fired by the Giants in 2002 after leading them to their first World Series appearance in thirteen years. The Reds let him go after he didn’t get past the first round in back-to-back years. No matter how much success he enjoyed during the good years, though, it has always stung when franchises decided to replace Baker. “They make you want to feel like you’re a failure,” he told the Post.
One of the keys to Baker’s success has been his ability to instill confidence in his players. He’s able to do that, in part, because he was an All-Star player in his own right and understands how difficult the game is at the highest level. “He made you feel like you could do anything on the field,” said former Giants pitcher Kirk Rueter. “He was always positive. You always felt like he was in your corner and he cared about you. He became a father figure when you were struggling because he wanted you to do so well.”
In July, Baker told reporters that in his first season with the Astros, he “felt like a substitute teacher.” He said he was just beginning to build relationships when the sport was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “This year I feel like the teacher,” he said. “I feel like I’m one of them.”
He has done way more than enough to earn a third season, but he knows better than to count on one. As Baker has said: “You never know what changes could come about in life.”