Dusty Baker leads Astros to World Series title

Dusty Baker leads Astros to World Series title

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HOUSTON — As many of the Houston Astros celebrated their World Series championship on the Minute Maid Park field Saturday night, a smaller, just as exuberant celebration broke out in the near corner of the home dugout. It was there that his coaches and players piled on Manager Dusty Baker, who had just won his first World Series title in 30 years of managing with a 4-1 Game 6 win over the Philadelphia Phillies.

In the end, the winning equation was simple: Framber Valdez threw six dominant innings. Yordan Alvarez hit a three-run homer in the sixth to give the Astros a lead. Their dominant bullpen held it. Perhaps, after all that, Baker had endured the difficult part already.

The Astros completed a stunning postseason run in which they lost two games on their way to their second title in six years — their first since the sign-stealing scandal that forced them to clear out their coaching staff, the one that left them in need of a manager capable of weathering inherited storms to come. Jeremy Peña, who had 10 hits and three RBI in 25 at-bats, was the first rookie position player to be named World Series MVP.

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Whether this win qualifies as redemption for the Astros’ tainted 2017 title is a question for the collective baseball consciousness, which can rarely agree on much of anything. But one of the things it does agree on is Baker, a presence beloved around the sport. He is not a perfect manager. He is not a perfect person, something he has brought up many times since taking over here. The Astros made mistakes, he says. But so has every single person that boos them, and so has he.

Fortunately, baseball does not reward perfection. It rewards resilience. It unearths truth. And the truth about Baker, three decades into his managerial career, is that few people in this game are as universally respected — as constantly, consistently, kind.

As the rest of the industry rooted for him, Baker trained himself not to need a title. He had come to terms with a legacy that didn’t include one; he said no one would make him feel like a failure, not with 2,093 regular season wins to his name — ninth most all-time, trailing only Hall of Famers.

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But he didn’t take new jobs, again and again, just to put himself in a position to be fired, to answer questions about every decision, to be told he wasn’t analytical enough to handle this data-driven era. No, Baker always had a feeling that fate played a role in this, that something bigger was at work. And for years, he was left to hope that whatever that something was, it would lead him here eventually. When Kyle Tucker caught the final out Saturday night, Baker became the oldest manager to win a World Series title, at 73.

Baker hadn’t been on the verge of a title like this in 20 years. The Astros never got within a win of a title last season. But on Saturday, he did the usual pregame handshaking of friends and celebrities, adding country star George Strait to his long, long list of famous acquaintances. He leaned on the cage during Astros batting practice, and as usual, several people made their way over to lean with him, just to chat.

And he admitted that he was holding back emotion. At times in his pregame news conference, he seemed nervous. At other times, such as when he described the support he feels from African Americans around Houston and the sport, when he talked about the responsibility that comes with his role as the most visible Black manager in baseball history, one for which he never asked.

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He talked about souls that came before him. With each passing season, he watched friends and loved ones go, watched younger men leave the sport or die, watched the game move into an era in which he sometimes thought he had no place. Earlier this postseason, Baker speculated that he might have “10 to 12 more years” left, and the implication was that he meant on Earth, not merely in the sport. He has never shied away from his mortality. But he never let the World Series dream die, either.

His son, Darren, was a 3-year-old batboy the first time he got this chance, too young to know what was happening, small enough for Giants first baseman J.T. Snow to pluck him out of harm’s way in one of the more iconic images of recent baseball history. Darren was there Saturday, too, old enough to share in champagne celebration — old enough to know exactly how much this means.

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Baker started his hunt for a title before Darren was even born. He managed 10 years before he got to his first World Series. That was 20 years ago now, two decades during which Baker wondered whether his decision to pull starting pitcher Russ Ortiz from what could have been a decisive Game 6 would be his World Series legacy. The Giants’ bullpen couldn’t hold the lead Baker handed it.

Valdez was born a few weeks after Baker wrapped up his first season as a manager in 1993. Baker probably wouldn’t have this title without him. The lefty entered Saturday’s start having allowed three total earned runs in three postseason starts this year. He left Saturday having allowed four earned runs in four postseason starts this year. At one point, he struck out the first five batters in the Phillies order in a row, the second lefty in World Series history to do so. The only other was a guy named Sandy Koufax.

But Phillies starter Zack Wheeler matched him nearly every step of the way. They both pitched into the fifth without allowing a runner to get to third base, let alone to score. In fact, it was Valdez who blinked first when he allowed a no-doubt homer to Kyle Schwarber in the sixth. Then the Astros put two men on in the bottom of the inning. Now it was Rob Thomson who had to decide how best to hold a lead in a potentially decisive World Series game — to stick with Wheeler, who had been dominant, or to go to his top reliever and cross his fingers.

And it was Thomson who would be left wondering for years to come what might have been because the first batter Jose Alvarado faced was Yordan Alvarez. Alvarez hit a three-run homer 450 feet to center field. Baker was nine outs away.

When Alvarez got back to the dugout, Baker was down at the end furthest from home plate, a different spot than normal. Alvarez made his way all the way down, climbed the steps, and shared a high-five with Baker that might well have been the most vehement either man had ever shared in his life. Legend has it Baker invented that move during his playing days. Baker’s life has never been short on legend. In fact, it hadn’t been short on much of anything — save a World Series win as a manager.

The curse got his promising Cubs in the 2003 NLCS. His Reds were never quite complete enough. The Nationals twice pushed division series showings to five games on his watch, but they fell a hit or a play or a break short both times.

The second time, in 2017, ownership would not work out a contract extension ahead of the playoffs. After the Nationals lost Game 5, he waited a few days to wrap up a deal. It didn’t happen, so he flew back to California assuming it would happen there instead. He got a phone call, not a contract. And he found himself out of a job at 70, torn from the team he thought would finally get him the title he desired. Two years later, he watched one of his mentees, Dave Martinez, lead them to it instead.

A week or so ago, Nationals owner Mark Lerner called him to congratulate him, to wish him well. This is Baker’s experience in the sport he loves, treasured until he isn’t, cast aside at the whims of a fickle sport. But that fickle sport gave him one last complicated chance when the Astros needed a fresh start. And as fate would have it, that last chance came with one of the most successful organizations in the sport. Had the Nationals not fired him, had the scandal never happened … well, Baker learned long ago that what he wanted wasn’t always going to be what he got, nor always what he needed.

But on Saturday, Baker got the title he wanted, the title everyone said he needed. The quest that has consumed most of his later adult life is complete. But Baker has always insisted that if he won one World Series, he would win two. After all that, he will be happy to have a chance to test the theory.

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