Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 6, 2022

A Ring For Dusty

On a breezy April evening in 1993, the visiting San Francisco Giants squared off against the St. Louis Cardinals at what is now known as Busch Stadium II.  The Cardinals home for four decades until it was replaced in 2005 by a newer facility which shares part of the same footprint, the stadium sat just west of the Mississippi River, a short walk from the city’s most famous symbol, the Gateway Arch.  The Giants had endured back-to-back losing seasons, which led to the resignation of the team’s general manager and the firing of field skipper Roger Craig at the end of the 1992 campaign.  That December, new GM Bob Quinn had named Dusty Baker as the Giants new manager. 

San Francisco got the new campaign off to a good start for the rookie manager, who after a 19-year playing career, the prime of which was spent at Dodger Stadium, had served on the Giants coaching staff for the five previous seasons.  Barry Bonds, signed away from the Pirates in free agency the same month Baker was hired, plated the winning run with a 7th inning sacrifice fly in a 2-1 San Francisco victory.  Win number one on Baker’s managerial resume was little noticed at the time, as was the success of St. Louis’s leadoff batter, who reached base in all four of his plate appearances.  With two singles and a pair of walks, Geronimo Pena ended day one of the longest season with a perfect 1.000 batting average and on base percentage.  Pena was then a 25-year-old who was midway through a 7-year career as a part-time utility player, bouncing back and forth between AAA and the big leagues in most of those seasons.

Pena’s Opening Day exploits were long forgotten by October, but Baker’s acumen in the dugout had garnered widespread respect by the end of that season.  The Giants finished 103-59, the second best record in the majors and a huge improvement over the previous year’s 72-90 record.  Unfortunately for fans in San Francisco, MLB’s best record that season belonged to another NL West team, Atlanta.  In the days of just two divisions in each league and no Wild Card teams in the playoffs, the Giants finished one game behind Atlanta and didn’t qualify for the postseason.  Instead, the franchise and its supporters had to settle for a pair of individual awards, with Bond winning his third NL MVP prize and Baker being named the senior circuit’s Manager of the Year.

The Giants manager turned 44 in the middle of that season, an age that then and now is on the young side for someone handed the reins of a big league club.  This June Baker celebrated his 73rd birthday by guiding the Houston Astros, the fifth team he has managed, to a 9-2 win over the Texas Rangers.  For the man who is now the oldest skipper in the majors, it was the 2,025th regular season addition to that initial managerial triumph nearly three decades ago.  That win total climbed to 2,093 by season’s end, as Houston ran away with the AL West title.  When the Astros swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs, edging the Mariners in a Division Series that despite the sweep could easily have tipped the other way, before crushing the Yankees in the ALCS, the American League’s dominant franchise of the past six years was back on familiar turf, playing in its fourth World Series since 2017.

Of the three previous trips, only the initial one ended with a parade, and Houston’s 2017 championship will forever carry the stench of the cheating scandal that was exposed two years later.  That the malodorous odor still lingers, despite the passage of time and the reality that inevitable roster turnover means with each new season fewer current players were participants in the scheme, is partly jealousy.  Fans love to cheer the unlikely success of an underdog, which Houston was, once upon a time.  But too much success breeds a different emotion, as fans beyond southeast Texas wonder when it will be their favorite franchise’s turn to climb to the top of the podium.  But for many fans the initial anger has also sunk deep roots because of a sense that the Astros got away with it, a viewpoint based largely on the fact that no active players were punished.      

Although Jose Altuve may hear jeers at road games for as long as he plays, fans everywhere understood that Baker was brought in as manager before the 2020 season specifically because his reputation was the opposite of the dark image that clung to the Houston franchise.  Those fans also knew that Baker arrived with a resume that included the most regular season wins by any manager in MLB history with a World Series ring.  That number continued to grow through three successful seasons in the Astros dugout, campaigns that included a loss to Atlanta in last year’s Series.  That was Baker’s second chance at the Great Game’s ultimate prize.  The first came in his last year at San Francisco’s helm, when the Giants took a three games to two lead into Anaheim for the final two contests of the 2002 World Series.  But the Angels came from behind in both Game 6 and Game 7 to deny the Giants and Baker.

At last came this year’s Series, with Baker, now the oldest manager in the Great Game, leading Houston back to baseball’s final matchup once again.  In the end, of course, a manager can only do so much.  Games are decided by the players on the field.  Over the course of this year’s Series, the most valuable of those players was Houston’s shortstop, Jeremy Pena.  The award closed a circle in Baker’s career, for the Astros rookie is the son of the utility infielder who so effectively batted leadoff for St. Louis against Baker’s San Francisco squad all those years ago.    

But if Baker couldn’t come out of the dugout and bat or throw, neither was he just another spectator.  After arguably sticking too long with Justin Verlander in Game 1, Baker’s management of his pitching staff was largely impeccable.  One can’t blame the manager if Lance McCullers Jr. was tipping his pitches in Game 3, and in any event since Houston’s hitters failed to plate a single run that game was effectively over after Bryce Harper’s 1st inning home run.  Down the stretch, Baker’s starters stifled the Phillies and his calls to the Houston bullpen were perfect.  And now, after 2,093 regular season victories, the one person wearing an Astros uniform who fans everywhere can cheer for, finally has a ring.

The end of Dusty Baker’s long wait means fans must move a few hundred career wins down the list to find the new owner of the unwanted title of active manager with the most wins without a championship.  That would be Buck Showalter of the Mets, with 1,652, followed by Bob Melvin of the Padres, with 1,435 regular season victories.  Since both franchises made this postseason and clearly have designs on a title in the very near future, perhaps fans of those clubs should take heart.  Maybe the gods of the Great Game are looking kindly on ending managerial title droughts.  But fair warning – don’t be surprised if the road to a championship runs through Houston.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: