Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 30, 2020

Dusty To The Rescue

The votes are in, and the result is a landslide. No, not in Iowa or New Hampshire in the first voting of the current cycle of electing a President, but in that other quintessentially American sport, baseball. By something bordering on acclamation fans and media members alike concur that the Great Game is better off with Dusty Baker back in uniform. The embodiment of a baseball lifer, the 70-year-old Baker was introduced on Thursday as the new manager of the Houston Astros, with owner Jim Crane surely hoping that the hiring of an accomplished skipper known for his honesty and straight talk will be the first step toward righting the Astros’ ship, which has been listing badly since exposure of the team’s sophisticated cheating dating to its 2017 championship season.

Given Houston’s self-inflicted wounds, Baker is a smart choice to replace AJ Hinch, fired by Crane along with former general manager Jeff Luhnow immediately after both were suspended for the upcoming season by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred for allowing the sign stealing scheme orchestrated by Astros players and then-bench coach Alex Cora to go unchecked. The combination of integrity and a generally warm relationship with the press make him an ideal public face for a franchise desperate to move past the cheating debacle. During his introductory press conference Baker left no doubt where he stood, saying “We have to go forward and make sure that it doesn’t happen again. It’s certainly not going to happen on my watch here.”

But Baker brings more to Houston than just an upstanding reputation, as valuable as that alone is to the Astros right now. After two years as an advisor in the San Francisco Giants front office, his return to a managerial role shuffles the order of active field generals on the list of managers with the most career wins. Cleveland’s Terry Francona was briefly number one after the Giants Bruce Bochy retired at the end of last season. But Baker now supplants Francona, arriving in Houston with 1,863 career victories, almost two hundred more than the Cleveland skipper. That total puts Baker fifteenth overall in wins, with all but two of the names above him appearing on plaques in the Hall of Fame.

He earned those victories with four different teams – the Giants, Cubs, Reds, and most recently the Washington Nationals – over more than twenty seasons of making out lineup cards. That after a playing career that was nearly as long, beginning with being drafted by Atlanta in 1967, and making his big league debut one year later. Baker roamed the Atlanta outfield for eight seasons, before moving on to the west coast, where he wore the uniforms of the Dodgers, Giants, and finally the Oakland A’s. His greatest success as a player came at Chavez Ravine, where in 1981 he was a member of the last Dodgers team to win a championship. In L.A. Baker also won two Silver Slugger awards, a Gold Glove, was twice an All-Star, and was the MVP of the National League Championship Series in 1977.

On the bench Baker has been known as something of a turnaround artist. In his first year managing in San Francisco, the Giants improved by thirty-one games, going from a losing record to the second best mark in the majors. At his next stop in Chicago he immediately took the Cubs to the franchise’s first division title in fourteen years. The improvement took a bit longer in Cincinnati, but there too Baker won a division championship and gave fans their first taste of playoff baseball in more than a decade. Given that track record it was no surprise when the Nationals won 95 and 97 games in his two seasons at the helm in Washington.

That success has garnered Baker three Manager of the Year awards. But that honor, like all the Great Game’s major individual trophies, is based on regular season performance. What Baker has not been able to do is convert winning records between April and September into postseason success, and some of the playoff failures of Baker-led teams have been especially painful.

His one trip to the World Series as a manager was in 2002, when the Giants were on the cusp of a championship, leading the Angels three games to two and 5-0 in the 7th inning of Game 6. That’s when Baker pulled starting pitcher Russ Ortiz, despite his having surrendered just four hits while shutting out Anaheim. The Angels rallied against the San Francisco bullpen, then went on to win Game 7 and the title. The very next season in Chicago, the return of the Cubs to the postseason turned for the worse in Game 6 of the NLCS, when Luis Castillo of the Marlins lifted a fly ball down the left field foul line at Wrigley Field, in the direction of a Cubs fan named Steve Bartman. In Washington Baker’s Nationals found ways to lose a Division Series in both 2016 and 2017, first to the Dodgers, then to the Cubs.

So there is ample reason for Baker, in what he acknowledged will be his “last hurrah,” to want to manage a winning franchise rather than one needing to be turned around. There’s no denying the strength of Houston’s roster, even after the loss of pitching ace Gerrit Cole; a fact that makes the Astros dalliance with the ugly underbelly of sports even more inexplicable. Perhaps then the franchise and its new manager will be a perfect fit, even if the idea of Baker running the Houston dugout was unimaginable just three weeks ago.

Yet they must still play all the games of the longest season, and anyone not too distracted by the understandably warm feelings generated by Baker’s return might question whether this pairing is ideal, or a perfect mismatch. The Astros climbed to the top of the Great Game by becoming the most modern of franchises, relying heavily on advanced metrics and quantitative analysis of every aspect of performance on the field. Baker is just the opposite, a classicist of the old school, the archetype of a managerial style that has largely fallen out of favor. It’s very easy to imagine the manager and the ballclub mixing about as well as the water in the Houston Ship Channel does with some oil spilled from a barge. Should that prove to be the case Crane will still get what he so badly needs – a figurehead for the coming season possessed of a pristine reputation. But Dusty Baker’s burning desire for a championship as a manager? That might remain a dream deferred.

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