From dustup to Dusty? Houston Astros reportedly to hire Baker to manage

Berkeley, CA - March 31: Former Nationals manager Dusty Baker takes in the University of California baseball game against UCLA. Baker's son is the starting second baseman for the Cal Bears( Photo by Nick Otto for the Washington Post)
Berkeley, CA - March 31: Former Nationals manager Dusty Baker takes in the University of California baseball game against UCLA. Baker's son is the starting second baseman for the Cal Bears( Photo by Nick Otto for the Washington Post) /

Here are some reasons why a people manager like Dusty Baker is just what the Houston Astros need to begin ending their self-inflicted Astrogate nightmare.

USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale reported Tuesday midday that the Houston Astros, still smarting from the Astrogate fallout, will hand the bridge to Dusty Baker pending the finalizing of the 70-year-old manager’s contract terms. Nightengale cited “a person familiar with the hiring” as the source, adding anonymity was requested because the terms weren’t finished.

Nightengale went on to say that, considering what’s likely to come for the Houston Astros this season (“They will be insulted, scorned, and ridiculed. And that’s just by the opposing players,” he wrote), owner Jim Crane “had to find the man that would best insulate the clubhouse from the outside noise, and threats, keeping them together.”

More from Call to the Pen

Baker does have a game-wide reputation as a people’s manager, possibly best phrased by a former teammate from his playing days with the Los Angeles Dodgers. “His greatest attribute is the way he manages people,’’ said Davey Lopes, who’s been a friend of Baker’s since those days, in 2017. “I find it hard to find someone who’s better. Getting the best out of the players, getting them to want to play, getting them to want to put that extra effort into it, that takes a special talent.”

Now Baker’s going to have to add something to that: getting Astro players—who haven’t exactly been forthcoming about Astrogate, and who may yet be less than forthcoming once spring training begins and despite their owner’s mandate to apologize for their high-tech cheating—to own up, man up, and play up, no matter how furiously opposing players and fans alike taunt, ridicule, insult, and express desires that they kindly put their heads onto plate.

It’s not that this is the first time Baker would enter a clubhouse fogged in toxic clouds. When he took the Washington Nationals’ bridge after the 2015 season, he took on a clubhouse whose too-much-by-the-Book manager might have lost it before the season began and which only culminated in relief pitcher Jonathan Papelbon‘s notorious attempt to choke Bryce Harper in the dugout over a baserunning play.

And Baker has seen a lot worse in his life than a job of dissipating clubhouse toxins and forging atmospheres more conducive to playing baseball without imploding.

This, folks, is a manager who’s been executed four times and now hired for a fifth and maybe final time. Baker makes no mistake: he’s in it to win it this time. Being the first African American manager to make the Hall of Fame, if he gets there, is equaled only by the chance to win a World Series at long enough last.* He’s gotten to numerous postseasons but never gotten to the Big Dance at all.

“What matters to me the most is the championship,” Baker told Nightengale’s paper recently. “That’s what I want. I want to be a World Series champion. That’s what has always brought me back.’’

This is also a man whose playing days included having to suffer while numerous friends among his fellow players did the perp walk for the Pittsburgh drug trials of 1985, turning into drug testings for the rest of his playing career. A man who once kept a blood feud between Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent from fully poisoning their San Francisco Giants clubhouse. A man who survived IRS garnishments over back taxes, prostate cancer, irregular heartbeat, and stroke.

Baker’s also the man who took the heat after he had his Giants a game away from World Series triumph in 2002 but lost it when he inadvertently poked the Anaheim Angels bear in the seventh inning of Game Six. When he did the game ball thing with starter Russ Ortiz while lifting him for Felix Rodriguez in the bottom of the seventh, and watched in horror as Scott Spiezio almost promptly hit a full-count three-run homer to start the Game Seven-forcing Angels comeback.

Then the Giants elected not to renew his deal and the Chicago Cubs came calling. And Baker became the man who had to watch in equal horror in 2003 when—after leaving a spent Mark Prior in National League Championship Series Game Six, with the Cubs five outs from the World Series—his shortstop Alex Gonzalez let a dead-certain inning-ending double play ball bound off his chest, loading the pads for Derrek Lee‘s game-tying two-run double and what proved an eight-run Florida Marlins inning.

Come to think of it, Baker—the winningest active manager—even survived his Nationals playing an interleague series with the Houston Astros in 2017. And beat them two out of three, no matter how the Astros were or weren’t banging the can slowly in that set. What Baker couldn’t survive, alas, was that year’s division series against the Cubs. When his Nats unexpectedly played The Comedy of Errors on Chiller Theater in Game Five’s top of the fifth.

When Max Scherzer, in unexpected relief, got two swift outs before Willson Contreras beat out an infield hit and pinch-hitter Ben Zobrist shot a single up the pipe. When Jayson Werth uncharacteristically misjudged what turned into Addison Russell‘s two-run double. When Scherzer put Jason Heyward on intentionally to pitch to Javier Baez and saw strike three shoot past catcher Matt Wieters and saw Wieters scramble to retrieve the ball and throw wild past first to send a sixth Cub run home. When pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella reached on catcher’s interference before Scherzer plunked Jon Jay, leaving things 7-4 with the Cubs going on to win and advance.

Do you think a man who’s survived all that and lots more is going to reach for the rye bottle or the psychiatrist’s couch at the prospect of taking the bridge of a team the entire world now regards as so-far-unapologetic cheaters?

And what about the Astros’ analytics-dominance knitting to Baker’s older-school style? Well, Baker’s been second-guessed just about his entire career as a manager. But he’s never been necessarily averse to accepting anything legitimate that might give him an extra edge on the bridge. Even if you’d be hard-pressed to picture him crunching numbers at a computer, he doesn’t seem allergic to matchups and other analytically-rooted game thoughts if there’s a chance to win. Yet.

Related Story. Astros: Verlander kidding around in dubious timing. light

The least of Baker’s worries, especially since he wasn’t anywhere near the scene of the crimes when the Astro Intelligence Agency went into full operation, is whether he’ll have to answer questions about the AIA, for one or one hundred days worth. He’ll have more important things to worry about. Just getting his Houston Astros through spring training and the season to come without being tempted to scream might be an accomplishment by itself.

  • CORRECTION: An earlier version of this essay named Baker the first African-American manager in Astros history. Cecil Cooper (2007-2009) and Bo Porter (2013-2014) preceded Baker as such Astro managers. The author apologises for the error.