HOUSTON — When he walks into a room, carrying decades of baseball success and a lifetime of baseball cool with him, Dusty Baker immediately “changes the whole vibe,” one of his players said late Saturday night. He might bring donuts, a local cuisine, or maybe pudding to share, and he always has stories. He’s left a rosary for a player and surprised another with a filet from a fresh-caught salmon.
He’s got a gift for finding ways to connect.
Sometimes it’s fish. Sometimes it’s treats. Sometimes it’s lending an ear.
From the start, in Houston, it was giving stability.
“Dusty is an incredible Mount Rushmore-type of baseball figure,” Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. said. “When he got hired here, after the scandal, he gave us such a sense of self and a sense of stability. We got to break through for Dusty, but just as much he was here for us. … He took a job in a tough spot (and said), ‘Listen, I don’t give a (crap) what happened in the past. I’m going to stand here with you guys. We’re going to fight and we’re going to win a World Series.’ Sure enough, it took a couple of years, but here we are.
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“We wanted to do this for him.”
One of the most beloved people in baseball filled a void on his eventual Hall of Fame plaque Saturday night with his first World Series championship as a manager. All it took was leading the most reviled club in baseball to the trophy.
The villains championed a baseball good guy.
Five years after Houston won a title tainted by the sign-stealing scandal that torched the organization’s reputation, the Astros flipped Game 6 on the Phillies and won 4-1 on Saturday night at Minute Maid Park.
Yordan Alvarez’s three-run, 450-foot home run to seats atop the highest wall in center field obliterated the Phillies’ one-run lead in the sixth inning. Houston cruised from there to win the best-of-seven series, four games to two, and raise the World Series trophy in front of the home crowd for the first time in franchise history. For years, that’s been the only crowd to cheer for them.
Since revelations of Houston’s cheating and use of percussion to pass along pitch types to the hitters, they’ve been booed, jeered, and chided on the road, serenaded with the thumping of trash cans at every stop. They had all the makings of a dynasty with four World Series in six years and six consecutive American League Championship Series appearances and yet none of the luster, only skepticism.
Their legacy needed the chemical wash of another title.
“Well, of course we did,” owner Jim Crane said Saturday, confetti scattered nearby. “It’s pretty obvious.”
In the wreckage of the cheating scandal, Crane fired his manager and general manager Jeff Luhnow. A talented and winning core returned to his team, but he needed new leadership to scrub the stink off the organization. Crane said the first time he interviewed Baker he “knew he would work.”
No kidding. Baker brought decades of integrity to an organization that had lost theirs in a few months. It was clear what Houston would get from Baker. But would it be worth Baker sticking his toothpicks into the mess the Astros were entering 2020?
Those toothpicks are now bound for the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Among the goodies collected after Game 6 by officials from Cooperstown were the signature sweatbands Baker wore during Game 6, his jersey from the Astros’ Game 2 victory, and toothpicks from his collection. Presumably, not game-used.
“When the scandal was exposed and then I was hired here, you know, oh, yeah, I felt it was meant to be,” said Baker, a longtime rival of the Cardinals who managed and won division titles with the Giants, Nationals, Cubs, and Reds before Houston. “I definitely thought it was meant to be. Big time.
“We have turned the page and hopefully we’ll continue this run,” Baker continued. “(Crane) wants this feeling, and I like this feeling a lot. When I was a kid, I hated the Celtics because they won too much. I didn’t like the Yankees. But then, when I got to be a player and a manager, I was yearning to be just like the Celtics and Yankees.”
The oldest manager to win a World Series championship, Baker, at 73, had more playoff wins than any other manager without a title and 2,093 regular-season wins in 25 years.
He reached the World Series in 2002 with San Francisco and then lost games 6 and 7. In 2021, he returned to the World Series with Houston and lost to Atlanta in Game 6. He’s talked so much through this October and last about those misses, about his father suggesting he might not get another chance. He had coffee to get and repaired shoes to pick up Saturday morning but revealed later he woke up thinking about how “Game 6 has been my nemesis.”
At the end of it, he was mobbed my coaches and players in a corner of the dugout, jubilant about the win. In the celebration, his wife saw in him what has always been.
“Just pure love for the game,” Melissa Baker said on the field after the trophy presentation. “He always said whether he won or not — and of course he wanted to win — he loves the game, and nothing would change that.”
The tension of Game 6 gathered through five innings as the teams combined for far more strikeouts (13) than baserunners (seven). Philadelphia right-hander Zack Wheeler regained his touch and matched Houston lefty Framber Valdez zero for zero through five innings. Kyle Schwarber tagged a 2-2 sinker from Valdez for a leadoff homer and a 1-0 lead in the sixth inning. That was as quiet as a sellout crowd at Minute Maid Park would get. Silence did not last.
Astros catcher Martin Maldonado crowded the plate on Wheeler to lead off the sixth and drew a pitch inside that clipped his elbow.
Rookie Jeremy Pena, former Cardinal infielder Geronimo Pena’s son, singled up the middle for his second base hit of the game. That hit helped him cap his rookie season with the World Series MVP to pair with his ALCS MVP.
Pena’s single chased Wheeler from the game and proved prelude to the biggest hit yet deep in the heart of Texas. With runners at the corners and one out, Phillies manager Rob Thomson turned to lefty Jose Alvarado to face the left-handed Alvarez. Four pitches later, Alvarez drilled a 98.9-mph sinker to dead-center field.
The home run turned a one-run deficit into a 3-1 game. Christian Vazquez added an RBI single later to widen the lead for a brisk, no-drama ninth inning.
As the final out neared, the Astros once again were a team that knew what was coming.
Out of confidence, not conspiracy.
“People are going to hate us,” McCullers said. “Listen, we put ourselves in that situation. I’m not dancing around it. … We put ourselves in a bad spot, and all we were able to do was claw our way out by winning. We’ve done that year after year now, and I can’t tell people how to feel or what to think about us. Just know, in this locker room, guys have done it the right way and we’ve truly earned this.”
How this era will treat these Astros is yet to be determined. In their favor will be how Baker has treated so many in baseball.
They might never be a loveable team or completely shake free from the scandal, but they will be the team that won a championship for a loveable figure.
“He’s just a joyful human,” coach Gary Pettis said.
The Astros believed a title would change the perception of them.
Maybe it’s actually who they won that title with.
Or, maybe, they don’t care at all, y’all.
“Keeping booing us,” closer Ryan Pressly said. “It doesn’t matter. Keep booing us. Y’all can say what ya’ll want to say, but we’re the best.”