Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker’s baseball life has made him a World Series protagonist
Baker, 73, has never won the title as a manager, but a lot more people than just Astros fans are rooting for him
HOUSTON — There’s a certain word that keeps coming up every time I ask someone about Dusty Baker. The word isn’t anything close to what most people would describe the franchise that he’s been the skipper of since 2020. The word in fact doesn’t really fit how most people would describe MLB when it comes to many of their business practices. It might perhaps describe the effort the Houston Astros have made to get back to the top, but it also describes the hatred which multiple fan bases gladly direct their way.
Astros manager Johnnie B. Baker, 73, finds himself again in a position that is rare: Nobody is rooting for his team, but everyone is rooting for him. After being cast aside by more than one team in his managerial career, it’s understood that he’s gotten a reasonably raw deal.
He has kept it real in every single phase of his life, and as a result, is arguably the most respected person in all of the sport. His path to revered statesman has many stops and iterations and pretty much everyone he’s connected with, played against, coached or worked with is hoping that this is finally the year.
Going back to his playing days, his boundless energy and ability to bring folks together was obvious.
“I knew him probably in every different phase of his career as an opponent. With Dusty, he had presence in that Dodger lineup. When he got in the box, he was a long arm swinger, so you had to pitch him in. Right?” said Mike Krukow of what it was like to face Baker as an opponent. Krukow pitched for 13 years in the majors with the Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants. “But you also knew that if you went in and it took off and you fly the left side, dragged your arm, and all of a sudden the thing became a heat seeker and it [hit] him, you might have to fight him. You had to be aware of him and his personality when you pitched against him. He was really a great player.”
The Dodgers were the team Baker won a World Series with as a player, and very famously the team with which he helped invent the high-five and was an All-Star, Gold Glove and Silver Slugger player in 1981. As a native of the relatively nearby Inland Empire, he was a local legend for sure, at the time.
“He was one of those people that we looked up to, as Riverside African American men. It was Bobby Bonds and it was Dusty Baker,” said Darrell Miller, the director of MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton, California. Miller played for the California Angels for five seasons. “You know how it is when you see somebody you want to be like and you try to walk like them and talk like them and pick up their little thing. All the things that you think are cool about them. That’s how Dusty is to all of, at least to me, all of us through Riverside.
“I think Dusty’s that guy that is so honest, trustworthy, believable because he’s always been consistent. Consistently the same human being.”
Eventually, Baker ended up playing in San Francisco, and after his career ended, he became the hitting coach there. After a stint as a stockbroker — something he was turned on to somewhat backhandedly by his father, who invested part of his signing bonus against his will, but it made him a bunch of money — the Giants hired him as manager in 1993.
A fascinating year in baseball history, that’s also the season that Barry Bonds came to the team from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Clearly a handful, it was another situation where Baker was absolutely the best guy for the job. At the time, he was only the seventh Black manager in MLB history, a good 90 years after the American and National leagues merged.
“I’ve seen him handle the biggest stars in the game from Bonds to [Sammy] Sosa to [Bryce] Harper. He can handle the big ego and he can handle just about any situation,” said Ron Wotus, who coached third base under Baker and eventually became his bench coach for several years. “He never backs away from a difficult conversation and that’s just the way he is. He’s so honest and sincere and compassionate.
“He loves life and he connects with so many people in so many different ways, whether it’s through music — I mean, I’ve become friends with people that he’s known in the music business — or it’s with food.”
That connectivity is nothing new. To this day, Krukow, who has been a part of the Giants broadcast team since 1994, remembers running into Baker in the wild, and how much it rattled him then, in a good way.
“There was a time when I was a Cub, we went into a bar in the hotel where we were staying there in Los Angeles. We were just having a couple cocktails. There was probably 10 of us in there,” Krukow recalled last week. “This is after a night game in LA. And Dusty, he lived out in Calabasas or whatever. But all of a sudden, we see him walking through the bar and we’re going, ‘What the hell’s he doing in our bar?’ ”
He was being Dusty, that’s what. “He was with a group of people, but he had the energy. After playing nine innings of a game, he had the energy to leave Dodger Stadium and then go down and meet people there,” Krukow said with an incredulous laugh. “He was entertaining. And that was the first time I saw him away from the game face Dusty Baker that you play against. Now all of a sudden I see him as a friend, and he was just … he’s got this most infectious laugh.”
