Dusty Baker had been reminded of how many people cared about him and how many he’d touched the last few days as text messages and phone calls poured in to let him know how much they were rooting for his Houston Astros in their quest for one of the most improbable World Series appearances ever.
He counts among his friends not just former players and coaches, but poets, chefs, musicians, cabbies and assorted others. These friends speak volumes about the Astros’ 71-year-old manager and his 53-year baseball journey.
That it’s the Tampa Bay Rays who’ll be going to the World Series after a 4-2 victory over the Astros in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday cuts Baker deep.
“You know, they’re all painful,” he said. “This is painful when you're one game away from going to the World Series. I’m proud of these guys, because nobody expected us to even be in this position or even to be here.”
His teams have lost seven of nine winner-take-all games, including six in a row. His most recent one before Saturday was the 2003 National League Championship Series with the Cubs, and thinking through the years, he said some of those earlier ones were more painful than this one.
He paused at that point to reflect on all the friends he’d lost this season, including Hall of Famer Joe Morgan and former MLB executive Jimmie Lee Solomon. In an instant, a different kind of sadness struck him.
“That’s the reality of life,” he said. “Those are far greater losses than losing a ball game. I mean, nobody wanted to win more than me. But those are losses from people that I’ll never see again until I die, hopefully, you know what I mean?
“This [game] is a temporary loss, and hopefully you're around long enough next year to kind of heal these wounds.”
He’d just watched his team become only the second ever to rally from an 0-3 start to force a Game 7 in a best-of-seven postseason series. But the 2004 Red Sox will remain the only team to rally from 0-3 to win the series.
In so many ways, this was one of Baker’s finest hours. He’d masterfully guided the Astros into Game 7 with a deft handling of the pitching staff and a knack for pushing the right button at the right time.
Along the way, as the Astros kept winning and winning, he sprinkled interviews with references to Albert Camus, Mighty Mouse, Freddie King, John Wooden, Bill Walsh and Norman Vincent Peale.
Before Game 7 when he was asked what music he’d chosen to put him in the right frame of mind, Baker quoted a Taj Mahal classic:
“Gonna move up to the country,
Paint my mailbox blue.”
He was hired by the Astros last January in the wake of a sign-stealing scandal that stripped the franchise of its good name. Baker brought with him more than leadership and calm, more than honesty and credibility. More than anything else, he brought his good name.
No matter how much people inside the game rooted against the Astros, no one was going to root against Dusty Baker.
“He just lets us play,” outfielder Michael Brantley said. “He tells us great stories of things in the past, what he went through along the way in his journey. He always has an answer to any question you have.”
Baker has been clear that he did not return to managing for any kind of unfinished business, although that’s part of his narrative. Yes, he badly wants to win a World Series as a manager. In 23 seasons, he has led five different franchises to the postseason, but only his 2002 Giants even got to the World Series. They experienced an excruciating loss to the Angels in Game 6 and had nothing left in the tank for Game 7.
“What are you going to do at this point?” he asked last spring. “I've given my best at every job I’ve ever had.”
He more likely returned because he’s a natural leader, a people person who loves the competition and is energized by being around the game. He’s quick to tell you he has a smorgasbord of other interests, but none of them fills the soul quite like baseball life.
“I missed the competition, missed being around the coaches and players,” said Baker, who won a World Series as a player with the Dodgers in 1981. “You miss teaching. You can help players become better. That’s what you miss. You think back to all the coaches that you had, that helped make you better, and you feel you have something to offer.”
Talk to his current and former players, and they all say the same thing. That he’s a great gentleman and a kind and caring soul. Long after the games are a blur, this is the thing they’ll remember.
“I love playing for him, picking his brain,” Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer said. “You know, he's an old-school guy, a former Marine who just knows how to play the game and has so many stories and knows so much of the history of this sport.”
As Astros coach Chris Speier, a longtime friend of Baker’s, said, “He really, really cares about his players as people. That’s the thing you’ll hear again and again from people that know him. He has this calmness, but he sees things. He can be tough when he needs to be. But when he speaks to a player about it, it’s always in private.”
In the wake of Saturday’s loss, Baker spoke proudly about how far the Astros had come and how they’d surprised so many people. He also said he was looking forward to getting back in the saddle next spring and beginning the journey all over again.
But in discussing his players, he could also have been talking about himself and his own legacy.
“These guys fought,” he said. “These guys fought to the very end. These guys will cherish these moments and have these moments for the rest of their lives.”
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.