It’s been 41 years since Dusty Baker won a World Series title.
He reached the peak in 1981 with the Dodgers at Yankee Stadium after they beat the New York Yankees in six games, avenging World Series defeats in 1977 and 1978. Baker was a 32-year-old left fielder in his prime, months removed from his first All-Star Game appearance. He believed it was just the first of his championships. He assumed another would come. Then another one.
But another one never came. Not in his final five seasons as a player, and not in his first 24 years as a manager. Baker’s 2,093 wins as a manager are the most in major league history without a championship. A title would cement his National Baseball Hall of Fame case. A year after falling short in the World Series, Johnnie B. Baker is on the cusp again.
“It’s difficult,” Baker said in the home dugout at Minute Maid Park on Thursday, 24 hours before his Houston Astros took the field for Game 1 of the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Baker is 73 years old. He has been in professional baseball for 55 years. He’s a Black American managing in a World Series that doesn’t include any U.S.-born Black players on either roster for the first time since 1950.
He played for four teams and has managed for five franchises. He was on deck when Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run and in the dugout when Barry Bonds banged 73 home runs. He’s credited for inventing the high-five with Glenn Burke.
Plenty around him has changed — from the way the game he loves is played to the people it employs — but he hasn’t. You just had to look at him Thursday carrying a bat around with bright orange batting gloves on and a toothpick in his mouth. Same old Dusty.
He became an institution over the decades, a baseball man universally beloved by people from all corners of the baseball world. He is so beloved that many people in that world who abhorred the Astros for their cheating find themselves rooting for Baker. Yes, even people in the Dodgers’ corner of the world.
“Come on, man,” Ken Landreaux said with a laugh this week. “I’ve been rooting for him since he got with the Astros.”
Landreaux is from Compton. He still lives in the area. He was on the Dodgers’ 1981 team and played his final seven seasons with them. The Dodgers are his team, but Dusty is his guy.
Former Dodgers star Steve Garvey is rooting for Baker too, but he’s also rooting for Bryce Harper, a family friend and the Phillies’ star slugger.
“May the best team win,” Garvey said.
Baker’s first World Series appearance as manager was 20 years ago, in 2002, when his San Francisco Giants were nine outs from clinching the title in Game 6 before blowing a 5-0 lead against the Angels and losing Game 7.
That offseason, Baker left for the Chicago Cubs and made a phone call to Eric Karros. The Cubs wanted to trade for the Dodgers first baseman, but Karros could’ve vetoed the deal. So, Baker made his pitch, and Karros eventually became a Cub.
That October, the Cubs fell one win short of reaching the World Series and Steve Bartman became a pariah. Karros never played for Baker again. Two decades later, his rooting interests are clear.
“Oh, man,” Karros said. “Absolutely I’m rooting for Dusty.”
Karros marveled at Baker’s ability to connect with everybody, no matter their race, background or language. He could morph into a disciplinary father figure or a best friend. He knew what made his players tick. He brought the clubhouse together.
“I guess I would call him, in a complimentary way, a chameleon,” Karros said. “I’m sure there is somebody that dislikes him, but I’ve never run across anybody that said, ‘Man, I didn’t like playing for Dusty.’ I’m sure there is. There has to be. But I don’t know that person.”
Karros remembered Baker bringing soul food to the ballpark for Kenny Lofton and Dominican food for Moises Alou. The little details haven’t changed over the years as Baker bounced from the Cubs to the Cincinnati Reds to the Washington Nationals to, finally, the Astros to steer the team through the cheating scandal’s fallout.
This year, for example, Baker would buy banana pudding from a local spot in a new city and leave it at players’ lockers. Earlier this month, before Game 3 of the American League Championship Series against the Yankees, Baker visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and picked up a rosary for Trey Mancini, assuming Mancini is Catholic because he attended Notre Dame. (He was right.)
Two years ago, Mancini was battling Stage 3 colon cancer and unsure whether he would survive let alone play again. He joined the Astros in a trade from the Baltimore Orioles in August, leaving the only team he had known. Baker’s gesture has stuck with him.
“Before that, for the month prior, I had been scuffling, slumping, kind of uncharacteristically a long time for me,” Mancini said. “And for him to do that, it was really special. In a weird way it gave me a little confidence and helped me out. Little things like that go a long way.”
Those little things are a reason why the team showered him with “Dusty” chants on the podium at Yankee Stadium after clinching the AL pennant.
“He’s a cool cat,” Astros rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña said. “He’s always cool. He’s always calm. He’s got some swagger to him, and he brings out the best in his players.”
“He’s always cool. He’s always calm. He’s got some swagger to him, and he brings out the best in his players.”
— Jeremey Peña, Astros rookie shortstop, on Houston manager Dusty Baker
Peña, the ALCS most valuable player, is 25 years old. His father, Geronimo, played six seasons for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1990s, going up against Baker’s Giants. That was a different time when managers enjoyed more power. Today, front offices use data to influence decisions, sometimes reducing the desire for instincts and feel — two of Baker’s strengths — from the dugout. Baker has survived the shift anyway.
“To be able to manage through these generations I think is a tremendous testimony,” said Garvey, the starting first baseman for the 1981 Dodgers. “He’s a true baseball man. And over the years, I think when you can’t find anybody that has said anything bad about him, I think that’s a true testimony. He’s been a man for all seasons, baseball seasons.”
Rick Monday was Baker’s teammate for seven sevens in Los Angeles, including 1981. He said he always has told people he’s not surprised Baker became a manager or that he became a good one. He immediately recognized not only Baker’s people skills but also his baseball IQ.
“Don’t let the fact that he may be standing there chewing on a part of a toothpick trick you into thinking he’s not processing things very fast,” Monday said. “He’s probably an inning ahead of you already.”
And yet Baker doesn’t have a championship to show for it. He said he believes this Astros club is his best shot since the 2002 Giants. It’s been a different road than the one in 1981, when the Dodgers faced deficits in their three series. The Astros entered Friday having not lost a game in the postseason.
“You gotta have a lot of things go your way,” Baker said. “There’s injuries, there’s guys having good years. And as a manager, you’re at the mercy of how the players play. You can make all the right moves, but the players, if they come through, you look good. If they don’t come through, they blame you.”
Four wins in the next week and Baker won’t be blamed for anything. He would be celebrated around the baseball world, by the thousands of people he has impacted in the professional ranks since 1967. Monday, a Dodgers radio broadcaster since 1993, is one of them, though that doesn’t mean he’ll be rooting for the Astros.
“Uh, well,” Monday said with a chuckle, “I can tell you one thing about Dusty: There won’t be any garbage cans in the dugout.”