Dusty drawing on life in baseball to guide Astros

February 4th, 2020

It’s Friday evening in Sacramento, Calif. is packing his bags, getting ready for Spring Training, which is a week away. Packing comes a day after Baker was named manager of the Astros, and he doesn’t hesitate to say he is hungry to win his first World Series title as a manager.

On paper, Baker has the team to go all the way this year. Baker has an awesome lineup which features star infielders Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman and outfielder George Springer. Baker already knows his Opening Day starter: reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander.

February is Black History Month, and Baker has some history of his own in mind. If his mission is accomplished in October, Baker would join his pal and former teammate, Cito Gaston, as the only African American managers to win a World Series title. Gaston was a mentor for Baker early in his professional playing career, which began as an 18-year-old at Double-A Austin, Texas, in 1967. Some 53 years later, one of the first calls Baker received after being named Astros manager came from Gaston.

“Cito has kept me going many, many times," Baker said. "I would love to join Cito [as a World Series-winning African American manager]. We go way back. Cito took care of me 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 kind 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.'"

Baker, now 70, went on to have a successful 19-year playing career, most notably with the Dodgers and Braves. He has 22 years of managerial experience with the Giants, Cubs, Reds and Nationals, with a career record of 1,863-1,636, seven division titles and a National League pennant with San Francisco in 2002. Baker is 15th on the all-time managerial wins list and first among active managers.

The drive to be successful came from his parents, Johnnie Sr. and Christine Baker. They taught him at an early age that he had to be twice as good to achieve what he wanted in life. It’s safe to say Dusty didn’t disappoint his parents. Yet, Baker often has taken criticism for the way he managed his clubs.

“No matter how [well] I did, I feel under criticism of why I didn’t do this or how come I don’t know sabermetrics," Baker said. "I don’t know this or that. In the meantime, I’m 137 wins away from 2,000. I must have done something right.”

Baker takes over an Astros team that was eight outs away from winning the World Series last year, but found itself in a sign-stealing scandal this offseason that led to the team dismissing manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow. Baker believes the way the roster is currently constructed, he will win at least two World Series titles.

“It would mean the first of two," Dusty said of winning a World Series. "I always said, 'If I win one, I will win two.' I still believe that. I believe it is already written. I feel badly for AJ Hinch because he is a good guy. I like him a lot. … If I win one, I’ll win two.”

There are two things Baker brings to the table. First, he commands the respect of his players. Second, he has a paternal, veteran presence that can get the Astros through a tough stretch during the season. That tough stretch will start in Spring Training, when Astros players will have to explain their role in the sign-stealing scandal. Baker will be there to guide his players through this process. Building trust is big for Baker, and he expects it from both sides.

“I’ve been through some stuff and maybe I can help these guys through some of this, because all my life has not been all rosy either,” Baker said. “A lot of it has been great, but some of it has been trying. Some of it has been a test of faith. Some of it has been my fault. Some of it was not my fault. But you have to claim it all.”

Before taking the Astros job, Baker became a grandfather for the first time this offseason when his daughter Natosha gave birth to Nova Love Smith. Baker was planning to see his grandson often and to watch his son, Darren, play college baseball for the University of California, Berkeley, this year, but now that has changed.

“I got the blessing of my family [to manage]. If they said no, I would have said no,” Baker said. “This is my son’s junior year, when he is going to get drafted. I’ve been around him the last couple of years playing in the Cape Cod League. It’s been a real blessing.”