Motivated by late father’s words, Baker chases elusive crown
HOUSTON (AP) — Dusty Baker, then manager of the San Francisco Giants, had just left the stadium after a crushing loss to the Anaheim Angels in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series when he met up with his father.
Johnnie B. Baker Sr. didn’t mince words.
“He goes: ‘Man, after the way (you) lost that one, I don’t know if you’ll ever win another one,” Baker recalled Sunday.
Nineteen years after that conversation and more than a decade since his dad’s passing, Baker finally has a chance to prove wrong the father he loved so dearly.
He’ll get the opportunity starting Tuesday night when he leads the Houston Astros against the Atlanta Braves in the World Series.
The 72-year-old Baker has thought of that conversation often over the years. And since the Astros dispatched the Red Sox on Friday night to reach their third Fall Classic in five years, his father’s words have grown even louder in his head.
“So that’s been my motivation,” Baker said.
This is Baker’s second trip to the Series as a manager. As a player, he went three times with the Dodgers, winning it all as a big-hitting left fielder in 1981.
In an illustrious career as a star player and skipper spanning more than 50 years, winning a World Series as a manager is virtually the only box left open for Baker.
“I know,” he said. “So I just (need to) go ahead and check it.”
Added Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, the original Mr. October who now works as a special adviser to Astros owner Jim Crane: “I do think it would make a wonderful addition to his resume.”
Houston star shortstop Carlos Correa, who becomes a free agent at season’s end, is intent on helping Baker add this accomplishment to the back of his baseball card.
“He’s been around a long time and still doesn’t have one,” Correa said. “So, we’re going to try and get it done for him.”
It’s been a whirlwind two years for Baker, who after being fired by the Nationals following a 97-win season in 2017 wondered if he’d ever even get another shot to manage, much less win that elusive title.
Back home in Northern California, as he worked on his wine business and grew collard greens in his garden, he often felt perplexed he had been passed over for interviews so many times as managerial openings came and went, having made inquiries that he said were unanswered over the years.
Baker figured his age and salary at this stage of his life might be enough to turn off many prospective general managers and front offices.
“Do you ever make peace with it?” he once said. “You make peace, but it makes you kind of lose some faith in mankind, between right and wrong. And you realize in the world, especially in this new world, there’s always been discrimination, race discrimination, but it seems like in this new world there’s age and salary discrimination, which go hand in hand.”
It was during this time that his father’s words rang in his ears.
“I thought about it the whole time when I didn’t know if I’d get back to this business,” he said.
Then came January 2019 and the stunning revelation that the Astros had illicitly stolen signs in their run to the 2017 World Series championship and again in 2018. The cheating scandal cost manager A.J. Hinch his job, leaving a team with an almost unfathomable image problem in need of a strong leader.
Crane found that leader in Baker, a man who now ranks 12th all-time in managerial wins and has taken five teams to the playoffs. In last year’s COVID-19-shortened season, the Astros squeaked into the postseason as a wild-card team before heating up in playoffs to come one win shy of reaching the World Series.
“The first time I met him, we talked for almost two hours, and I knew he was the right guy immediately,” Crane said. “Nothing bothered him because he had been through so much.”
And this week his path comes full circle as he meets the team that drafted him out of high school in 1967 and where he spent the first eight seasons of a 19-year playing career.
It was with the Braves that he got his first major league hit a few miles from Minute Maid Park in the now-defunct Astrodome as a 19-year-old on Sept. 17, 1968, with “a little dribbler off Mike Cuellar.”
But perhaps most importantly it was where he began a lifelong friendship with the great Hank Aaron, who died in January at 86. It was Aaron who persuaded Baker to sign with the Braves instead of pursuing a college basketball career.
“I was chosen to be with Hank,” he said.