Mandatory Credit: Photo by Eric Christian Smith/AP/Shutterstock (13057592g) Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker Jr. watches from the dugout during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Seattle Mariners, in Houston Mariners Astros Baseball, Houston, United States – 30 Jul 2022
John McClain: After his first title, Dusty Baker is ready for another
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Dusty Baker left his ride at the curb and walked up to the Astros’ clubhouse door as casually as a sunburned fan coming to watch his favorite team at spring training. Baker wore shorts, a white t-shirt, and a big smile as a team attendant welcomed him back for his fourth season with the Astros and his first as a World Series-winning manager.
Baker had returned to Houston to be honored at Minute Maid Park by the Houston Chapter of the NAACP on Wednesday and at MD Anderson Cancer Center’s annual A Conversation with a Living Legend event on Thursday. At 73, Baker is loving life. He’s entering his 45th year in Major League Baseball, including his 26th as a manager. He’s destined for the Hall of Fame, and he’s confident and energetic about the mission he’s on this season.
“I’ve always said if I win one, I want to win two,” Baker said about the Astros winning back-to-back World Series. “I’m in a position for us to win two. I realize it’s a very difficult situation to win back-to-back, but others have done it, and I hope we’re prepared to do it.
“I love this team. I love these guys. I love the city, and these guys know how to win, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Since the Astros compiled a 106-56 record last season – the best of Baker’s career – and put together an 11-2 playoff run, including whipping Philadelphia in six games to win their second World Series, Baker has enjoyed an emotional high. There have been a lot of demands on his time, and he’s tried to be as accommodating as his time allowed, but now it’s back to baseball and what he loves the most.
Baker isn’t accustomed to being late to spring training, but it would have been difficult to turn down such prestigious honors in Houston.
“I don’t think I’ve missed a day of spring training, especially a personal day,” he said during a post-practice session with the media. “It was very weird. I got summoned to do something to help out some people, to help out the NAACP one night, and then to help raise money for cancer. I was involved with both. I just hope my guys don’t fine me for coming in late.”
While Baker answered questions during a 12-minute period, he waved to different members of the organization who saw that he had returned to what he’s the most comfortable doing — managing players and trying to win championships.
“That’s why I’m here,” he said as he looked around the fields that line The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. “This is great. This is great weather. It was a very short winter but a very fulfilling winter. It always feels good to come back and see the guys to see what kind of shape they’re in and who worked hard and matured from a boy to a man. This is an exciting time of year.”
The Astros have reached the American League Championship Series for six consecutive years, played in four World Series and won two of them. In his three seasons as the manager, they’ve lost an ALCS and split two appearances in the World Series. Baker is trying to help them become the first team to repeat since the Yankees won their third in a row in 2000.
“I’m just trying to figure out how we’re going to do this and make it No. 2 (in a row),” he said. “You can’t live on the laurels of the past. You’ve got to think about the present, what you’ve got to do and how it could be difficult because other teams have gotten better and everybody’s shooting at us, which is cool. You know things aren’t always going to go good, but you have to stay positive and remain focused.
“When I think about some of the great managers and coaches of the past like Red Auerbach (Celtics) and how they must have felt going for eight, nine or 10 (consecutively), and here I am going for No. 2.”
Because the Astros won the World Series, they got a short vacation, but it was worth it, of course. Now Baker, the players, front office executives, and everyone in the organization are excited about the prospects of defending their title.
“We didn’t have time to decompress too much,” Baker said. “It’s a matter of being more thankful than anything. You go home, and people wanted a lot of my time and a lot of my energy. I gave a lot of it and tried to save some for myself, so you don’t run out of energy this season.”
While Baker was back home in Northern California, the Astros lost American League Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander to the Mets. Then owner Jim Crane hired a new general manager, Dana Brown, from the Braves to replace James Click.
Even though the Astros still have six starting pitchers – Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Lance McCullers Jr., Luis Garcia, Jose Urquidy, and Hunter Brown, the loss of Verlander still leaves a hole in the rotation.
“I think about it all the time,” Baker said. “To say you’re not going to miss Verlander, I totally disagree with that. We’ve got to figure out a way (to replace him). Hopefully, these guys have matured enough in the last year to pick up his innings.
“He was the leader of our pitching staff. Hopefully, somebody else will become the leader and possibly learn from him, or is it a combined effort with five or six guys?”
One pitcher Baker is counting on, McCullers, missed the last two workouts because of soreness in his elbow. Last season, he spent four months rehabbing an elbow injury before returning in August and making eight starts. He had a 4-2 record and a 2.27 earned run average.
“Lance threw a bullpen (session) Tuesday,” Baker said. “He’s a little sore, which is to be expected.”
Asked if he’s alarmed, Baker said, “No, not really. We’ll have to see. We’ve got to chill. Don’t make something (out of it).”
Baker is excited about the addition of Brown, who oversaw Atlanta’s scouting operation and helped the Braves defeat the Astros in the 2021 World Series.
“I met Dana years ago,” he said. “I haven’t spent a whole bunch of time with Dana because he’s been busy trying to catch up on things, and I’ve been busy in and out of town. I think he’s going to do a great job. He’s done just about everything in baseball. He helped put that Braves team together. They have one of the best minor league systems in baseball. I’m sure he’ll put his mark on this one, too.”
Near the end of his media session, Baker was asked if he thinks about retirement.
“I don’t know,” he said, smiling. “The Lord will tell me, and my body will tell me. I do know I’ve got this year.”
And what a year it could be if the Astros can successfully defend their World Series title and become the first team to repeat in 23 years.
(John McClain writes four columns a week for GallerySports.com. He can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on SportsRadio610.com).