HOUSTON -- In the Northern California vineyards where the grapes for the wines that bear his name are sourced and harvested, Dusty Baker has gained an even deeper appreciation for the power of patience. From bud break to harvest, from the barrel aging and blending process to bottling, and from bottling to consumption, more than two years can elapse, making that first sip of a well-crafted wine all the more satisfying.
“You’ve got to be patient,” Baker said of his work at Baker Family Wines. “You’ve got to know when to pick, know when one side is shaded and one side is sun. It’s hard work. Some years are great years, some years are droughts.”
Baker had a great year in 2021, a year in which he guided the Houston Astros to an American League pennant that did not come easy.
But Baker’s World Series drought continues. With a 7-0 loss to the Braves in Game 6 on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park, his patience will be tested once again.
Baker now has an unwanted pairing for the Game 7 his Giants lost to the Angels in his only other Series as a skipper, way back in 2002. This is the 11th time he has taken a team to October and been unable to reach his ultimate goal. No other manager in history has made it to more than seven postseasons without winning it all at least once.
So the 72-year-old Baker, who was the second-oldest manager to reach the World Series (behind Jack McKeon with the 2003 Marlins), knows about patience, and he knows about pain.
The latter was written all over Baker’s face when Game 6 was over. But he acknowledged he has been through worse in the baseball pain department.
“Quite frankly, this one doesn't hurt quite as much as the first one did,” he said. “Because the first one [in which the Giants had a 5-0 lead in Game 6 with a chance to clinch before losing 6-5], I thought we had that one, you know what I mean? More than this one, when you've got to come back and come back. The last one, we had the lead in the Series. This one we didn't.”
Johnnie B. “Dusty” Baker Jr. has lived a long and incredible baseball life. He was in the on-deck circle when Hank Aaron hit No. 715. He is credited with co-inventing the high-five. He was twice an All-Star, won two Silver Slugger Awards and a Gold Glove, was the first NL Championship Series MVP and went to the World Series three times as a player, winning it all in 1981 with the Dodgers.
But it’s his tortured managerial career -- and all the close calls and criticism that have come with it -- that is front of mind at the moment.
“I think you get over it,” he said. “Other people don’t let you get over it.”
Currently without a contract for 2022, Baker’s immediate future is unknown. He’s had monumental success as a skipper, including 1,987 wins (if he gets 13 more, he would become just the 12th manager all-time with 2,000) and a .534 winning percentage. He’s the only manager in history to win division titles with five different clubs.
The wins, though, have not provided Baker with job security. In the last decade, he was let go by the Reds after consecutive playoff seasons of 90 wins or more and dismissed by the Nationals after winning the NL East in both of his seasons at the helm.
Baker said he hopes to be back with the Astros next season.
“I've still got some unfinished business,” he said. “I mean, I love these guys over here. I love the town of Houston. The fans are behind us.”
When Baker was let go by the Nats after 2017, it was an open question whether he’d ever get another managerial opportunity.
Chik Brenneman, who is Baker’s business partner with Baker Family Wines, was with him regularly in those years when Baker found himself in wine fields instead of baseball fields.
“When Washington didn’t renew his contract, I saw him lose a spring in his step,” Brenneman said. “But then when Houston came along, he jumped to this and said, ‘I’ve got a chance, and I’m going to do it.’”
Under Baker, the Astros got within one win of the World Series in 2020 and within two wins of a title in 2021.
“I think what's special about Dusty is he's the manager, but you also see him as a friend,” Astros shortstop Carlos Correa said. “When you have that kind of relationship with your players and that communication, good things are going to happen in the clubhouse. He has our back. We have his back. Communication is key for me and the guys in there, and he did a great job with that.”
It says a lot about Baker that he was such an obvious choice for the responsibility of bringing some calm back to the Astros in the immediate wake of their sign-stealing scandal.
“The ship got rocky and muddy,” said Ralph Garr, Baker’s former Braves teammate and a longtime Houston resident, “and everybody said he was the man to smooth it out and clear the water. And that’s what he did. So what more can you really ask of a person like Dusty Baker?”
Some will inevitably say Baker needs to win a World Series to justify a potential election into the National Baseball Hall of Fame as a manager.
“Everybody talks about, ‘You need to win a World Series and you need to be this to be that,’” Garr said. “Cito Gaston won two back-to-back World Series, and where is he? Duh! You know what I’m saying? So no matter what the outcome is, Dusty Baker is a Hall of Fame manager. Whether he wins a World Series or whether he doesn’t, that’s not what it’s all about. He’s won everywhere he’s ever went.”
Yet the biggest win of all continues to elude Baker. On Tuesday night, it was the Braves toasting champagne, and it was Baker heading back to his vineyard, still hoping to craft that perfect batch.