The evening before the start of the 2022 World Series, between the Houston Astros and the Philadelphia Phillies, Astros manager Dusty Baker feared Thursday Night Football would cost him. Baker, 73, was watching Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Baltimore Ravens. But the lifelong football fan and former high school gridiron star didn’t want to get too into the game. He needed to rest up before his latest quest to win his first World Series title as a manager, after a quarter century seasons leading five different clubs, started on Friday night at Houston’s Minute Maid Park.
Not that turning off Brady and Co. would turn his mind off. “I ain’t gonna sleep, really,” Baker tells TIME during a Thursday night telephone conversation. “I’d get in the bed, but that don’t mean I’m sleeping, know what I’m saying?”
There’s plenty of pressure on Baker. The Astros, who won 106 regular-season games, have yet to lose this postseason, going 7-0 against the Seattle Mariners in the Division Series and the New York Yankees in the ALCS. Houston is the heavy favorite over Philadelphia, who won just 87 games in the regular season. The Astros have reached their fourth World Series in the last six seasons. The team won one title, back in 2017. With another, the talk about a Houston baseball dynasty can begin.
For baseball fans at large, all this makes the Astros easy to root against. Who really loves Goliath? Plus, the team’s sign-stealing scandal tainted its 2017 World Series win and threatened to turn the Houston Astros into a permanent pariah.
Enter Baker. Despite the Astros’ unctuous past, Houston enters this World Series as a sort of sentimental favorite, thanks to Baker and Baker alone. After taking over the team in 2020, following a leadership purge in the wake of the cheating scandal, Baker helped restore Houston’s credibility. He’s now won back-to-back American League pennants with the Astros, proving that the team likely didn’t need to resort to banging on trash cans to dominate. By dint of his affable nature, roots in the history of the game, and more than 2,000 wins as a manager, Baker has engendered near-universal respect and admiration throughout baseball. His chase for an elusive World Series title as manager, after he’s suffered so much postseason heartbreak, counts as the most compelling storyline of this World Series.
Dusty Baker may be baseball’s “Forrest Gump”
After Houston swept the New York Yankees in the ALCS, Astros players chanted their manager’s name during the clubhouse celebration. “Dusty! Dusty! Dusty!” You can’t fake that affection. “Dusty is a great communicator,” says former Toronto Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, winner of back-to-back World Series in 1992 and 1993 and one of Baker’s closest friends in the game. “You have to have respect from your players, but you also have to give them respect. That’s how you win.”
Baker has won plenty, having taken a record five different teams (San Francisco, the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati, Washington, and Houston) to the playoffs. He’s just never finished the season on top. In his first season as a manager in 1993, Baker led the Giants, who picked up Barry Bonds from Pittsburgh as a free agent that offseason, to 103 victories. The problem: the Atlanta Braves finished with 104 wins in the then-National League West, one game ahead of the Giants. That was the last big league season without a Wild Card. Baker’s Giants, despite finishing with the second-best record in the majors, stayed home in October.
In 2002, San Francisco finally made the World Series under Baker. Up 3-2 in the series, the Giants held a 5-0 lead over the Anaheim Angels going into the seventh inning of Game 6. “I was so close to picking up the phone to congratulate him,” says Gaston. “Then things went wrong.” The Angels rallied to win 6-5, and took Game 7 to clinch the title.
Baker moved on to Chicago the next season and was in the dugout for one of the most infamous moments in playoff history. With the Cubs up by three runs in the top of the eighth inning and five outs away from the World Series, Chicago fan Steve Bartman reached out to catch a foul ball that Cubs left fielder Moises Alou was in position to snare. Alou went berserk, and the Cubs melted down. Florida Marlins scored 8 runs in that eighth inning to win, and cruised in Game 7 the next night. Joe Maddon—not Baker—would be the manager to end Chicago’s infamous World Series drought, 13 years later.
Baker’s seen everything in baseball. He’s been referred to as the “Forest Gump” of the sport on countless occasions. When Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974, Baker was in the on-deck circle for the Braves. When New York Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson erupted for three home runs, on three swings, in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series in the Bronx, Baker was in left field for Los Angeles. When Barry Bonds hit his 71st home run in 2001, setting a new single-season home run mark, Baker managed the Giants. He was there for Bartman and so much more.
He’s also baseball’s renaissance man. He owns a winery in Sacramento: Baker Family Wines. He’s formed a solar energy company. He wrote a 2015 book about music, Kiss the Sky, which chronicles Jimi Hendrix’s legendary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, in 1967.
Baker was there … of course.
The Houston Astros manager is not done yet
In 2017 the Washington Nationals fired Baker, who gnaws on a toothpick in the dugout while managing games, even though he had led the club to two straight National League East division titles. At 68, many pundits thought Baker was done. “Everybody asked me if I was going to retire,” Baker says. “I said, no, I’m not retiring, because I’m not done. I don’t want nobody to tell me I’m done when I know I’m not. I thought I was excellent. I really believed I was getting better at this job.”
Baker is seeking to become the third African American manager to win a World Series, after Gaston and Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2020. He’s always found it strange that, despite his success, he’s had to bide his time between jobs. For example, despite winning 90 games and making the playoffs in his final season in Cincinnati in 2013, Baker didn’t manage for two seasons, before the Washington Nationals hired him for the 2016 season. Then, after the Nationals let him go, he didn’t get another job until three seasons later, when Houston came calling. The Phillies actually passed over Baker in late 2019, opting to hire Joe Girardi to manage the club. Philadelphia fired Girardi this season in June; Rob Thomson took over and helped turned Philadelphia’s season around.
Baker estimates that the five seasons he’s been out of work as manager since 1993 have cost him $18 to $24 million and perhaps around 500 wins. With another 500 regular season victories, he’d rank fourth on the all-time list, behind only Connie Mack, Tony LaRussa, and John McGraw, all Hall of Famers. Why has Baker seen such gaps in his resume? “People talk at the country club, or they have their own preconceived notions of how you are, or why you are,” says Baker. “Being an African American manager, every town is not conducive to hiring you. It takes a special owner, it takes a special town that’s not afraid of facing their friends at the country club, or the bank, or the Kiwanis club, or whatever club that they’re in, about ‘why did you hire this guy?'”
Major League Baseball has witnessed a longtime decline in African American participation in the big leagues. This will be the first World Series in more than 70 years without a single American-born Black player. “When you tell me that, that hurts my heart,” says Atlanta Braves scout Ralph Garr, one of Baker’s best friends. Gaston believes that a Houston victory—and Baker’s first managerial title—could remind African Americans of the opportunities available in baseball, and help revive the connection between African Americans and the sport.
Baker likes his chances. In last year’s World Series, against Atlanta, Baker’s Astros did not have ace Justin Verlander or top pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. available due to injuries. “The king feels better with his army behind him, know what I mean?” Baker says. “I swear, confidence ain’t my problem. Not at all.”
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