Baker Agonistes

Dusty Baker

Even people who still despise the Astros can’t bring themselves to wish ill upon post-Astrogate manager Dusty Baker.

Tuesday night won’t be virgin territory for the Astros. Two years ago, they came home to play out a World Series in the hole 3-2, too. That was then: They lost twice to the Nationals, who’d beaten them in Games One and Two in Houston as well.

This is now: Having the home field advantage hasn’t exactly helped the Astros yet. They split Games One and Two in Minute Maid Park. Then, they lost two of three to the Braves in Atlanta. They may have put a sanguine public face on approaching Game Six, but second baseman Jose Altuve isn’t exactly ready to pull the champagne corks just yet.

“I don’t feel like going home is any guarantee,” he told ESPN’s Jeff Passan. “We’ve got to go out there and fight. It’s not like, OK, we go home, we got them. No. We’re playing a really, really good team. Those guys take really good at-bats, they know how to pitch, they can do everything. And we got to go out there and fight.”

The Astros lost that 2019 Series a fortnight before the Astrogate whistle was blown at last. They’ve played since with the justly-earned reputation for having been baseball’s most egregious and extreme electronic cheaters, and they haven’t always helped their own cause trying to move past it since.

One minute, they’ve embraced the villain role. The next, they’ve seemed as close to contrite as you’d expect of any team who first thought their well-exposed competitive amorality wasn’t as big a deal as everyone else made it.

Altuve’s sober realism about returning the Series home to one side, Passan has it right when he observes that embracing the bad-guys role goes only so far: “[W]hile some may see the Astros’ use of others’ loathing as backward—the reaction to your misdeed becoming a source of fuel is rather twisted—what’s the alternative?”

One alternative would be winning a World Series to climax a postseason in which the Astros really have played it straight, no chaser. So far. Disdain and contempt will remain attached to them until the last Astrogate team member no longer wears an Astros uniform. That a genuinely great team went rogue above and beyond is nobody’s fault but theirs.

The Truist Park crowds in Atlanta serenaded Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Correa with singsong chants of “Cheater! Cheater!” every time those three checked in at the plate. (It’s to wonder why the fourth member of the remaining Astrogate infield, first baseman Yuli Gurriel, escaped the serenades.) Those crowds didn’t hammer the entire team over the transgressions of the few remaining. To their eternal credit.

Nobody’s suspected or come up with any evidence that the Astros have been up to no good this fall. They blew the White Sox out of a division series after getting blown out in Game Three. They overthrew the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series after a 13-3 blowout put the Red Sox up 2-1 in the set. They answered Braves center fielder Adam Duvall’s nuke of a first-inning grand slam to beat the Braves 9-5 in Game Five Sunday night and force the World Series back to Minute Maid Park. Straight, no chaser.

But they enter Game Six with a couple of red flags flying regardless. Just what was manager Dusty Baker thinking when he sent Jose Urquidy out to pitch the Game Five fourth, when he had enough capable and available bullpen arms and really needed Urquidy to start Game Six?

Did Baker thus force himself to roll the wrong dice starting Luis Garcia on short rest against a fully-rested Max Fried, whom the Astros pecked apart early but without quite nuking him in Game Two?

Did Baker—who steadied the Astrogate-broiled clubhouse when coming aboard in its immediate wake; whose long and winning resume, historic shortfalls, and personal respect made him the sentimental favourite to win it all at last—really sacrifice a season to send set back to Houston?

Was Baker being canny in Game Five? Too clever by half? Does he know something about Rock-a-Bye-Samba Garcia that nobody else knows yet? Or, will Game Six end up another entry in Baker’s too long, too sad, often rotten-luck roll of postseason fate?

His critics often say he should have known better. His admirers say he’s been as much a victim of surrealistic dumb luck as anything else. Baker is either a big-hearted overthinker or the one-man resurrection of every hard luck team that ever reached the mountaintop and tripped to the rocks on the Jordan’s banks.