You don’t make it this far in life without having a few stops that didn’t end so well. For a good while there, the cycle was the same. Replace a guy whose squad wasn’t anything special to begin with, or jump into a scenario where expectations are sky-high off the top.
Take the Cubs. When Baker got there, again, he was honest. The son of an Air Force technician came off the top rope with a comment that floored quite a few humans back in 2003, saying “Black and Hispanic players are better suited to playing in the sun and heat than white players.” Hardly something that anyone would bat an eye at in a clubhouse, but created some unrest in the Chicago media, for sure.
That team was stacked, relatively, with big-ticket players such as Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Moises Alou. His first year, they lost to the eventual champion Florida Marlins in the NLCS. At that point we were all still dealing with the long national nightmare that was listening to Cubs fans incessantly bemoan the team’s lack of a championship.
“I think that you’re a Cubs fan [then], you’ve always hoped to be able to get to the mountaintop, to get to the World Series. You didn’t think it’d ever happen, but just think about the dynamic of that team. You have the ultimate players manager, and Dusty, and Dusty will, as you know, will back you 110%,” explained Jonathan Hood, a Chicago native and host on ESPN 1000 in the Windy City. “For all the stops he made, people thought, ‘Could it be with Dusty Baker?’ ”
Then Wrigley Field fan Steve Bartman reached out and knocked a foul ball that would have been out No. 2 away from the glove of Cubs left fielder Alou in Game 6 of the NLCS, somewhat forever altering the future of everyone involved with the franchise. Sure, they had another chance to advance. But that didn’t happen and somehow, Baker is the one who got the blame, tangentially.
“There were a lot of people that were rooting for Dusty until Bartman. And, somehow the connection with Bartman, and that whole thing with Alou, all of a sudden the city soured on Dusty,” Hood recalled. “I can’t say it was Dusty’s fault, it’s just that the team wasn’t good enough to get past the Marlins in that series. But, I just think that you can draw a line of demarcation from Bartman interfering with the baseball, to the city souring on Dusty thinking that the Cubs would never get it done.”
In Cincinnati, Baker had fewer tools in the shed in six seasons. That too ended awkwardly when the Reds fired him after a late-season slide in 2013, despite an overall winning record and the team’s first playoff appearance in 15 years.
By this point, Baker’s reputation among casual baseball fans was closer to that of a crazy old man who was ruining arms rather than a sage who just hadn’t found the right fit. Hiring Baker was a legit sign of desperation, it appeared. In 2015, the Washington Nationals were extremely desperate after running through five managers in eight seasons and building extremely lofty expectations due to the arrival of No. 1 draft picks Stephen Strasburg and current Phillies opponent Bryce Harper.
For a newer franchise, relatively, not everyone was ready for the Dusty Baker Experience.
“I don’t know that I’ve covered a manager that has come in with more of a presence or an aura around him than Dusty, both because of the guy that he is and because of the very wide crew that he brings with him. When Dusty shows up somewhere, he’s never by himself,” said Dan Kolko, who was the sideline reporter for MASN during Baker’s tenure there in the 2016 and 2017 seasons. “It was clear very early on that this guy was different both because of who he was and because everyone wanted to be around him.”
For Harper, the wise one’s ways were a big-time change of pace from his previous manager Matt Williams, who coincidentally, Baker managed in San Francisco.
“He’s the type of manager that is lighting sage to try and change the vibes, that is walking down to the end of the dugout to try because he felt that there were hits down at that end,” said Kolko, now the Nationals studio host for MASN, describing an action that Baker actually took between Games 1 and 2 of the current series in Houston. “I think it was just a little different for Bryce than what he had experienced the previous two years.”
Baker and Harper are opponents in the World Series, but the two caught up with each other when the Phillies came to Houston for the last regular season series of the year. Harper knocked on his door in the clubhouse.
