By Derrick Goold St. Louis Post-Dispatch
HOUSTON — When he walks into a room, taking decades of baseball success and a cool baseball life with him, Dusty Baker “immediately changes the whole vibe,” one of his players said late Saturday night. He can bring donuts, local cuisine or maybe some pudding to share, and he always has stories. He left a rosary for one player and surprised another with a freshly caught salmon fillet.
He has a knack for finding ways to connect.
Sometimes it’s fish. Sometimes they are treats. Sometimes it’s listening.
From the start, in Houston, it gave stability.
“Dusty is an incredible Mount Rushmore-type baseball figure,” Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. said. “When he was hired here, after the scandal, he gave us such a sense of self and a sense of stability We were able to break through for Dusty, but just as much he was there for us. … He took a job in a tough situation (and said): ‘Look, I don’t give a damn (shit) what happened. past in the past. I’m going to stay here with you guys. We’re going to fight and we’re going to win a World Series.’ Indeed, it took a few years, but we are there.
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“We wanted to do this for him.”
One of baseball’s most beloved people filled a void on his eventual Hall of Fame plaque on Saturday night with his first World Series championship as a manager. It was enough to lead baseball’s most reviled club to the trophy.
The villains defended a hero.
Five years after Houston won a title marred by the sign-stealing scandal that inflamed the organization’s reputation, the Astros overturned Game 6 against the Phillies and won 4-1 Saturday at Minute Maid Park. Yordan Alvarez’s 450-foot three-run homer to the seats atop the tallest wall in center field erased the Phillies’ one-run lead in the sixth inning. Houston went from there to win the best of seven series, four games to two, and lift the World Series trophy in front of the home crowd for the first time in franchise history. For years, it was the only crowd cheering them on.
Since the revelations of Houston cheating and using drums to convey pitch types to hitters, they’ve been booed, mocked and berated on the road, serenaded with the sound of trash cans at every stop. They had all the makings of a dynasty with four World Series in six years and six straight American League Championship Series appearances and yet no sparkle, only skepticism.
Their legacy needed the chemical wash of another title.
“Well, of course we did,” owner Jim Crane said Saturday, confetti strewn nearby. “It’s pretty obvious.”
In the wreckage of the cheating scandal, Crane fired his manager and general manager Jeff Luhnow. A talented and winning core returned to his team, but he needed new leadership to take the stench out of the organization. Crane said the first time he interviewed Baker he “knew he would work”. No kidding. Baker brought decades of integrity to an organization that had lost theirs in months. It was clear what Houston would get from Baker. But would it be worth Baker sticking his toothpicks into the Astros mess in 2020?
These toothpicks are now destined for the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Among the goodies collected after Game 6 by Cooperstown officials were the iconic sweatbands Baker wore during Game 6, his jersey from the Astros’ Game 2 victory and toothpicks from his collection. Presumably not used by the game.
“When the scandal came out and I got hired here, you know, oh, yeah, I felt like it was meant to be,” said Baker, a longtime Cardinals rival who has successful and won division titles with the Giants, Nationals, Cubs and Reds before Houston. “I really thought it was meant to be. Highlight.
“We have moved on and hopefully continue this run,” Baker continued. “(Crane) wants that feeling, and I really like that feeling. When I was a kid, I hated the Celtics because they were winning too much. I didn’t like the Yankees. But then when I became a player and coach, I aspired to be like the Celtics and the Yankees.
The oldest manager to win a World Series championship, Baker, at 73, has more playoff wins than any other non-title manager and 2,093 regular season wins in 25 years. He reached the World Series in 2002 with San Francisco and then lost Games 6 and 7. In 2021 he came back to the World Series with Houston and lost to Atlanta in Game 6. He talked so much about those misses last October, about his father suggesting he might not get another chance. He had coffee to buy and was fixing shoes to pick up on Saturday morning, but later revealed he woke up thinking how “Match 6 has been my nemesis”.
At the end, he was attacked by my coaches and my players in a corner of the dugout, jubilant for victory. During the celebration, his wife saw in him what always was.
“Just pure love for the game,” Melissa Baker said on the pitch after the trophy presentation. “He always said whether he won or not – and of course he wanted to win – he loved the game, and nothing would change that.”
The tension of Game 6 built up over five innings as the teams combined for significantly more strikeouts (13) than base runners (seven). Philadelphia right-hander Zack Wheeler found his touch and tied Houston left-hander Framber Valdez zero for zero in five innings. Kyle Schwarber scored a 2-2 lead from Valdez for a first homer and a 1-0 lead in the sixth inning. It was as quiet as a sold-out crowd at Minute Maid Park. The silence did not last.
Astros receiver Martin Maldonado invaded Wheeler’s plate to start the sixth and drew an inside throw that sliced his elbow.
Rookie Jeremy Pena, son of former Cardinal prospect Geronimo Pena, chose midfield for his second hit of the game. That success helped him cap off his rookie season with World Series MVP to partner his ALCS MVP. Pena’s single knocked Wheeler out of the game and proved to be the prelude to the biggest hit ever in the heartland of Texas. With runners in the corners and one out, Phillies manager Rob Thomson turned to southpaw Jose Alvarado to take on southpaw Alvarez. Four pitches later, Alvarez drilled a 98.9 mph sinker at dead center field.
The home run turned a one-run deficit into a 3-1 game. Christian Vazquez added an RBI single later to widen the lead for a quick, drama-free ninth inning.
As the Finals approached, the Astros were once again a team that knew what was coming.
By trust, not by conspiracy.
“People are going to hate us,” McCullers said. “Look, we put ourselves in this situation. I don’t dance around. … We got into a bad patch and all we could do was come out of it a winner. We’ve done this year after year now, and I can’t tell people how they feel or what they must think of us. Just know that in this locker room the guys did it the right way and we really deserved it.
How this era will deal with these Astros is yet to be determined. In their favor will be the way Baker has treated so many people in baseball.
They may never be a lovable team or completely free from scandal, but they will be the team that won a championship for a lovable figure.
“He’s just a happy human,” coach Gary Pettis said.
The Astros thought a title would change their perception.
It may actually be who they won that title with.
Or maybe they don’t care at all, y’all.
“Keep booing us,” said closer Ryan Pressly. “It doesn’t matter. Keep booing us. Y’all can say what you want to say, but we’re the best.