HOUSTON (AP) – Dusty Baker, then manager of the San Francisco Giants, had just left the stadium after a landslide loss to the Anaheim Angels in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series when he met his father.
Johnnie B. Baker Sr. didn’t mince words.
“He said, ‘Dude, after the way (you) lost that one, I don’t know if you’ll win another one,” Baker recalled on Sunday.
Nineteen years after that conversation and more than a decade after his father passed away, Baker finally has a chance to prove the opposite to the father he loved so much.
He will have the opportunity starting Tuesday night when he leads the Houston Astros against the Atlanta Braves in the World Series.
Baker, 72, has thought about this conversation often over the years. And since the Astros sent the Red Sox to reach their third fall classic in five years on Friday night, his father’s words have grown even louder in his head.
“So that’s my motivation,” Baker said.
This is Baker’s second trip to the series as a manager. As a player, he went three times with the Dodgers, winning it all as a left fielder in 1981.
In an illustrious career as a star player and manager spanning more than 50 years, winning a World Series as a manager is virtually the only box left open for Baker.
“I know,” he said. “So I just (need to) go ahead and check it out. “
Hall of Fame member Reggie Jackson, the first Mr. October, who now works as a special advisor to Astros owner Jim Crane, added, “I think that would make a wonderful addition to his resume.”
Houston star shortstop Carlos Correa, who becomes a free agent at the end of the season, intends to help Baker add that accomplishment to the back of his baseball card.
“It’s been around for a long time and still hasn’t,” Correa said. “So we will try to do it for him”
It’s been a two-year whirlwind for Baker, who after being fired by the Nationals after a 97-game winning season in 2017, wondered if he would even have another blow to deal with, let alone win that elusive title. .
Back home in Northern California, working in his winery and growing collard greens in his garden, he often felt perplexed that he had been ignored for so many interviews and managerial positions. came and went, after asking questions that he said were unanswered. over the years.
Baker figured his age and salary at this point in his life might be enough to put off many potential CEOs and front offices.
“Are you making peace with this?” he once said. “You make peace, but it kind of makes you lose faith in humanity, between good and evil. And you realize that in the world, especially in this new world, there has always been discrimination, racial discrimination, but it seems in this new world there is age and salary discrimination, that go hand in hand.
It was around this time that his father’s words resonated in his ears.
“I thought about it all the time when I didn’t know if I would come back to this job,” he said.
Then came January 2019 and the astonishing revelation that the Astros illegally stole signs during their run to the 2017 World Series Championship and again in 2018. The cheating scandal cost manager AJ Hinch his job, leaving a team with an almost unfathomable image problem in the need for a strong leader.
Crane found that leader in Baker, a man who now ranks 12th all-time in management wins and has led five teams to the playoffs. In last year’s COVID-19 shortened season, the Astros entered the playoffs as a wild-card team before warming up in the playoffs to come up with a victory before reaching the World Series.
“The first time I met him, we talked for almost two hours, and I knew right away that he was the right person,” Crane said. “Nothing bothered him because he had been through so much.”
And this week, his path comes full circle as he meets the team that pulled him out of high school in 1967 and where he spent the first eight seasons of a 19-year playing career.
It was with the Braves that he obtained his first major league success a few kilometers from Minute Maid Park in the Astrodome, which now disappeared at the age of 19 on September 17, 1968, with “a small dribbler of Mike Cuellar “.
But perhaps more importantly, it was there that he formed a long-standing friendship with the great Hank Aaron, who died in January at the age of 86. It was Aaron who convinced Baker to sign with the Braves instead of pursuing a college basketball career.
“I was chosen to be with Hank,” he said.
Baker was on deck and among the Braves gathered at the plate to celebrate with Aaron on April 8, 1974, when he hit his 715th home run to overtake Babe Ruth for the highest number of all time.
Baker is an All-Star name dropper, having casually mentioned interactions with 11-time NBA Champion Bill Russell, NBA Hall of Fame Moses Malone, and John F. Kennedy Jr. in recent years. month. He loves everything, referring to soul singer Eddie Kendricks this weekend.
But there’s no one Baker likes to talk about more than Hammerin ‘Hank.
Aaron took Baker under his wing, reiterating many lessons Baker’s father had shared with him, such as the value of being honest and helping others. But he also provided a guide to navigating the Deep South as a black man in the 1960s. It was a lesson Baker needed to grow up in California.
“Just life and be a proud African American, but don’t wear that on your sleeve because it’s already on your face,” Baker said.
Baker finds it fitting that he returns to Atlanta with the baseball world watching and can’t wait to see Aaron’s wife and children on the trip.
“It’s very special to go back to Atlanta,” he said. “This will be a truly ending storybook for all of us.”
The Astros are the baddies in baseball, taunted at every stadium for cheating and hated by most outside of Houston. But Baker is so universally beloved around the game, that some reluctantly applaud the Astros this week simply because of the veteran manager.
“There’s a lot of negatives there, but there’s also a lot of people for us too,” Baker said. “There are a lot of people shooting for me.
Brandon Phillips, a three-time retired All-Star second baseman who played for Baker six seasons in Cincinnati, is certainly one of those people. He is delighted to see the man he considered a father figure having another chance because he feared it would never happen.
“For him to take advantage of the situation … especially with all the things that happened with this organization, for him to come out there and change it all around really shows you his character and what kind of manager and what type of man he really is, ”said Phillips.
He knows the cheating scandal will always be a part of Astros’ history, but believes Baker has helped mend some of the franchise’s wounds.
“Dusty was the right guy for this job because he’s going to change your mindset from negative and make it positive,” Phillips said. “This (scandal) will never be forgotten, but all you can do is go and see that they are where they are now because they are a great team and Dusty is the glue.”
Baker’s wife Melissa and son Darren, who just played his first pro ball season in the National System, have attended ALCS games and are now together in Houston to be a part of this special time. .
“I was talking to my dad more about it the next morning and putting everything in perspective, it’s like a movie,” Darren Baker said over the phone on Sunday. “It’s amazing. And then Hank Aaron and playing the Braves is pretty crazy.
Young Baker made headlines on his father’s last trip to the World Series when the 3-year-old served as a bat boy and had to be ripped off the plate by JT Snow to avoid being hit by David Bell .
Family is everything to Baker, who added “Jr.” to his jersey before last season as a nod to his beloved father. As he sat in the canoe on Sunday long after all the players had finished their jobs, he was asked if he thought his father would despise him as he returned to the World Series with the tribute paid to him on a back that has gone through so much in over half a century in the game.
“Oh yeah,” he said, smiling broadly. “Damn, yeah he will.”
And what will the strict master builder think that he once kicked his son off a Little League team for having a bad attitude when he sees him again under the bright lights of baseball’s biggest stage?
“It’s pretty good,” Baker said. “He told me that all the time, but you have to understand that pretty good meant good to my dad.”
AP Baseball writer Janie McCauley contributed to this report.