NEW YORK -- Former Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston calls Astros manager Dusty Baker one of his best friends. Besides playing and managing the game of baseball, they both love to fish. Their friendship dates back to 1967, when they were playing with Double-A Austin, then a Braves affiliate.
“We stay in touch. We always talk to each other,” Gaston said via telephone.
Gaston, 77, badly wants Baker to win his first World Series title as a manager. If that happens, Baker will become the third African American manager to win the title. Gaston was the first to win the Fall Classic with Toronto in 1992-93, followed by Dodgers manager Dave Roberts last year.
“That means a lot to me. We owe all of this to Jackie Robinson. That goes without saying,” Gaston said. “To have three of us win this thing would be awesome. I know Dave Roberts is looking for his second in a row. We’ll see what happens there, too. It would be nice to see Dusty [get the trophy]. Maybe Dave can win next year.”
If Baker doesn’t win the World Series this year, Gaston still believes Baker is a Hall of Famer. Gaston points out that Baker has won 1,987 regular-season games, eight division titles and one pennant in 24 seasons as a manager.
“Dusty belongs in the Hall of Fame because of all the games he has won and all the division titles he has won,” Gaston said.
The last time Baker and Gaston spoke was Thursday morning, two days after the Astros advanced to the American League Championship Series. While the conversation was pleasant, Baker informed Gaston that Astros right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. would not pitch in the ALCS because of a right flexor pronator muscle strain. There is a possibility McCullers could be ready for the World Series, if Houston reaches it. The Astros and Red Sox are tied in the ALCS at one game apiece.
“'Oh, my goodness,'” Gaston told Baker after hearing the news about McCullers. “That’s one of his better starters, you know. I hope their pitching can hold up. They have to win another [seven games], really [to go all the way].”
After Baker became the manager of the Astros in 2020, one of the first calls he received came from Gaston, who calmed down Baker after he became a professional ballplayer 54 years ago. Having grown up in California, Baker wasn’t used to hearing racial slurs like the ones he received on his first day of pro ball.
“Cito has kept me going many, many times," Baker said recently. "… We go way back. Cito took care of me on my first day in pro ball. We were all on the Austin Braves. …
“The first ball that was hit to me [in right field], I dropped it. There were about 40 to 50 people [from a mental health facility who] sat in right field by themselves. When I dropped that ball, they called me all kinds of names that I never heard. All these racial names. I started crying and wanted to [go back to California]. It was the first time I'd ever been to the South, and Cito said, ‘Hang with me and I’ll take care of you.'"
Gaston remembered that incident.
“I think it was new for Dusty when he came to the South,” Gaston said. “I told him to be himself, work hard and be coachable. Listen to coaches on what they have to say.”
Baker was indeed coachable, and he ended up having a productive career as a player and manager. Most of his playing career was spent with the Braves and Dodgers, with whom he was a two-time All-Star. Let’s not forget that he was Manager of the Year three times, too.
“I’m so proud of him. I couldn’t wait to call him after they won [the AL Division Series] in Chicago [on Tuesday],” Gaston said. “I knew he was still on the field [after the game], but I left him a message telling him what a great job he did there and what he has done all year. He did an outstanding job.”