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The Coronation of Dusty Baker

The Houston Astros are World Series champions again. They did it by rallying around their beloved manager.

Dusty Baker in 1974, as a member of the Atlanta Braves. Nearly 50 years later, Baker won his first World Series as a manager with the Houston Astros.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons (Unknown Author)

By Matt Spaulding

Growing up, Johnnie B. Baker Jr. loved to play outside. His father had a large backyard, and he enjoyed playing in a large dirt spot in the middle. Seeing this, his mother, not wanting to call him “Dirty,” picked an alternative for her baseball-loving son; Dusty. The name has stuck ever since, and finally, on a November night in Houston in 2022, after a lifetime of playing in the dirt, Dusty Baker won his first World Series as a manager.

It's been quite a ride for the 73-year-old. Growing up in Riverside, Calif., Baker almost quit sports due to his eccentric temper, which often landed him in trouble with his father and coach, Johnnie Sr.

In 1967, Baker was drafted directly out of high school by the Atlanta Braves, who gave the legendary Hank Aaron the task of convincing Baker to sign with the club, which he eventually did. Only a year later, as a 19-year-old, Dusty was playing Major League Baseball. Dusty had a strong seven years in Atlanta, and there he began a theme of associating himself with some amazing moments.

On April 8, 1974, at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, as Hank Aaron struck a 1-0 Al Downing fastball into the left-center field bullpen to become the home run king, who stood on deck but Dusty Baker.

After the 1975 season, Baker was shipped back home, to play for his childhood team, the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the latter half of the 1970s, Baker established himself as a strong offensive force, slapping 30 home runs in 1977. On the final day of that season, Baker was a part of another historical moment, although this one wasn’t quite baseball related. On that final day of the season, Baker hit his 30th and final home run of the season.

This made the Dodgers the first team in baseball history to have four batters with 30 home runs. Baker and his teammates were elated to celebrate the feat. As Baker returned to the dugout, his teammate, Glenn Burke, waiting on deck, held his hand above his head. Baker, confused by this move, reached up and slapped it. Thus, the first-ever “high five” was documented. That’s right. Dusty Baker invented the high five.

1977 proved to be a great season for Dusty, as his strong playoff performances led to him being named NLCS MVP. In ‘77, and ‘78 however, Baker’s Dodgers fell just short of the Yankees in the World Series. Dusty’s strong play in Dodger Blue continued into the next decade, as he won the Silver Slugger Award in 1980, and was named to the National League All-Star team in 1981 and ‘82. He also picked up that coveted World Series, as the Dodgers avenged previous losses to the Yankees with a 6-game victory in 1981. Dusty’s career began to wind down following his 1982 All-Star campaign. After 1983, he joined the San Francisco Giants, and he closed out his career in 1986 across the bay in Oakland.

But this wasn’t the end of Dusty’s story; the years in between Dusty’s time as a player and a manager is not dissimilar to the intermission of the American classic Gone With The Wind. When the intermission for that movie happens, you find yourself excited, waiting to see what’s going to happen next and see how the story develops before your eyes. The same can be said for Dusty, whose excitable personality and passion for the game made him a terrific candidate to lead a baseball team.

After landing a job as the first base coach, then hitting coach for the San Francisco Giants, he became just the seventh black man to manage an MLB team on December 16th, 1992, when they promoted him. In his first season, despite missing the playoffs, Baker was named NL Manager Of The Year, alluding to his significant potential on the bench. Dusty worked hard to establish the Giants as a contender throughout the 90s, winning the division title in 1997 and 2000, and winning Manager Of The Year again in both seasons.

In 2002, it looked like Dusty had finally reached the promised land. His 95-win Giants, led by Barry Bonds, marched to the World Series but suffered a crushing defeat in seven games. After that season, Dusty left to manage the Chicago Cubs, who were trying to win their first World Series in nearly 100 years. In Baker’s first season, the infamous Steve Bartman play led to the Cubs’ NLCS collapse, and Baker would not reach the same heights again in the Windy City, leaving after 2006.

