Dusty Baker: A Legend Finally Gets His Moment

From a New York Times story by Tyler Kepner headlined “A Legend Finally Gets His Moment”:

For all of Darren Baker’s life, his father had chased a championship. That was Dusty Baker’s job, from San Francisco to Chicago to Cincinnati to Washington to Houston, and he always did it quite well. He just never got the ending right.

The harshest came in 2002 when Darren was a three-year-old bat boy, bawling in his father’s arms in the dugout after Game 7 of the World Series in Anaheim, Calif. Now he is a minor league infielder — a peer, of sorts, with his famous father. They never talk about what’s been missing.

“It was unsaid,” Darren Baker said on Saturday night at Minute Maid Park. “Just me kind of being in the same field, I understand it. You don’t do this for any other reason. I get it. The stars kind of have to line up for you to win.”

The stars, on this night, were big and bright at last: Jose Altuve hustling to beat out a double-play grounder in the sixth inning, Jeremy Peña following with a single, Yordan Alvarez launching a 450-foot home run to give the Astros the lead in Game 6 of the World Series.

When it was over, after right fielder Kyle Tucker sealed a 4-1 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies by squeezing a pop fly in foul territory, Baker’s coaches swarmed him in a corner of the home dugout. The site of his crowning achievement — the first title in 25 seasons as a major league manager — came just steps away from the scene of the Astros’ shame.

It was there, just down the stairs and into the tunnel, where the Astros banged on trash cans in 2017 to alert hitters, in real time, to the type of pitch that was coming. Baker had nothing to do with it; he was managing elsewhere. But the cleanup — the shattered reputation of the franchise, the stain on its only championship — fell to Baker.

“When he came here in 2020, we had the whole cheating scandal and we had Covid,” starter Lance McCullers Jr. said. “He was a stabilizing force for us. I wish we could have done it a little bit sooner for him, but he truly deserved this.”

Baker, 73, is not just the oldest manager to win a World Series. He is older than every head coach who has ever won a Super Bowl, an N.B.A. championship or a Stanley Cup. He has 2,093 victories in the regular season, ninth on the career list. Everyone with more wins than Baker has at least one championship.

“I’m happy now that he’s going to get his due,” said the Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, an adviser to Astros owner Jim Crane. “He’s going to get some pats on the back and cross that bridge to get elected to the Hall of Fame.”

Baker, who donated his World Series jersey, wristbands and even toothpicks to the Hall, would like to keep managing — “If I win one, I might as well win two,” he said — and Crane said after Game 6 that he would talk with Baker early this week about a return. Baker has the players’ endorsement.

“Dusty Baker’s a legend in the sport,” said Peña, the rookie shortstop who hit .400 to win the World Series Most Valuable Player Award. “Not just because he’s been around. He’s had success at this game, he brings the best out of his players, he gives you the confidence to just go out and play hard and let the game take care of itself. You can’t ask more of a manager.”

Baker has made a career of inspiring loyalty. He spent 19 seasons as an outfielder, making two All-Star teams and helping the Los Angeles Dodgers win the 1981 World Series. As a manager, he has led all five of his teams to division titles, taking time to connect on a personal level with players, coaches and staff.

Rob Butcher, the media relations director for the Reds, flew to Houston just so he could be in the stands to see Baker win a championship. He did not tell Baker he was coming, Butcher said, but he felt compelled to be there and cried after the final out.

“He’s got a lot of friends, but I really don’t think he knows how many people wanted him to win this,” Butcher said. “It’s beautiful. He’s the person that you want your father and grandfather to be, just a genuine, wonderful human being — in addition to being the coolest person you’ll ever meet.”

Baker once smoked a joint with Jimi Hendrix. He and a Dodgers teammate, Glenn Burke, invented the high-five. He wears wristbands with his own likeness. He has a vineyard at his home in Sacramento. Before the World Series, he got a good-luck message from Snoop Dogg.

In his coaching staffs, Baker said, he values diversity, so each player has a coach with a similar background: “I always had an African-American dude, I always had a couple Latin dudes, I always had a sophisticated college dude, I always had some country white dudes that they can go talk to,” he said.

Baker’s Houston staff is built that way. But for years now, he has wondered if he really needs to keep that design.

“I told somebody 10 years ago that the way baseball was going — and I love my Latin brothers — but we weren’t going to need any African American coaches, really,” Baker said. “You’re going to need either white coaches or Latin-American coaches.”

Baker was referring to the modern demographics of baseball, which came into sharp focus in this World Series, the first since 1950 without a single U.S.-born Black player on either active roster.

A study in May by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, at the University of Central Florida, found that while Black players represented 18 percent of M.L.B. rosters in 1991, the percentage had dwindled to 7.2 percent at the start of the 2022 season. Baker and the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts are the majors’ only Black managers.

“We’re not doing a real good job, but hopefully we’ll keep talking about it,” Baker said. “I’ve been saying the same thing for like 30, 40 years. I mean, how long can I say the same thing, you know what I mean, before the change is going to come?”

Baker said he hoped to live long enough for baseball’s diversity efforts on the amateur side to produce more players in the majors. He has survived prostate cancer and a stroke, and said those scares had made him appreciate life and take better care of himself.

“I’ve got two grandchildren now,” he said. “I’ve got a son, 23. It made me want to seize the day and try to be productive every day. And then one thing I hear my dad always telling me: ‘Try to do the right thing.’ And sometimes that’s tough, because sometimes you want to do the selfish thing. But the right thing, whatever that is in your mind, that’s what I try to do.”

In the dugout on Saturday, just like thousands of other days, Baker did the right things to win a game. This one, of course, was unlike all the rest. This one took him to the top, and there was nothing left unsaid.

“He’s like, ‘Ask me how I like that,’” Darren Baker said. “And I said, ‘You’re a champion,’ and he just hugged me. It was awesome.”

Tyler Kepner has been national baseball writer since 2010. He joined The Times in 2000 and covered the Mets for two seasons, then covered the Yankees from 2002 to 2009.

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