‘We’re gonna win it’: Inside the night Dusty Baker’s baseball faith was finally rewarded

    ESPN MLB insider
    Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”

HOUSTON — Faith, Dusty Baker says, is the soul of humanity. And so he believes. He believes in the perfect guitar riff and the sound of the waves crashing ashore in Kauai. He believes in his family, which has supported him in this grueling career managing baseball teams for three decades. He believes in himself, even after all these could’ves and should’ves, and he believes in his players, because the moment he gives up on them, what’s left? Baker is the truest of believers, unwavering, and for much of his magnificent baseball life, his faith in men, borne of countless hours learning who they are and what fulfills them and why they play this game that every year ends in failure for 29 teams, defined him in all the wrong ways.

Never did Baker pay much mind to the criticism that he’d never managed a team to a World Series victory. Had he listened to it — to those who harped more on the few games he lost than the many he won — never would he have mustered the gumption to walk into a despondent Houston Astros clubhouse last October, minutes after the Atlanta Braves began celebrating their 2021 World Series championship on Houston’s field, and offered these words: “We’ll be back next year. We’re gonna win it.”

He believed it, too, as much as he believes in all the other things that matter to him. He believes because he expects to win all the time, which is irrational, of course, but greatness and rationality often find themselves at loggerheads.

They didn’t Saturday. The excellence of Baker’s Astros found itself on a crash course with the most logical outcome: that this team so larded with pitching, so crisp and elegant in the field, so timely with its hitting would dispose of the plucky Philadelphia Phillies. And so went Saturday, a day that will forever be remembered here as the one in which the Astros defeated the Phillies 4-1 in Game 6 to deliver the organization’s second World Series championship — and the first not haunted by the scandal that brought Baker here to begin with.

“I knew it was gonna happen sooner or later,” Baker told ESPN amid the on-field revelry, as he slipped on a gray championship T-shirt. “Stay around long enough, it’s gotta happen.”

Baker knows it’s not that simple. He’s 73 now, the oldest manager ever to capture a World Series. He entered this October having won 2,093 regular-season games and 40 more in the playoffs while being the first manager to guide five different organizations to the postseason. And still, the glory he tasted just once in his 19 seasons playing, in 1981 on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ championship-winning team, eluded him as a manager in the 2002 and 2021 World Series, damned him to be the one who was good but not good enough, tested his faith.

He inherited an impossible situation, summoned in 2020 to shepherd a team that had fired its manager and general manager following the revelation that the Astros cheated during their prior championship season in 2017. Baker was beloved around the game, and his presence could bifurcate that of the Astros, who would be supported fanatically in Houston, booed and loathed everywhere else. But Baker refused to separate his own reputation from the team’s. He embraced the Astros, warts and all, and tempered the negativity. He was brought in to play a role — more pop psychologist than in-the-weeds overlord — and he did it masterfully.

Even though they had cheated, he would not allow that to define their next incarnations. They would mold something new, something better. It wouldn’t erase the past, because nothing can, but it would stand alongside it as proof that this organization is more than a trash can used to relay oncoming pitch types to batters in real time. In a world where narratives super glue themselves to stories, Baker was intent on writing a competing one that would change the perspective of the Astros — and him, too.

“He has been an unbelievable manager,” said third baseman Alex Bregman, one of five remaining Astros from the 2017 team. “He has been an unbelievable human being, just on a personal level with every single person in our clubhouse. He loves the game of baseball. He has dedicated his life to this game, and he deserves it. He deserves it.”

None of this, Baker said, was an accident — the marauding through the American League to a 106-win season, the efficient disposal of the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees in the playoffs, the come-from-behind World Series win. It did feel, though, as if fate and destiny and kismet, all the cosmic goodies that accompany belief, underpinned his triumph. Was it a coincidence that in Baker’s first game as manager in 1993, the leadoff hitter for the opposing team was Geronimo Peña, whose son, Jeremy, would rampage through the playoffs as a rookie and win World Series MVP for the Astros? Was it happenstance that the Astros, sustained by a fan base that shared Baker’s faith, became the first team to clinch a World Series at home since 2013, allowing for a raucous celebration to unfold before a crowd of 42,958 at Minute Maid Park, almost all of whom stayed to rejoice in the aftermath? Maybe. And also maybe not.

