It’s no surprise that Dusty Baker is here, managing the hated, cheating Houston Astros as they try to slither back into the World Series. None of the bad stuff in Houston was Baker’s fault, but plenty more is.
He’s somewhere in all the pictures of baseball history, a Forrest Gump of our national pastime, starting with his days as a teammate of Hammerin’ Hank Aaron.
But as a manager, Baker was there through baseball’s steroid scandal, looking the other way while leading Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa. He oversaw some of the most amazing postseason collapses, blew the World Series, subjected himself to the sense of humor of baseball’s gods with the infamous Chicago Cubs Bartman game. He has managed to do it all while indulging in self-pity and coming off as the victim.
At this point, Baker has lost enough over the decades for our entertainment. And now he has come out of retirement to muddy up baseball’s simplest story: Tampa Bay Rays vs. Houston Astros. Good vs. Evil. Smiley face vs. frowny face. Down three games to zero, the Astros have won two in a row. Win today and tomorrow and they’ll be back in the World Series. Baker will be back in the World Series.
Thanks to Baker, the Astros have become a sympathetic group of smug, self-absorbed cheaters.
It’s so confusing! Sports are set up to be simple stories, like picture books. We create a hero. We create a villain. And there you have it. It’s Us vs. Them. Like everything else, we can be polarized that way without one shred of feeling of the other side.
Baker is ruining all of that.
Tampa Bay is the little guy from a small market, the classic underdog.
Houston? Well, you know. They cheated their way to the World Series, stealing signs electronically, signaling back to someone who would bang on a garbage can if a curveball was coming. Or something like that.
The Astros fired manager A.J. Hinch, and they needed someone for this season. Who else?
The thing about Baker, who is 71, is that while he always managed to botch things in the postseason, he also has gotten players to come together, fight together. They tend to do well in the regular season. And Baker comes off as a laid back, hip dude telling old stories about all the famous people he has known and the blues music he is listening to.
Yesterday, it was the song “I’m Ready’’ by Muddy Waters.
Down three games, Baker faced an easy decision to take out starting pitcher Zack Greinke. Every rule of analytics said to pull Greinke. But Baker said he looked in his pitcher’s eye, had a gut feeling, stuck with Greinke and prayed on the way back to the dugout.
Greinke came through for the first time, it seemed, in years. Afterward, he talked about how nice it was to have someone believe in him again. Earlier in the series, Houston second baseman Jose Altuve, struggling with the yips on throwing the ball, kept throwing the ball away. Altuve walked off the field dejected, and Baker put his arms around him and hugged him. And Thursday, in Game 5, Carlos Correa came to bat in a tie game in the 9th inning and told Baker “Walkoff.’’ Then he hit a walkoff home run to win.
I’m ready for Baker to win, even if that does make the cheating Astros the champs.
As a Chicagoan, I was at the Bartman game, by the way. Remember? The Cubs were two games the World Series after more than 100 years without a title. Baker was still living down his World Series collapse as the Giants manager. But with the Cubs, some unsuspecting fan, Steve Bartman, tried to catch a foul ball, interfering with a possible out that would have gotten the Cubs. The Cubs fell to pieces, then lost the next game.
And while Cubs fans blamed the kid or baseball’s gods, this is why they lost that game:
Baker. He sat in the dugout and did nothing while young pitcher Mark Prior lost his composure. And the team lost its composure. Baker . . . just . . . sat . . . there.
I’ve seen Baker’s charm, too. Once, I got into a bit of an argument with him in a pregame press conference when he was the Cubs manager. He had said something critical about his team’s baserunning on the radio and then a few hours later, at the press conference, argued the exact opposite. I called him on it and we had a little back-and-forth, in front of cameras and microphones.
A few minutes later, I was on the field and Baker came out of the dugout to flag me down. He walked me down the left field line, away from everyone, shook my hand and said “Thanks for coming.’’
“No. You write things about me that I don’t always like, but you’re always here giving me a chance to tell my side. I appreciate that. Thank you.’’
One more thing: I mentioned that Baker was listening to “I’m Ready’’ by Muddy Waters the other day? It goes like this:
“I am ready, ready as anybody can be.
I am ready for you, I hope you ready for me.”