HOUSTON – As human beings go, this is classic Fall Classic. Dusty Baker is 72. He agreed to manage Houston after the present regime was forced out by the Astros’ sign-stealing. For all the things this franchise did wrong in taking industrial espionage to the trashcan level, hiring Baker was the best step – if not the only step – a tarnished club could have taken in the effort to regain any shred of credibility.
Whenever Dusty Baker is in a major-league uniform, he’s the most respected figure in the major leagues. When he began his playing career, he split time with the Braves and the United State Marine Corps. (Back in the 1960s, there was such a thing as a military draft. You didn’t necessarily want to see your birthday be that year’s No. 1 pick.)
Baker was among Hank Aaron’s best friends. He was on deck at Atlanta Stadium on April 8, 1974, the night the Hammer sent Al Downing’s pitch flying into the Braves’ bullpen. As a Dodger, Baker was MVP of the 1977 National League Championship Series, a Silver Slugger winner, an All-Star and a member of the 1981 World Series champs.
Before Tuesday’s Game 1, Baker spoke of his ties with Aaron. (He spoke at the great man’s funeral earlier this year.) Baker also mentioned the difference in 21st century baseball, wherein the old school is often hooted down by analytic new agers. We mentioned credibility. Baker leads the sport in cred.
He hung out with the Hammer. As a Dodger, he’s credited with inventing the high five, he and Glenn Burke having foregone the usual handshake, in the spirit of a moment, to throw hands on high. (It was Oct. 3, 1977. Baker had homered off J.R. Richard.) These are names from a distant past, and Gen Xers don’t always care about what happened back when. Listening to Baker is re-living history through the eyes of a perceptive observer.
Baker has taken various teams – he has managed the Giants, Cubs, Reds, Nationals and Astros – to nine division titles. His teams have qualified for the playoffs 11 times. He has won a division title everywhere he has been. His greatest team – maybe the greatest National League team not to reach the playoffs – lost its final game to the Dodgers, leaving the 1993 Giants at 103 wins. Earlier that Sunday, Tom Glavine had beaten Colorado to get the Braves to 104.
Nine years later, Baker and the Giants made the World Series. They led the Angels 3-2 and assumed a 5-0 lead in Game 6. Baker pulled starting pitcher Russ Ortiz with one out in the seventh. Rather than taking the ball from Ortiz and handing it to reliever Felix Rodriguez, the manager gave it to his ace as a keepsake of what was surely a title-winning night. Rodriguez yielded a three-run home to Scott Spiezio. Troy Glaus won it for the Angels with a two-run double in the eighth. The Giants would lose 4-1 the next night.
Baker spoke of that game Tuesday: “I’m 20 years older, that’s for sure. I don’t think I’ve changed that much really. I think the circumstances have changed more than I’ve changed. The use of pitchers, the short hook, the more importance of the bullpen now than it was 20 years ago - I was blasted for taking Russ Ortiz out 20 years ago, but nowadays I’d have been blasted for not taking him out. The times have changed and (so has) how people expect the manager to manage.”
Ortiz was traded to the Braves not long thereafter. In our first conversation, I asked about the Game 6 ball. He still had it, Ortiz said. It was in a box at home, a treasure that had lost nearly all its worth.
Awful things tended to happen to Baker’s teams in the playoffs. He was managing the Cubs on the night Steve Bartman, a fan, obstructed Moises Alou’s pursuit of a foul ball. That was Game 6 of the National League Championship Series. Had the Cubs won, they’d have played the Yankees in the World Series. Instead the Marlins scored eight runs after the Bartman incident to tie the series.
In 2012, Baker’s Reds were one run from sweeping the Giants in the Division Series. The Giants rallied to win Game 3 in extra innings, and then they won twice more. Dusty Baker was again denied.
Some folks believe he’s too old school to manage a championship team, but e’s back in the World Series. He was asked about old school vis-à-vis new school. “Everybody has to deal with it. I try to combine the two, and the key to any job is to co-exist in a workplace. There’s a give and a take. It’s just a matter of how much you’re willing to give or how much you’re willing to take.”
Then: “Every man has an inner and outer dignity, what you will take to keep the job and sometimes what you won’t take. At some point, you’ve got to say, hey, you can keep it. Here I have a young general manager that came from Tampa Bay that was used to more -- I think we’ve combined the sabermetrics as well as the old school. I don’t really believe in old school, new school. I believe in the right school. There’s something from having a young son and a little older daughter, I didn’t have her till I was 30, they can learn from us, and I think there’s certain things that we can learn from the youth.”
Then: “The only thing is on the old-school side, if it doesn’t work, you’re kind of blasted for it. And on the new-school side, if it doesn’t work, then it was either unlucky or the numbers didn’t work this time. But nine out of 10 times it will work. Well, this is the one time it didn’t work. And no matter what school or side you’re on, nothing works all the time. There are no absolutes in sports, not as long as you’re playing against somebody on the other side that can mess up your game plan.”
Owing to their history of cheating, the Astros are the bad guys in this World Series. Trouble is, they’re managed by the all-time good guy. On the other hand, the Braves’ manager is a fine fellow himself. No matter which side wins, virtue will in some way prevail.
One thing more. Baker was asked about his playlist as he drove to Minute Maid Park for Game 1. He said James Cotton and Muddy Waters, two of the most memorable bluesmen of the 20th century. The day before, Baker had listened to Tupac. Old school meets new school. Dusty Baker could teach a heck of a class in musicology.