Dusty Baker leads Astros to World Series title

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HOUSTON — As many of the Houston Astros celebrated their World Series championship on the Minute Maid Park field Saturday night, a smaller, equally exuberant celebration erupted in the corner near the home dugout. It was there that his coaches and players piled on manager Dusty Baker, who had just won his first World Series title in 30 years of management with a 4-1 victory in Game 6 over the Philadelphia Phillies.

In the end, the winning equation was simple: Framber Valdez pitched six dominant innings. Yordan Alvarez hit a three-run homer in the sixth to give the Astros a lead. Their towering enclosure held him. Maybe after all that, Baker had already endured the hardest part.

The Astros ended a stunning playoff run in which they lost two games en route to their second title in six years – their first since the sign-stealing scandal that forced them to eliminate their coaching staff, the one who left them in need. a manager capable of weathering the legacy storms to come. Jeremy Peña, who had 10 hits and three RBIs in 25 at bats, was the first rookie player to be named World Series MVP.

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Whether that win qualifies as redemption for the Astros’ 2017 tainted title is a question for baseball’s collective conscience, which can rarely agree on much. But one of the things he does agree on is Baker, a beloved presence in the sport. He’s not a perfect manager. He’s not a perfect person, something he’s mentioned many times since taking over here. The Astros made mistakes, he said. But so does every person who boos them, and so does he.

Fortunately, baseball doesn’t reward perfection. It rewards resilience. He unearths the truth. And the truth about Baker, three decades into his managerial career, is that few people in this game are so universally respected — so consistently, consistently, nice.

As the rest of the industry rooted for him, Baker practiced not needing a title. He had accepted an inheritance which did not include one; he said no one would make him feel like a failure, not with 2,093 regular season wins to his name – ninth all-time, behind only the Hall of Famers.

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But he didn’t take new jobs over and over again, just to put himself in a position to be fired, to answer questions about every decision, to be told he wasn’t analytical enough to handle this data-driven era. No, Baker always felt that fate was playing a part in this, that something bigger was at work. And for years, he kept hoping that whatever it was, it would eventually lead him here. When Kyle Tucker caught up to the final on Saturday night, Baker became the oldest manager to win a World Series title, at 73.

Baker hadn’t been close to getting a title like this in 20 years. The Astros never won by less than a title last season. But on Saturday he did the usual pre-game handshake of friends and celebrities, adding country star George Strait to his long, long list of famous acquaintances. He leaned on the cage during Astros batting practice, and as usual, several people walked up to him, just to chat.

And he admitted he was holding back his emotions. Sometimes during his pre-match press conference he seemed nervous. At other times, such as when he described the support he feels from African Americans around Houston and the sport, when he spoke of the responsibility that comes with his role as the most visible black manager in the baseball history, a responsibility he never asked for.

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He spoke of the souls who preceded him. With each passing season, he watched his friends and loved ones leave, watched younger men leave the sport or die, watched the game enter an era in which he sometimes felt it had no place. Earlier this postseason, Baker speculated that he might have “10 to 12 more years left,” and the implication was that he meant on Earth, not just in sports. He never shied away from his mortality. But he never let the World Series dream die either.

His son, Darren, was a 3-year-old batboy the first time he got the chance, too young to know what was going on, small enough for Giants first baseman JT Snow to bail him out of danger in the one of the most iconic images in recent baseball history. Darren was there on Saturday too, old enough to share in the champagne party – old enough to know exactly what it means.

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Baker began his title hunt even before Darren was born. He managed 10 years before arriving at his first World Series. It was 20 years ago now, two decades in which Baker questioned whether his decision to remove starting pitcher Russ Ortiz from what could have been a deciding Game 6 would be his World Series legacy. The Giants bullpen couldn’t hold the lead Baker gave it.

Valdez was born a few weeks after Baker completed his first season as manager in 1993. Baker probably wouldn’t have that title without him. The southpaw started Saturday after allowing three total earned runs in three playoff starts this year. He left Saturday having allowed four earned runs in four playoff starts this year. At one point, he retired the Phillies’ first five batters in a row, the second left-hander in World Series history to do so. The only other was a guy named Sandy Koufax.

But Phillies starter Zack Wheeler matched him nearly every step of the way. They both pitched in fifth without allowing a runner to get to third base, let alone score. In fact, it was Valdez who blinked first when he allowed a homer without a doubt to Kyle Schwarber in the sixth. Then the Astros put two men in the bottom of the inning. Now it was Rob Thomson who had to decide how best to hold on to a lead in a potentially decisive World Series game – stay with Wheeler, who had been dominant, or go to his best reliever and cross his fingers.

And it’s Thomson who will wonder for years what could have been because the first batter Jose Alvarado faced was Yordan Alvarez. Alvarez hit a three-run homer 450 feet from center field. Baker was nine out.

When Alvarez returned to the dugout, Baker was at the furthest end from home plate, a different spot than normal. Alvarez walked all the way up the stairs and shared a high-five with Baker that just might have been the most heated either of them had ever shared in their life. Legend has it that Baker invented this move during his playing days. Baker’s life was never short of legends. In fact, he hadn’t lacked anything – except a World Series victory as a manager.

The curse had his Cubs promising in the 2003 NLCS. His reds were never full enough. The Nationals have twice pushed divisional playoff projections to five games under his watch, but have missed a hit, play or break each time.

The second time, in 2017, the property did not allow the contract to be extended before the playoffs. After the Nationals lost Game 5, he waited a few days to make a deal. It didn’t happen, so he returned to California assuming it would happen there instead. He got a phone call, not a contract. And he found himself jobless at 70, ripped from the team he believed would finally get him the title he wanted. Two years later, he saw one of his mentees, Dave Martinez, lead them there instead.

About a week ago, Nationals owner Mark Lerner called to congratulate him and wish him luck. It’s Baker’s experience in the sport he loves, cherished until it’s no more, set aside to the whims of a capricious sport. But the temperamental sport gave him a complicated last chance when the Astros needed a fresh start. And as fate would have it, that last chance came with one of the most successful organizations in sport. If the Nationals hadn’t fired him, if the scandal had never happened… well, Baker learned a long time ago that what he wanted wasn’t always going to be what he got, nor always what he needed.

But on Saturday, Baker got the title he wanted, the title everyone said he needed. The quest that consumed most of his adult life is over. But Baker always insisted that if he won one World Series, he would win two. After all that, he will be happy to have a chance to test the theory.

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