At the very least it was poetic, which met the moment, because Dusty Baker finally winning a World Series might not have ever happened without him sticking to his principles — relying on a starting pitcher longer than the modern game suggests, or relying on trusted hitters despite their deep struggles. In the past, unconditional faith hindered Baker, presaged his downfall. In 2022, it won him a championship. He let his players do what they do. He let the Astros be the best version of themselves.

AT 5:40 P.M. on Wednesday, the Houston Astros hitters met in the batting cage at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Less than 24 hours earlier, the Phillies’ lineup unleashed an unprecedented barrage of home runs, tagging Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr. for a World Series-record five long balls. Game 3 of the World Series ended in a 7-0 loss and 2-1 series deficit for the Astros, and Michael Brantley refused to treat such embarrassment with silence.

Brantley, 35, joined Houston in 2019, before news of the scandal broke, and re-signed in 2021, when the fusillade of hatred toward the team accompanied the return of fans to ballparks. Brantley listens far more than he speaks. A high-batting-average, low-strikeout throwback and a five-time All-Star, Brantley has spent the past four months on the injured list with a shoulder injury that required surgery, but that hasn’t diminished his standing in the clubhouse. He showed up every day, quick with a pointer or a compliment.

When Brantley asked the hitters to gather in the cage, he intended to offer neither. Brantley was mad enough that hitting coaches Alex Cintron, Troy Snitker and Jason Kanzler, aware of his frustrations, left before the meeting began. Only the players needed to hear what Brantley wanted to say.

The Astros, Brantley said, are an extremely good team — and if something didn’t change, they were going to lose the World Series, just as they had to the Washington Nationals in 2019 and the Braves last year. In Game 3, they let a coterie of Phillies pitchers control the tempo and beat them up, he said, and they needed to play their brand of baseball. No more complacency. No more losing.

Six years earlier, during a 17-minute rain delay between the ninth and 10th innings of Game 7 of the World Series, Chicago Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward gave a speech that lives on in lore as the impetus behind the franchise’s first championship in 108 years. Brantley found himself on the other side of it as an outfielder for Cleveland, the Cubs’ opponent. By this season, he had been on three World Series-losing teams. He could not abide a fourth.

“I’m sick of giving sad hugs,” Brantley told the team.

The response was immediate.

“We were all ready to run through a brick wall,” Astros first baseman Trey Mancini said. “He’s somebody I’ve admired immensely throughout my career. I mean, the model of consistency. His words carry a ton of weight. It meant a lot to us. It turned the series around.”

Word of Brantley’s soliloquy soon filtered to Astros pitchers. They had buoyed the team during the season and for much of the postseason, as leadoff hitter José Altuve and slugger Yordan Álvarez’s struggles weighed down the offense. And in Game 4, they ran square through the Phillies’ offense, twirling a combined no-hitter. The offense, meanwhile, touched up Philadelphia for five runs in the fifth inning to log a 5-0 victory and even the series.

“I didn’t like how we responded in Game 3,” Brantley said four days later as music thumped and champagne corks popped amid the Astros’ celebration. “They hit Lance hard, and we did nothing to respond. We didn’t get into their bullpen to use their main weapons. We didn’t do our job. We made our task harder. So I wanted to let everybody know that if we stuck together, did what we do, played our way, that didn’t matter. I wanted to reiterate that.

“It was straight from the heart, what I believe, what I was feeling, I went to bed that night thinking about it. I woke up that morning and I just had to get it done. I had to say it.”

Following the win, Astros players awarded Brantley as player of the game for a game in which he did not play.

“That was probably the best speech I’ve ever been part of,” said Altuve, the longest-tenured Astro. “He came to us, he had a little meeting and then we won three in a row.”

Baseball clubhouses are living, breathing experiments in human behavior, subject to the whims of fickle men, fragile enough to splinter at the first sign of tension. When Baker took over, the Astros were a lit fuse that he helped to snuff out. Over time, the shared experience of being an Astro — being a villain — bonded the team. And what Baker had fostered during his three seasons emboldened Brantley, who had learned from the best and knew where his homily would fall on the fine line between leadership and overstepping.

“He can do whatever he wants to do,” Baker said. “I’m serious. That’s how much faith I’ve got in Brantley. He’s gonna tell ’em the right thing.”

WHEN YORDAN ÁLVAREZ ARRIVED at Minute Maid Park on the afternoon of Game 6, he ran into Altuve and was greeted with some words of encouragement. Altuve’s father had said the Astros would clinch a championship that night because of Álvarez. Upon entering the clubhouse, Bregman told him something similar. During batting practice, Baker approached him and said: “Hey, big guy. You’re the man today.” At first, the proclamations made him nervous. Eventually, Álvarez settled on another feeling.