Two stints with the Cincinnati Reds and Washington Nationals did not prove fruitful for the aging Baker, who regularly made the playoffs, but simply could not get over the hump to make it back to the Fall Classic. In 2017, after managing the Washington Nationals to a 95-win season, the team collapsed in the deciding game of the NLDS, and the finger was pointed at Baker. After all, Dusty was beginning to pick up a reputation as a choker in the playoffs.

After the Baker lost the World Series with the Giants in 2002, his teams developed a knack for blowing series-clinching playoff games. 2017’s failure was just the latest on a list of playoff shortcomings. Nationals ownership had enough of the failure, and Baker was fired. In 2019, the Nationals won the World Series, proving their point in the short term.

Baker spent two years on his property in California, wondering if he’d ever get a shot at that elusive World Series crown. He was crushed when he was one of three finalists for the Philadelphia Phillies job in early 2020 but ended up overlooked in favor of former Yankee manager Joe Girardi.

Enter the Houston Astros

The 2017 season signaled a turn in fate for both Dusty Baker and the Houston Astros franchise, although those turns went in opposite directions. While Baker collapsed in the playoffs again, the Astros completed a textbook roster rebuild to win their first World Series in 7 games. That championship, however, was not without controversy. In late 2019, it became public knowledge that the Astros had used video cameras to signal what type of pitch was coming to their batters.

They used this during the entire 2017 season, as well as during 2018. As a result of the following investigation, the Astros faced fines and draft pick forfeitures, but most importantly, had to part ways with their general manager, Jeff Luhnow, and manager A.J. Hinch, two crucial pieces of the organization’s sustained success in the past decade. In short, heading into 2020, the Astros had an identity crisis. Widely lambasted by players and fans across the league for their cheating, the team had to scramble to find a manager who could right the ship. Only someone who had the unmitigated respect of the baseball world, a man who could garner the utmost respect from the players and fans, could be the answer. After two years out of the game, the 70-year-old with something left to prove had found a home.

The COVID-shortened 2020 season was the first base to pass. With the season starting in late July, and a depleted roster, the Astros were not expected to make the playoffs. Led by Baker, the team snuck into the Wild Card round, and ended up advancing to the ALCS, falling one game short of the World Series.

One year later, they won 95 games and made it to the Fall Classic, where they met the 88-win Atlanta Braves as the strong favorites. Dusty’s ‘Stros were stunned, falling in 6. Baker had finally made it back to a World Series, but once again failed when he was just inches away from climbing the mountaintop.

Entering 2022, Dusty Baker knew it was the final year of his contract. If his Astros didn’t get it done, would this be it for him? Would the Astros bring him back, and if they didn’t, would anyone else want him? In his age 73 season, Baker managed one of his best seasons yet, as the Astros stormed through the American League, winning 106 games and sweeping the Aaron Judge-led Yankees to make it back to the World Series.

Who would they face in that series but the team that rejected Baker’s services three years earlier, the Philadelphia Phillies? After Philly took a 2-1 series lead, it looked like all momentum was headed toward a Phillies title. What did Dusty’s boys do the night after Game 4? Only throw a combined no-hitter to even the series. They took Game 5 in Philly and headed back to Houston with a chance to finally clinch Dusty’s ring at home.

Baker had already won a ring as a player, but this one would mean something different. After nearly 30 years as a skipper in the MLB, he was hunting for something he deserved, something he worked so hard for day in and day out. Dusty devoted his life to baseball, and it was time for baseball to pay him back.

In Game 6, the Phillies took a 1-0 lead, but in the 6th inning, Astros slugger Yordan Alvarez pulverized a ball into the center field seats, giving Houston a 3-1 lead they would not look back on.

With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Phillies RF Nick Castellanos stepped to the plate, knowing it was down to him. Astros closer Ryan Pressly faced him and got him to pop the first pitch up down the right-field line. The ball was clearly in play from the Astros dugout, where Dusty Baker stood. He knew that this was going to be the final out, that he was finally going to achieve his dream, but what did he do?

Without an ounce of emotion, the humble Baker took his pencil and marked ‘F9’ in his scorebook, indicating a fly out to the right fielder. As the ball popped into the glove, a half dozen of Baker’s teammates mobbed him. There was no doubt, this World Series ring was for Dusty.

Matt Spaulding is a writer for The Voice.

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