On to ALDS, Dusty has unfinished business

October 3rd, 2020

When the Astros called him last January looking for a manager to replace AJ Hinch in the wake of the sign-sealing scandal, Dusty Baker wasn’t even sure where his baseball gear was. He had packed away his sweatbands, spikes and memories somewhere in his attic, thinking his managerial career was over at 70 years old.

Baker had other interests anyway -- growing grapes and selling wine at his home near Sacramento, Calif., and watching his son, Darren, play at the University of California, Berkeley. Still, the chance to return to managing meant a trip through the cobwebs to find his equipment bag and get a plane ticket to Florida for Spring Training, which was only a few weeks away.

One more chance to win that elusive championship as a manager was staring him in his face in Houston, where the Astros had been eight outs away from winning it all in 2019 and possessed a deep and talented club. Now, after a challenging regular season that was thrown for a loop by COVID-19 and by injuries that decimated his pitching staff, Baker has guided the Astros to the playoffs -- and on Wednesday, he won his first playoff series as a manager since 2003.

"I've still got some things I want to accomplish, and a championship is one of them,” Baker said.

By beating the Twins, 3-1, at Target Field to sweep the American League Wild Card Series, Baker snapped a 10-game losing streak as a manager in games in which he had a chance to clinch a series. Not since his 2003 Cubs beat the Braves in Game 5 of the National League Division Series did Baker celebrate a clincher in the clubhouse.

“I didn’t think I’d ever get another chance,” Baker said. “Even when I was winning, I was still losing at the end. I know that in my heart and I know that in my mind I’ve always been a winner all my life. You’ve got to continue to think positive, continue to preserve, and I built a lot of character along the way. They said perseverance builds character. Well, I got enough character now to [give some away].”

Baker managed for 22 years with four teams before coming to Houston, leading the Giants to the 2002 World Series and taking the Cubs, Reds and Nationals to the playoffs. Baker is highly respected in the game with 1,863 career wins prior to this year, but his stumbles in the postseason have been notable. He last managed the Nationals in '16-17 and was replaced by Dave Martinez, who led the Nats to a World Series win over the Astros last year.

Baker’s 2003 Cubs blew a 3-1 series lead to the Marlins in the NL Championship Series. In Cincinnati, his '12 Reds blew a 2-0 series lead to the Giants in the best-of-five NLDS and his '13 club lost the NL Wild Card Game to the Pirates. His '16 Nats dropped the final two games of the NLDS to the Dodgers, and his '17 squad fell to the Cubs in the NLDS, three games to two, which led to his dismissal.

Baker still has to win seven more games to get back to the World Series for the first time since he took the Giants there in 2002, but he certainly has faith.

“I’ve always believed it’s already written,” Baker said. “We just have to play it out and play to believe.”