Dusty Baker will bring his unshakeable calm and relentless sense of joy and optimism to the Astros. In this way, they could not have found anyone better to manage their team in these unusual circumstances.
Baker comes with a vast reservoir of credibility earned during 19 seasons as a Major League player and 22 as a manager. Along the way, he has seen a bit of everything while establishing himself as one of baseball’s great gentlemen.
Want to understand pressure? Try sitting beside Hank Aaron in 1974 as he approached Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record amid almost daily death threats.
Baker has never forgotten Aaron’s grace under nearly incomprehensible pressure, and to watch Baker through the years is to see some of the same traits that served Aaron so well.
Baker cannot make the sign-stealing scandal go away, but his presence -- and essential decency -- will be a big step in the right direction. He understands that all the Astros can do this spring is own up to the past, apologize for it and then attempt to win a fourth straight American League West title.
That Baker is 70 years old does not matter. His players will respect him, admire him and want to please him. This has happened at all four of his prior managerial stops, and few men have established stronger bonds with his players. To put it another way, to know Baker is to like him.
Baker's players will quickly understand that he will do his best to protect them and allow them to focus on their jobs. Given that this is uncharted territory, we can’t know for sure how it’s all going to play out.
But we do know Baker. His poise in the dugout and clubhouse will play well over the long haul. So will his raging competitive fires. During four seasons with the Cubs, his rivalry with Cardinals manager Tony La Russa became so intense that it felt like the two of them should have taken things out to the parking lot and let the players play.
The Astros are going to be tested this season, by opposing fans and by opposing pitchers. Baker's players will look to him for leadership and poise. His challenge will be in knowing when to respond and when to simply play the game. As Hall of Famer Jim Palmer once put it: “Winning the game is still the best revenge.”
Another challenge for Baker will be embracing the inner-workings of a data-driven front office. He has not worked for a team in which the wall that once existed between the front office and the manager no longer exists.
That wall was always ridiculously unproductive, but it was there. For a century, the front office constructed the team, the manager managed it and the two second-guessed one another from afar.
Now, everyone must work together. Novel concept, huh? Baker’s new front office -- the Astros have no general manager at the moment -- will provide him with a mountain of data dealing with everything from lineup combinations to preferred pitching matchups.
Surviving prostate cancer and a stroke have given Baker the kind of perspective a younger man might not have. And Baker frequently quotes the words of his buddy, late Hall of Fame NFL coach Bill Walsh: “Always be open to new ideas.”
This shouldn’t be complicated. Baker has to understand that the information is valuable. Meanwhile, front office analysts have to see the value of Baker’s ability to touch players and to get the most from them. And each side must communicate with the other.
At the same time, this is a wonderful opportunity for both the Astros and for Baker. Few managers get the opportunity to take over a team with this much talent.
Even with the A’s expected to be competitive again and the Angels and Rangers much improved, the Astros will be favored to win the AL West again.
Baker has been to the postseason nine times in his 22 seasons as a manager. His 2002 Giants won the National League pennant and were six outs from winning the World Series when things unraveled in Game 6 vs. the Angels.
These Astros are better than those Giants. Baker's new lineup has no holes, and in George Springer, Baker has the kind of emotional leader around which every teammate rallies. There are questions about the back end of the Astros' rotation, but compared to almost every other team, there’s not much to fret about.
Baker’s challenge will be to help his players navigate through a spring in which questions about the sign-stealing will be a nearly constant presence.
Baker must do his best to maintain some air of normalcy in the clubhouse and to allow his players to prepare for the season. Again, this is the kind of thing he has done as well as almost any manager.
If the Astros can transform those doubts into a healthy chip on their shoulder, then they can slide into the routine of the regular season and allow their talent to take over.
By then, the Astros will have a better feel for their new manager, and they will understand how lucky they are to have him on their side.