Turns out you can have a smile as wide as a Texan freeway even with a toothpick doing somersaults in your mouth.
For much of his long and distinguished managerial career, Dusty Baker has chomped minty sticks as a healthier alternative to chewing tobacco, taken teams to the postseason, and not won the World Series. You can scratch that last part now.
Baker has been one of the most popular figures in baseball for decades, which is a central reason why he was hired by baseball’s most unpopular team. Yet his was one of those managerial careers better known for the one achievement missing from his resumé than for his many accomplishments.
Not any more. Grinning broadly, he bounded up the dugout steps at Minute Maid Park to join in with the on-field cavorting after his Houston Astros clinched a 4-2 World Series win over the Philadelphia Phillies on Saturday with a 4-1 victory in Game Six.
The retirement of Tony La Russa means that the 73-year-old Baker is the oldest manager in the majors – and the most senior ever to win the World Series. This was his 12th trip to the postseason as a manager and his seventh in a row (with the Cincinnati Reds in 2012-13, Washington Nationals in 2016-17 and Astros in 2020-22).
Yet he’s been viewed as a tragicomic protagonist: a victim of bad luck and poor choices, a nice guy who doesn’t quite finish first. That narrative dates back 20 years, when Baker’s San Francisco Giants were eight outs from their first World Series title since relocating to the Bay Area.
He pulled the dominant pitcher Russ Ortiz in the seventh inning with a 5-0 lead and the Giants fumbled and failed, losing 6-5 to the Anaheim Angels, who then won Game Seven to pinch the title. Fairly or not – Ortiz had just given up back-to-back singles and thrown 98 pitches – Baker was blamed and his contract was not renewed.
It didn’t help that as Ortiz walked off the mound, Baker handed him the ball as a souvenir - a moment of kindness later spun into a supposed act of disrespect that was fuel to Anaheim’s fire, though as NBC Sports pointed out in 2020, no one seemed to think so at the time.
Baker headed to the Chicago Cubs, who disintegrated on the brink of overcoming the Florida Marlins in the 2003 National League Championship Series when a fan named Steve Bartman interfered with a potential catch. With characteristic empathy, Baker showed sympathy for Bartman, who went into hiding and required police protection.
Last year the Astros reached the World Series and had the stronger-looking roster but were deservedly beaten by the Atlanta Braves, who concluded a 4-2 series triumph with a humbling 7-0 win in Houston.
So there was a certain dramatic neatness, an ironic closing of the circle, in the way Saturday’s clash was decided: a second-guessable decision by the other manager. With the visitors leading 1-0 in the sixth inning, Philadelphia’s Rob Thomson removed his ace, Zack Wheeler, who’d only given up three hits and thrown 70 pitches.
Scuffling Houston outfielder Yordan Álvarez promptly launched his first home run in 42 at-bats off José Alvarado, a three-run, 450ft Tyrannosaurus of a hit. The Astros added another run, a noisy but edgy crowd suddenly knew catharsis and rapture and the Phillies’ spirit was smashed.
Even the Phillies’ slugging star Kyle Schwarber, who’d given them the advantage with a home run off the otherwise excellent starting pitcher Framber Valdez, was discombobulated enough to try a two-strike bunt with no one on base. So the Astros became the first team to clinch on home soil since the 2013 Boston Red Sox and the star-crossed sporting city of Philadelphia missed out on two titles in one evening, this result coming after the Philadelphia Union lost the MLS Cup final on penalties.
A survivor of prostate cancer who had a mini-stroke in 2012, Baker, who was born in California, made three World Series appearances as a player, winning with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981. An outfielder, he played in 2,039 games over 19 years, making his debut for Atlanta in 1968. The Astros are his fifth team in a management adventure that began with the Giants in 1993.
This result gives him 51 postseason wins, placing him fourth all-time behind Joe Torre, Bobby Cox and La Russa. He is the third African American manager to win a World Series, after Dave Roberts in 2020 and Cito Gaston in 1992-93 – and this in a finale with no US-born Black players on either team for the first time since 1950. “There was pressure from a lot of people… pulling for me,’’ Baker told reporters, “especially people of colour. And that part I do feel. I hear it every day.”
After losing out on the Phillies gig to Joe Girardi, Baker was hired by Houston in January 2020 to replace AJ Hinch. Hinch was axed amid the sign-stealing scandal that broke in late 2019, has stained their 2017 World Series win and means their sustained excellence elicits as much scorn and suspicion as respect and admiration beyond this corner of Texas.
Baker thought his managerial days were over before the Astros got in touch. “I didn’t even get a phone call for two years” after being fired by Washington, he told the New York Times in 2020.
As Baker has acknowledged, he inherited a pretty good team. An Astros side that lost shortstop Carlos Correa to free agency this year replaced him with Jeremy Peña, a preternaturally composed rookie who was named World Series MVP. Álvarez and Kyle Tucker have blossomed. And Justin Verlander, who’ll turn 40 in February and missed all of 2021 after Tommy John surgery, finally won when it matters most, ending a strange streak of World Series futility with victory in Game Five.
Years of low-budget tanking – three seasons with at least 106 losses from 2011-2013 – gave Houston the financial space and high draft picks to set the stage for success. Then they maintained it with methodical and tech-savvy scouting and development. And by engaging Baker, which has proved an on-field masterstroke as well as a smart PR move for a tarnished brand. He inspires individuals with carefully-tailored encouragement, as generous and wise as the favourite teacher you remember from school.
With 2,093 regular-season wins he’s not short of know-how, even if – as likely to talk about destiny and purpose as spout statistics – he appears something of a throwback in an era when baseball is in thrall to analytics and trusts cold data more than hot instincts. “I feel that I’ve been chosen for this,” he said on Saturday night.
Still, it would be overstating matters to assert that Baker has restored Houston’s reputation: for opposition fans, loathing the Astros seems to be a product without an expiry date. That may be because some of the players were strikingly unrepentant about the cheating scheme. Another factor is that their ongoing prosperity hasn’t given the baseball world much space for some conscious uncoupling from José Altuve and associates.
With the club in its fourth World Series in six seasons after six straight American League Championship Series appearances, this Astros side feels contiguous with the vinegar-flavoured 2017 vintage, even though only five players remain from that team. If the New York Yankees, say, were in the middle of such a fine run, the word “dynasty” would receive a more liberal airing.
“I’m tired of hearing it. ‘He doesn’t do this, he doesn’t do that.’ All I heard about what I can’t do,” Baker told the Fox post-game broadcast. “But my mom and dad taught me perseverance. And you gotta persevere, you gotta believe in yourself.”
Now he is out of contract. What’s next, wondered an interviewer on a hastily-assembled infield dais after the smoke from the fireworks had dissipated and glittering confetti flitted like a fleet of fireflies above the diamond. “Party!” Baker beamed. No one in Houston had any intention of questioning that call.