HOUSTON -- He talked about listening to B.B. King, the Rolling Stones and the rapper Too Short. He dropped the names of Tommy Lasorda, Bill Russell, Bill Walsh and his “old partner,” Enos Cabell. And he discussed pruning grape vines and checking his dog for ticks back home.
Dusty Baker even trotted out a few lines of Spanish, with a tad bit of hesitation.
“I’m pretty good,” he joked, “but it makes me tired.”
Baker, while getting introduced to the Houston media at a Thursday press conference at Minute Maid Park, won over the room with his easygoing personality and good nature. That, along with his solid track record as a winner in his 22 years as a big league manager, are the reasons Astros owner Jim Crane selected the 70-year-old to succeed AJ Hinch as the club’s skipper.
“He’s the best person to lead this team to a championship,” Crane said. “His goal is our goal.”
Baker made a positive first impression for the Astros on Thursday, but now comes the hard part. The Astros are turning to the steady Baker to calm the waters of a team in turmoil. The sign-stealing scandal that led to the dismissals of Hinch and president of baseball operations and general manager Jeff Luhnow have sullied the Astros’ reputation as a franchise on the field. The hiring of Baker is the first step in turning that around.
“We have to go forward,” Baker said. “We can’t go backwards. We’ve got to go forward and make sure that it doesn’t happen again. It’s certainly not going to happen on my watch here.”
Baker inherits a club coming off a 107-win season that was eight outs away from winning the World Series last year. The Astros lost in seven games to the Nationals -- Baker’s former team -- but are again considered favorites to win the American League West. Baker has a realistic shot at becoming the first manager in history to take five teams to the postseason.
That certainly didn’t seem possible when Baker was dismissed from the Nationals after back-to-back first-place finishes in 2016 and ’17. Baker thought he was done as a manager. He packed away his baseball equipment bag in his attic at his home in Sacramento, Calif., and was coming to terms with retirement despite the disappointment of never winning a World Series as a manager.
A call from Crane changed things.
“This is my last hurrah," Baker said. "I'm excited to be here and excited to win, because this is my last chance to accomplish the goal [of winning a World Series]. I was happy, but I wasn't satisfied where I was and what I was doing -- because something's missing."
Baker has made nine postseason appearances in his 22 seasons as a Major League manager. He has won 1,863 regular-season games, good for a .532 winning percentage. The drive to win that elusive World Series attracted him to an Astros team that’s good enough to do it.
"In life, all of your experiences of your past should help you in the present," Baker said. "I've been through a lot of things in my life. I feel that I can help the players, I feel like I can help the organization, I feel like I can help the city."
While the hiring of Baker brings some instant credibility to the club, his resume isn’t without some blemishes. His track record in the playoffs isn’t good -- he did lead the Giants to the 2002 National League pennant -- and he’s known for riding starting pitchers too hard. And, as the oldest manager in the big leagues, can he embrace the analytics that the Astros rely upon so heavily?
“We’ve got good people that can deliver it in a concise way,” Crane said. “We really don’t try to overload them. We just work on the things that need to get done. I have no problem [believing that] he’ll take this and run with it and apply it to how he feels he can win games.”
To be in the game for as long as Baker, you have to embrace change.
“How many men 70 years old have a 20-year-old son?” Baker said. “And I just had my first grandchild 15 days ago. I enjoy and embrace being modern, but also being old school at the same time. And I don’t see why you can’t combine both of them.”
The Astros, who are still in search of a general manager, will give Baker all the data he can consume. At the end of the day, he’s here to win any way he can. He’s here to help the Astros weather the storm of scorn and criticism that’s likely to follow them around this year. It’s nothing Baker can’t handle through leadership, respect and even instilling some of the advice he once got from Russell, the 11-time NBA champion who told him the secret to winning was everyone loving each other.
“This is a new beginning for us, a new beginning for me,” Baker said. “I think the thing we have going for us is the amount of love that I see that the players have for this city and the city has for the players, and also that the players have for each other. It’s going to be very, very positive. I knew it was going to be challenging when I took the position. I’ve always [risen] to the challenge.”