Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker retires with many gifts left to give MLB
Baseball should create a role for Baker, one that fits the legend he represents
It’s fitting that on the eve of the MLB’s World Series, Dusty Baker announced his retirement.
The baseball season ends, a legendary baseball career ends, and with it ends an era.
Three days after the Houston Astros’ disappointing Game 7 loss to the Texas Rangers, team manager Baker faced reporters Thursday for the last time as an Astro. Flanked by team owner Jim Crane and general manager Dana Brown, Baker made it clear that while he was retiring as baseball manager, he had no plans to step away from baseball. Quite the opposite: He wants to remain in baseball but must decide on the proper role.
“I haven’t made up my mind yet, what I’m going to do, where I’m going to go,” Baker said Thursday. “I still feel like I haven’t done what I’m supposed to do in life, so I feel that the Lord has some great things ahead for me.”
Baseball should create a role for Baker, one that fits the legend he represents. Something greater than a mere baseball ambassador, more than a mere consultant. Baker is much larger. He is a bridge between generations and ethnicities.
As young player, Baker played at a time when there was a significant African American presence in the MLB. The Latino presence is now a dominant force in the MLB, but Baker is a life force who relates to everyone, especially young players. He is a bridge builder who believes he should pass on the information he’s received over the years and extend the knowledge of the next generation.
“That’s what I’ve tried to do,” he said. “Pass it on and the game will only perpetuate itself and get better if we continue to pass it along.”
Baker has so much more to give to baseball, his retirement from managing provides the MLB with an opportunity to embrace initiatives on several fronts. Baker can teach players how to extend their careers. He can teach potential managers how to manage. He can teach team owners how to incorporate African Americans and former Latino players into managerial and front-office positions.
During his remarks, Crane gave the perfunctory “Thanks for all you’ve done” recognition to Baker. Then he said, “You came in and helped us when we needed some help. I think you were the only guy who could do that.”
Indeed. Baker did more than help. He saved the Astros’ soul. Yes, the franchise was successful but had become a corrupt franchise, perceived as being rotten to the core because of a cheating, win-at-all-costs scandal in 2017 that forced Crane to fire a general manager and a manager.
With a stellar reputation for getting along and building bridges, Baker, as Crane acknowledged, was the only manager who could have restored the dignity, respect and credibility of a franchise that had become reviled. You cannot revile Baker.
“I’ve been to a number of places,” Baker said Thursday. “One thing that I try to do, I’m very conscious of, is that the place I’m leaving from is in better shape and condition than when I got there.”
Baker restored credibility and still won: two World Series appearances, a World Series championship last season. And a game shy of the World Series this year.
On the other hand, Baker said he appreciated Crane because the Astros gave him another shot at being a manager. He had interviewed for the Philadelphia Phillies job in 2019, but Philadelphia hired Joe Girardi. “At that time, it looked like I wasn’t going to get an opportunity,” Baker said. The Phillies fired Girardi two months into his third season.
“As it turned out, that was the best thing that happened to me,” Baker said about not getting the Phillies job. “The team allowed me at 70-something years old to continue making a living. It gave me an opportunity to win.”
What we may never know is the positive impact that Baker had on the lives he touched, the players and even Brown, the Astros general manager. While technically Baker’s boss, Brown, baseball’s only African American general manager, learned lessons just by listening to Baker.
“It’s just outstanding to be around him,” Brown, 56, said. “I appreciate everything that he did, talking to me as just a mentor. It’s very much appreciated.”
When we spoke last week in Arlington, Texas, Baker said that what was really driving him to win back to back is that he wanted honor Cito Gaston, the first African American manager to win a World Series title in 1992. As manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, Gaston led the franchise to back-to-back World Series championships. In Baker’s mind, Gaston, for several reasons, was never given the proper respect and recognition.
“I wanted to win the pennant and then leave,” he said. “But sometimes your plan and life’s plan are two different things. I got to the door, but I didn’t quite get through.”
So, what role can Baker play in baseball? There are so many, in and outside of the game. To the extent that baseball is still called America’s pastime, I wonder if baseball can use Baker to help transform the contentious mood of the country, bring about collegiality.
Over the years, Baker won respect from baseball fans who were likely from different political parties, fans who ranged from far-right conservatives to far-left liberals. They all liked Baker. Perhaps baseball could use Baker to help promote the idea that teamwork and harmony are necessary to win pennants and World Series championships.
I’m not sure what that role would be called, but Baker would be great for the job.
Perhaps Baker could also be put in a role to inspire team owners and general managers to change the way they go about diversifying their front offices and team leadership. Some teams are stuck in reverse. The central baseball office is not the major problem, the problem is the 30 teams that make up MLB. Each team has its own ownership of its own old boy network and its own way of doing business.
Can Baker make a dent by working within baseball’s corporate structure or will he be more effective working outside of it?
Baker said he’ll begin thinking about all of that after the baseball season which, in his mind, will not end until the final out of the World Series.
“Baseball doesn’t end to me until the World Series is over,” Baker said. “When I get home and I’m working on my garden or doing something around the house, I’ll start thinking about things.”
Baseball has not seen the last of Dusty Baker. He’s still driven to do more. He spoke about attending home run king Henry “Hank” Aaron’s funeral and listening to the incredible tributes. Aaron was a surrogate father to Baker when he first broke in the minor leagues. He promised Baker’s parents that he would look after their 18-year-old son.
Baker said he left the funeral feeling inadequate. “All these people were talking about how Hank had contributed and helped out their college education, and how he had affected this life and that life,” Baker recalled.
“I came back home and told me wife I don’t feel like I’ve done anything.”
There’s a thin line between comparing oneself to someone else and being inspired by others. Baker was inspired.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do, but it’s going to be good, whatever it is,” he said.
For those of us who have lived seven decades of life and believe there is more to give, Baker is an inspiration. He has many gifts to give to the MLB. What remains to be seen is whether baseball accepts the gifts that Baker has to give.