The man who’s managed more winning games than any skipper who’s never won a World Series is either Gene Mauch redux; or, he’s a one-man 1908 Giants, 1960 Yankees, 1969 Cubs, 1978 and 1986 Red Sox, 1987 Blue Jays, 2006-07 Mets, and almost every St. Louis Brown or Washington Senator, ever.

2002 World Series, Game Six: Baker lifted his Giants starter Russ Ortiz after the Anaheim Angels (as they were known then) swatted a pair of singles to open the bottom of the seventh with the Giants leading 5-0. With all good intention and heart, Baker handed Ortiz the “game ball” before turning it over to Felix Rodriguez. The Angels weren’t exactly indifferent to that.

Bing! Scott Spiezio hit a prompt three-run homer. The Angels finished handing the Giants’ pen their heads on plates to win at the eleventh hour, then won Game Seven decisively.

2003 National League Championship Series Game Six: Baker’s Cubs stood five outs from the World Series in the top of the eighth. He left a gassed starter Mark Prior in to take it on the chin and off a shortstop’s double play error, opening up what proved an eight-run Marlins eighth.

Then, in Game Seven, Baker inexplicably let Kerry Wood live long enough to surrender seven runs as the Marlins went to the World Series they’d win in six.

Baker’s often been accused of managing certain postseason games as though he’s just taking regular-season target practise against his league’s also-rans. But it wasn’t exactly his fault that his 2017 Nationals lost NLDS Game Five after swapping wins the first four games with the Cubs, either.

He didn’t ask Max Scherzer in relief to surrender a two-run double before Matt Wieters turned a passed ball into a ghastly run-scoring throwing error up the first base line. He didn’t ask Max the Knife to hit a batter with the bases loaded to finish that four-run Cubs seventh, leading to the 9-8 Cubs win.

That doesn’t exactly keep the second guessers in line, of course. I’ve second-guessed Baker often enough in the past, and I know it wasn’t his fault that that inning swallowed him alive—and cost him his job. He’s taken five different teams to postseasons; he’s been fired after 90+ win teams he managed ended postseasons in agony.

There are reasons teams have turned to him over the years, especially the one that wandered into scandal all by itself and needed an untainted human to take their game bridge, while they remade/remodeled the front office almost completely, and figure out how to steer them past it without being buried by it.

It hasn’t been perfect by any means. Baker didn’t look great at this season’s beginning, when road fans now allowed back to the ballparks after the 2020 pan-damn-ic absences trolled his Astros to make up for lost outrage time, and Baker played the whatabout card in return. He was better than that, he knew better than that, and we knew better than that.

The Astros needed heart, dignity, class, and soul to lead them out of their self-inflicted disgrace. That’s why they turned to Baker last year. But one of his 2003 Cubs, Doug Glanville, outfielder turned instructive and respected ESPN writer, has isolated perhaps the best reason Baker now has one more chance to land that ever-elusive claim to the Promised Land.

“Dusty always had time to talk to players to bring them together,” Glanville began, in a piece he published the day before World Series Game Five.

It was a priority that he not only get the biographical notes of your life, but he wanted to put himself in your shoes. Listen to your music, read about your perspective and embrace your culture. Not just as a company-wide initiative but as an evolution of life. He lets you change him, openly trying to grow. And he pushes you to do the same.

These were life lessons, not just baseball lessons. He wanted to take the gift of a lifetime of playing baseball and share it to make us all better. It went way beyond learning how to hit a curve ball or figuring out when Greg Maddux was going to throw his back-up slider. This was real life, and teammates were family. Every day was a celebration, a chance to get together over something joyous. And he was the Godfather, inheriting sons with the humility to know he can learn from them just as much as he can impart his own wisdom.

Does this make a manager better at running a bullpen or using his bench? I can’t say. But 18 years after I played for him, I still apply the lessons I learned from him as a father and a husband.

The Astros could force this World Series to a seventh game. They’d still have to win that. And Altuve is right when he suggests these Braves are no pushovers, no matter how Game Five shook out.

You may think still that an Astro loss would be nothing less than extraterrestrial justice. But you may think as well what a shame it would be that Baker has to be on the bridge incurring it if it happens. And you’d be right.

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