HOUSTON — Nick Castellanos swung, Kyle Tucker chased and Dusty Baker scribbled. As the Astros clinched the 2022 World Series, their manager first needed to notate the final play in his trusty scorebook: F9.
By the time he finished, his coaching staff had surrounded him in celebration. They chanted his name, rubbed his head and hugged him, all at once. Baker had to grip Minute Maid Park’s dugout netting to keep from falling.
“I was mobbed,” Baker said. “But I didn’t care.”
Dusty Baker’s moment
Houston’s Dusty Baker speaks with Tom Verducci, Alex Rodriguez, Frank Thomas and David Ortiz after winning his first World Series title as a manager.
How could he? For decades, baseball’s elder statesman strived for this moment. He won a World Series as a Dodgers player in 1981, but he wanted one — actually, two — as a manager. The pursuit took him to five teams and through cancer and a stroke. He learned to balance today’s priorities with tomorrow’s in a society that, he believed, leaned more toward the former with each passing year.
Twenty-five seasons and a dozen postseasons into his managerial career, Baker’s tomorrow finally came with a wildly talented team that, three years ago, needed him to shield them from a sign-stealing scandal.
He reached his tomorrow because of his patience. Baker only left the dugout once during the Astros’ 4-1 Game 6 victory over the Phillies, and it was not to remove a pitcher but to consult with the umpiring crew. All series, Baker bucked convention and stuck with his starters longer than modern norms prescribe.
His counterpart, first-year manager Rob Thomson, earned praise for aggressively summoning his top relievers in a tied Game 1. His gambles earned Philadelphia an upset victory, but a similar bet in Game 6 spelled the Phillies’ end.
As Yordan Álvarez approached with the Astros down a run in the sixth, Thomson turned to José Alvarado, even though ace Zack Wheeler had not surrendered a hard-hit ball all night. Álvarez’s subsequent three-run home run became the difference.
When his Game 3 starter, Lance McCullers Jr., encountered trouble, Baker left him in long past when most managers would. McCullers broke the record for homers surrendered in a postseason game, and the Astros lost 7-0 in what looked like a momentum-building affair for the Phillies. Baker bristled at postgame queries about misplaced trust in his veteran starter.
The 2022 Astros, it turned out, never lost again. Baker had saved his bullpen for tomorrow.
Baker and McCullers built a relationship from their shared love for, of all things, seafood. After he learned that McCullers treasured fish, Baker started dropping off choice fillets of salmon at his locker.
“Have a cook make that for you,” Baker has told him.
Baker is random. He is devout. He is thoughtful. He is sensitive. He is playful. He is popular. Within this sport that has been his home for more than a half-century, he is, above all, beloved.
“Dusty is one of those guys, when he’s in the room, he changes the vibe and feel of everything,” McCullers said. “When he got hired here after the scandal, he gave us such a sense of self, and of stability. We were able to really grow and blossom under that sense of stability, and confidence in our guys that he brought to us.”
It took one January 2020 conversation with Baker, Astros owner Jim Crane said, to become convinced he had found the right replacement for A.J. Hinch.
“We needed a guy with a lot of experience and a lot of poise, who’s been through a lot of things,” Crane said. “And he handled it extremely well.”
Astros owner Jim Crane talks title
Astros’ owner Jim Crane discusses the support from his team’s fan base after winning the championship.
On his first day, Baker told the team that he did not care what happened in years past.
“I’m gonna stand here with you guys, and we’re gonna fight,” he said. “We have a great team, and we’re gonna win a World Series one of these years.”
It took three years. The Astros came five wins short in 2020, two in 2021. In 2022, Baker became, at 73, the oldest man to manage, and win, a World Series.
He long ago learned to harness his excitement and anxiety before these high-stakes games. Before Saturday’s game, Baker went out for coffee at his favorite Rice Village shop and visited his cobbler to pick up a pair of shoes. Game 6, he said, had been his years-long “nemesis,” so he tried to avoid thinking too much about it.
“I mean, you only got so much emotion,” Baker said.
Now, he could let it all out.
Baker has always said that if he won one World Series, he would win two. That remains his goal. In Saturday’s champagne-soaked aftermath, Crane would not quite commit to bringing Baker back in 2023. Even Baker sounded less certain about it.
“I mean,” he said, “the one was hell to get to this point.”
But he found joy in that hell, gratitude in his heartache. Had his 2002 Giants surpassed the Angels, had his 2021 Astros eclipsed the Braves, he might have called it a career. Instead, he is still here.
“Maybe it wasn’t supposed to happen,” Baker said. “So that I could hopefully influence a few young men’s lives and their families and a number of people in the country through showing what perseverance and character can do for you in the long run.”
It was a long run for one. It might be a much shorter run for two.
Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the Dodgers for The Athletic, the Angels and Dodgers for the Orange County Register and L.A. Times, and his alma mater, USC, for ESPN Los Angeles. He is the author of “How to Beat a Broken Game.” Follow him on Twitter at @pedromoura.
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