Dusty Baker Walks Away, Leaving Baseball Better Than He Found It

From a Washington Post story by Chelsea James headlined “Dusty Baker finally walks away, leaving baseball better than he found it”:

Dusty Baker always said if he won one World Series, he would win two. He said it for years, undaunted by the fact that until last October, the story of his otherwise decorated managerial career was that he had not even won the first. On Thursday, as he announced his retirement from managing after 26 seasons, he brought up that promise as a reason he hadn’t given himself much time to reflect yet.

“I got to get over that first because I don’t like to make promises I can’t keep,” said Baker, whose Houston Astros came within one game of playing in the World Series for the third time in his four-year tenure.

“It takes me a little time to get out losses. After tough losses, you don’t feel like getting up in the morning. You’ve got to make yourself get up and see life goes on.”

So much of Baker’s managerial career was spent getting over tough losses, of getting up in the morning after one organization or another parted ways with him and looking around and seeing himself as one of few Black managers in a sport in which he was, in that way, the exception from his first spring training with the Atlanta Braves to the day he stepped away. His retirement leaves just one Black manager in the majors — the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts.

“I was kind of mad at the world when I got through playing, like a lot of African Americans and Latins are because there aren’t jobs, really,” Baker said. Then his father told him the knowledge passed down by his mentors, such as Hank Aaron and Ralph Garr, was not his to keep. He needed to pass it on. So he decided to manage.

Baker, 74, managed for nearly three decades for five franchises. He won 2,183 games, three pennants and one long-awaited World Series title with the Astros in 2022. He still thinks he might have won one with the Washington Nationals if they hadn’t let him go after the 2017 season, before he was ready. Most of Baker’s stops ended before he was ready. That is part of being Dusty Baker, too. So perhaps it is only fitting that now, even as he steps away, he is still ruing the championship not won.

“All my life, most of my plans don’t work out. I didn’t want to play baseball, I wanted to play basketball. I didn’t want to coach. I didn’t want to go to the Marines,” Baker said. “Dusty’s plan was totally different from this plan they had for me.”

That plan turned to managing when he was 44 and hired by the 1993 San Francisco Giants. That job yielded his closest World Series call until he won it last year, a memorable Game 6 against the then-Anaheim Angels in which his decision to pull starter Russ Ortiz backfired and the Angels went on to win the series. Baker’s father told him that year might have been his only chance, and when the Giants declined to renew his contract after that season, Baker had reason to believe he would be right.

His first year as manager of the Chicago Cubs seemed only to confirm that, when his team’s postseason ended with a big assist from the hands of Steve Bartman. His tenure there, like his tenure that followed in Cincinnati and like his two-year stint in Washington, ended without the title he sought and without the respect he felt he had earned.

That is partially why, after his time with the Nationals came to that unceremonious end, he was devastated but not surprised. It is why, when that happened, he wasn’t sure he would get another chance. And it was why, when no one wanted to touch Houston after its sign-stealing scandal, Baker was the one person who needed the Astros as much as they needed him.

Baker was the perfect fit for an organization trying to emerge from scandal, a friendly, familiar face who was emotionally equipped to lead a disgraced organization still loaded with talent into a future that was certain to include high expectations and relentless animosity. And because of his desperation to win a World Series and keep managing, he was willing to field the questions and public punishment for a scandal in which he had no part. For four years, Baker was the one part of the Astros that everyone had a hard time trying to hate.

“One thing that I try to do, very conscious of, is that the place I’m leaving from is in better shape and condition than when I got there,” Baker said. “I hope that we’re in better shape now than when I got here, even though we were in great shape then.”

The stains of the scandal were always going to outlast Baker. But the boos subsided, at least a little bit. And under Baker, the winning never did. The Astros reached the American League Championship Series every year he managed them. Twice, they won it. Last year, they won the World Series, too, their first since the tainted 2017 title. It was a legacy-defining win for both Baker and his team. Baker was probably a surefire Hall of Famer long before that title, but it certainly did not hurt his case.

And in the aftermath, Baker admitted, that he started to think about retiring. He had gotten to spend spring training living with his son, Darren, a minor leaguer in the Nationals’ system. He got to manage against Darren in spring training, too.
“One thing I’m going to miss is [Darren] being my roommate in spring training,” Baker said Thursday. “And he’s going to miss those free meals from me.”

He had achieved almost everything there was to achieve, the title and the manager of the year awards, the 2,000 wins he coveted, watching his son move toward the major leagues himself. And this past summer, he made up his mind.

“There were a couple instances, a couple articles, a couple things that kind of made up my mind late summer,” said Baker, who didn’t name names. Baker is used to tough questions, and criticism is a part of any manager’s journey, but it always felt like a particularly prominent part of his. That’s why his legacy, as one of the kinder, more beloved baseball people of his era, is one born out of a special kind of emotional fortitude.

So many in the game can share stories about times Baker has given them a boost. Those stories spill out of their mouths as frequently as stories about famous people with whom Baker has hung out spill out of his. For every story of a night spent with Jimi Hendrix, there are stories about him giving Mexican league managerial star Dan Firova his first big league chance or finding time for the family that hosted him in his earliest days of big league spring training.

“I don’t feel like I’ve done nothing, to tell you the truth. I went to Hank Aaron’s funeral, and all these people were talking about how Hank had contributed and helped out their college education and how he had affected this life and that life,” Baker said. “I came home and told my wife, ‘I don’t think I’ve done anything.’ ”

Baker said he still isn’t done with the game. He said he plans to stay in baseball, at least in some capacity, but acknowledged he wants to make time to go see Darren play some, too. Baker knows better than to make firm plans. This game always had a way of making them for him anyway.

“First I’m going to go home and talk to my daughter who thinks she’s my mother, spend some time with my grandkids,” Baker said. “and let the Lord tell me where to go and what to do with my life.”

Chelsea Janes is the national baseball writer in sports. She was The Washington Post’s beat writer for the Washington Nationals from 2014 to 2018 and was a sports intern for The Post in 2013. She also previously covered the 2020 presidential campaign.

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