Six summers ago, I walked into a downtown Chicago hotel room to the sight of Dusty Baker ironing his pants in his boxers and a T-shirt.
Baker was managing the Washington Nationals, and I had stopped by his hotel for an interview in June 2016 about his career and a budding rivalry with the Chicago Cubs.
After such a painful ending in Chicago 10 years earlier, Baker really wasn’t interested in reliving the past.
“The Cubs? It’s kind of a faint memory to me, especially when things don’t end the way you want them to end,” he said. “And the way I was booed at the end. Why would I try to remember that? Every time I walked out on the field I’d get booed. My wife was afraid for me. She didn’t want me to go out by myself, to a bar or anything.”
Baker may have tried to forget his Chicago days, but those who knew him from that time never forgot him — or stopped rooting for him. That’s why it was so inspiring to wake up Sunday morning after the Houston Astros gave him his long-sought championship with a Game 6 win over the Philadelphia Phillies and read all the tributes to Baker on social media.
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“I am SO happy for my friend Dusty Baker,” former Cubs media relations director Sharon Pannozzo wrote on Facebook. “One of the finest human beings I have ever met.”
“You may not like the Astros, but to me, Dusty is a special man,” WBEZ reporter Cheryl Raye-Stout wrote.
It took Baker 3,884 regular-season games over 25 seasons to become a World Series-winning manager. The wait was worth it.
“The Hall of Fame is waiting for you,” former White Sox manager Ozzie Guillén tweeted. “Enjoy every second of it.”
Doug Glanville and many other former players of Baker chimed in, as well as dozens of beat writers who covered the manager’s teams. Baker is the George Bailey of baseball, the richest man in town.
It’s not an exaggeration to say he was deposed at four stops — coming to bitter endings in San Francisco, Chicago, Cincinnati and Washington before winding up in Houston. He remained friends with many of the writers who chronicled his demise in those cities, never holding it against them for writing he was on the hot seat and about to be fired.
Looking back on the Tribune’s coverage of the Cubs’ 2006 season, we began writing his time was up at the Cubs Convention in January. When first baseman Derrek Lee suffered a season-ending wrist injury in late April, it virtually ended their postseason chances, and the only question left was whether Baker would be fired by the All-Star break.
It must have been tough to deal with, but Baker handled it like a pro. This, remember, was a guy who went out of his way to absolve Steve Bartman of blame for the Game 6 loss in the 2003 National League Championship Series after the Cubs fan reached out over the wall and tried to catch a foul ball that left fielder Moises Alou pretended was catchable.
Baker told us afterward he was more determined to win in 2004 and wanted Bartman to ride shotgun next to him in the victory parade when the Cubs won it all. That 2003 Cubs team started an era when Wrigley Field was the place to be. The team sold 572,000 tickets on the first day of sales that winter, and every game was treated like a playoff game.
The 2004 season spelled the end for Baker in Chicago. The fighting between players and broadcasters Chip Caray and Steve Stone, as well as a late-season collapse that dropped the Cubs out of the National League wild-card race in the final week, combined to make Baker an unpopular figure and a target for sports-radio callers.
Injuries to Kerry Wood and Mark Prior were blamed on Baker, who said he felt like a “fall guy” for the pitchers’ problems.
“Prior and Wood, that’s all I hear about,” he told me in 2016. “Where was my pitching coach, Larry Rothschild, in this whole equation? People think I was the pitching coach, the everything coach. That was one of the saddest days in my life when they told me about Mark Prior’s (shoulder injury) when I got to spring training (in 2004).
“I was like, why did we just find out when we got there in springtime? Then I had to go along with the lie about his Achilles hurt and all that. They were like, ‘We’re trying to protect you.’ I said, ‘Don’t protect me, I’m grown.’ The truth protects. Sooner or later it was going to get exposed.”
Wood always defended Baker, and in a 2016 Sports Illustrated story Prior did as well.
“(Fans) believe that he overused me in 2003 and blah, blah, blah,” Prior wrote. “Only, here’s the thing: I don’t blame Dusty for what happened to me. I wouldn’t change a single thing that happened during that season — beyond us failing to bring a World Series championship to Chicago, of course. No matter how many pitches I threw, I never asked to come out of a game — doing so would have been unthinkable.”
Baker never escaped the blame for the Cubs’ failure to win in his four years in Chicago. If Tony La Russa thought he was mistreated by White Sox fans this season, it was nothing like what Baker went through the last three years of his four-year stint on the North Side.
The Cubs began spending after Baker left and went to the postseason twice under Lou Piniella. And then Cubs President Crane Kenney threw Baker under the bus at the 2009 Cubs Convention.
“If you think about the team that won in ‘07, does that team win with our former manager?” Kenney told the crowd. “Not a chance.”
Baker was booed every time he was at Wrigley Field when he managed the Reds, and the animosity continued when he wound up in Washington. That stint also ended badly, in spite of Baker’s on-field success.
Then the Astros called in 2020, looking for someone to help take the heat off players involved in the cheating scandal.
“I didn’t think I’d get another shot (after the Nationals fired him in 2017), not with age and salary discrimination, which go hand in hand usually,” he told me last year. “And there’s always some kind of racial discrimination, no matter what color you are. Depends on who is doing the hiring.
“The way I look at it, God didn’t want me to go home yet. This was the door that was open to me, one that looked like it was impossible to open.”
Once the door was opened, Baker took full advantage — and now he’s a World Series champion at 73.
Could the 2022 Astros have won with any other manager?
Not a chance.