“I just wanted to kind of just talk to him one on one. Just go in there, catch up with him, talk to him, hang out,” Harper said on media day before Game 1. “He is always fun to talk to. He always has a story for me, and he’s a great human being. He’s a person that’s easy to talk to and easy to be around. So it was just fun to be able to talk to him.”
Baker’s contract was not renewed after the 2018 season. After the 2018 season, Harper left as a free agent.
In 2019, the Washington Nationals won the World Series against … the Astros.
When the dust settled on the Astros franchise after the fallout from their 2017 cheating scandal, they were left without a manager, even if no players were suspended. Their credibility was shot, their unlikability was at an all-time high and they were caught doing it in 4K. Quite plainly, it was an awful job to step into.
It was then that all that experience Baker brought to the table wasn’t looked at as an old clunker that couldn’t get over the big hill. Suddenly, Baker was the only thing that could restore credibility to these cheaters.
“I thought that the decision to bring Dusty Baker in was genius. I thought it was the only guy that they could have brought in to eliminate the stigma that has surrounded that team was completely negative,” said Krukow, who had suggested Baker get the Giants job in 1993 when the new ownership group asked him for his input. “I don’t care how talented you are. If there is negativism and you’re getting booed every day, it wears on you. Yeah, you can intensify the closeness of the group. You bet. But you know what? There’s no joy in that clubhouse. And Dusty Baker brought it back and he did it in his way.
“There are a lot of unwritten rules, a lot of ways about how to play. That differs a little bit as a coach. There’s still a closeness between the player and the coach, but there is a little degree of separation because a coach has to be honest. A teammate isn’t always honest.”
When Baker took the job, there was some sentiment that the Astros were beneath him, no matter how many times he’d been a proverbial bridesmaid to winning a title as a manager. He has the most regular-season wins in MLB history (2,093) for a manager without a World Series title. The idea that one of baseball’s lifers had to stoop to the worst cleanup job in MLB history was off-putting, at the very least.
“Dusty had been around a little bit and he wasn’t in the game and he wanted to still be in the game and so he took the job. But I don’t think [Astros chairman] Jim Crane had to sell him,” said MLB Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, who is a special adviser to the Astros. “I think Dusty can look at a ball club and know if it’s good or bad or know if it’s a good place to be.”
It was clear why he was there. Honesty and accountability.
“At the time, I remember when it came across, and I was on the air that night, and I said, ‘Perfect hire.’ And, people said, ‘Perfect hire? How could that be a perfect hire? The guy failed with the Cubs, and failed with Cincinnati,’ ” Hood noted. “I was like, ‘No. If anyone is going to defend what’s happening with the players, you put Dusty Baker there.’ This takes nothing away from him being a great manager, It’s just the fact is, that he will take every sling and arrow. He’ll take it on himself.”
But none of this is new to Baker, in any walk of life. Be it baseball or anything else. As a young player, baseball great Hank Aaron taught him the ropes of how to make it work in the big leagues, and that extended well past the ball field. He wasn’t just on deck when Aaron passed Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list. He was family, and the most trusted guy in baseball at the time trusted a young Baker with his own flesh and blood.
As a young man in Atlanta, he and Atlanta Braves left fielder Ralph Garr were basically second parents to Aaron’s children. Dorinda, one of Aaron’s daughters, remembers the young man who would take her and her siblings to the movies and have sleepovers at their house on weekends. With that came a level of authority, too.
“Anytime I was supposed to do something for Dusty or meet Dusty somewhere, if I didn’t do it, my dad would raise hell,” Henry Aaron Jr. said with a laugh this past week. “He only had to do it one time.
“He’s an honest person; he’s a person that will tell you what he feels and he’s not going to tell you anything wrong.”
They’re all rooting for Baker too, even though the World Series pitted family against family last year.
“The way I look at it, much as I like Hank and as much as he loves me and [we do] each other, he was probably rooting for the Braves last year,” Baker said with a smile Thursday of Aaron, who died in January 2021, nine months before Atlanta won the World Series.
“And I figure now he’s rooting for me.”