HOUSTON -- Dusty Baker has had his suitcase laid out on the floor of his home near Sacramento, Calif., for the last few weeks ready to be packed. He was on the job as Astros manager for barely a month before the coronavirus pandemic brought Spring Training to a halt and sent Baker and his luggage back home to California to wait for what's next.
That was more than three months ago, and Baker has been anxious to return to Houston to an apartment he says he has yet to see. That's why he was giddy about the thought of boarding a flight Thursday to fly to Houston after Major League Baseball announced late Tuesday that Spring Training was set to resume July 1 at the home stadiums of most clubs.
"I've been staying in contact with the players," Baker said. "Most I've talked to seem excited. Some didn't want to be too excited, because they didn't want to be let down if there wasn't a season. The guys are ready. They've got a great attitude. We want to go back to where we belong."
Baker, who followed up a 19-year big league career as a player with a 22-year run as manager that has included nearly 2,000 wins and stops with the Giants, Cubs, Reds and Nationals before coming to Houston, thought he had seen it all in baseball. That was before 2020.
"This is all uncharted waters," Baker said. "None of us have been through this before in Spring Training, the emotions that were out there. None of us had been through this, COVID-19, the distancing. None of us have been through no people in the stands, no energy. I've tried to watch some games from Korea. It's weird to say the least. The main thing is these guys are together and that's what I asked them to do, is stay together. This group is a special group of guys, and they have something to prove."
MLB announced a plan to return to play that features players reporting for training by July 1, leading up to a proposed 60-game regular-season schedule anticipated to begin on July 23 or July 24. There will be no fans in the stands when the regular season starts and plenty of other rules changes for 2020, but Astros owner Jim Crane hopes fans can return to Minute Maid Park. Texas governor Greg Abbott recently said that stadiums and arenas can be filled to 50 percent of capacity.
“I think the intent at some point is to get fans in the ballpark,” Crane said. “At one time, we were at 50 percent with the state. I think that’s going to move around by the time we get to Opening Day, and we really won’t know until we get to Opening Day. We’re going to stay focused on the protocols for the players and the staff and make sure we can keep everybody as safe as they can at this time.”
The possibility of fans at games could be impacted by the surge of coronavirus cases in Texas this month. The state surpassed 5,000 new cases for the first time on Tuesday and then added more than 6,500 on Wednesday. In response to this surge, Abbott authorized local officials to place restrictions on outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people, a threshold he originally set at 500.
Baker, who turned 71 last week, said he has family members who are concerned about his health now that he's returning to work in spite of the strict health protocols players and field staff must follow. He's remained in tremendous shape during the break by working out at home with his son, who plays at Cal, and tending to his vineyard.
"Concerned? Yes," Baker said. "I've got to be a little bit apprehensive in what I do and where I go. But worried? I'm not worried a bit."
Baker was barely getting to learn his players and staff when Spring Training was shut down in mid-March. He'll return to Houston on Thursday with only a week to go before players report to Minute Maid Park. He said he'll rely on his coaches more than ever in the coming weeks.
"They know which relievers get up quickly, which relievers go multiple days, which guys on the team are the best defensive team late in the game," Baker said. "I'm leaning on my staff, also leaning on the guys upstairs -- the stat guys. We are a team. This is the epitome of being a team when you're in a 60-game sprint."
As for the players, Baker has encouraged them for weeks to continue to stay in shape and trusts that they have been considering they have a shot to win another championship this year.
"And so, we'll see when we get there," Baker said. "I can tell pretty quickly who's been working and who hasn't. I'm hoping that everybody's been working."