“All these things kind of happened to me that gave me all this peace,” he said.

Over the previous 20 days, Álvarez would’ve given anything for peace. After hitting winning home runs in the Astros’ first two postseason games against the Mariners, the 25-year-old slugger went through one of the worst 10-game stretches of his career. Over the last game of the division series, the four-game sweep of the Yankees in the ALCS and the first five games of the World Series, he batted .125 and slugged .175. Baker kept him in the No. 3 hole nonetheless, hopeful Álvarez would recapture his magic.

Even before his teammates’ encouragement, Álvarez had arrived at the stadium with a desire to end this series quickly: His daughter, Mia, was turning 4 on Sunday, and he had a birthday party to attend. By the time of his third at-bat, in the sixth inning, the prospects looked grim: Slugger Kyle Schwarber had given the Phillies the lead in the top of the inning with a laser home run to right field. The beginnings of a rally in the bottom of the inning sent starter Zack Wheeler to the showers, with Phillies manager Rob Thomson calling on 100 mph-throwing left-hander Jose Alvarado to face the left-handed-hitting Álvarez.

“I needed to give a gift to my family, my daughter,” Álvarez said, and he intended to do so with an adjustment he had gotten in the dugout from Cintron after his first two at-bats: get his front foot down more quickly. Following three pitches outside the strike zone, a 98.9-mph sinker rode over the middle of the plate, and Álvarez’s swing produced a majestic drive. The ball landed above the batter’s eye in center field, 450 feet away, and furnished the Astros a 3-1 lead.

Teammates met Álvarez near home plate with huzzahs, and the line of back pats and head slaps continued through the dugout. At the far end, for the final salutation, awaited Baker, the man who was part of the first known high-five in 1977, who delivered one to Álvarez for what proved to be the winning swing.

Baker’s comments to Alvarez before the game — and the culture he built that sees his players lift each other up as well — demonstrate one of his greatest strengths: For all the times that his managerial maneuvers still register as head scratchers, he tends to nail the little things that feel big, that show people they matter to him, that encourage others to reciprocate his faith.

Before Game 3 of the ALCS, Baker stopped at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and procured a string of rosary beads for a struggling Mancini. Houston acquired Mancini in a deadline trade with Baltimore, hoping to add a bat off the bench. After thriving in his two weeks with the team, he had fallen into a deep slump, batting .152 and going hitless in his first six playoff at-bats. The rosary didn’t end the hitless streak that stretched to 18 at-bats before he finally singled in Game 6, but Mancini did make a game-saving play in Game 5 when, for the first time in nearly a month, he was called upon to man first base in the ninth inning after Yuli Gurriel injured his knee in a rundown.

“He just said for anybody kind of going through it struggling a little bit, I felt like you should have this rosary,” said Mancini, who still was carrying it in his backpack Saturday. “And that meant a lot to me. Gave me confidence.”

The Astros overcame the struggles of Mancini and Alvarez and, through a long stretch in the ALDS and ALCS, Altuve, by relying on their unimpeachable run-prevention skills. The no-hitter served as a microcosm of Houston’s championship run. In one of the most flaccid offensive postseasons since playoff expansion in 1969 — players as a whole hit .211/.282/.358 — the Astros posted a 2.29 ERA over 126 innings pitched. The bullpen was particularly good, allowing only five earned runs in 54.1 innings.

“They didn’t need a pep talk,” Mancini said.

All they needed was support — run and emotional. Baker gladly provided the latter. In Game 5, Astros ace Justin Verlander — who entered the game winless in the World Series — faced a pickle in the fifth inning. He surrendered a two-out double to Phillies star Bryce Harper, and rather than summon his vaunted bullpen, Baker stayed with Verlander to face veteran Nick Castellanos. With the count 2-2, Castellanos fouled off three pitches, took another for ball three, spoiled one more and finally swung through a full-count slider to finish the inning and, eventually, record that first World Series win.

The hug between Verlander and Baker after the fifth inning prefaced a much larger and more emotionally charged embrace a few days later, after Kyle Tucker squeezed a Castellanos fly ball in foul territory in right field for the final out of Game 6. As madness unfolded on the field, Baker was busy filling out the final box on his scorecard. He then found himself swallowed by a mass of humanity as the Astros’ coaching staff surrounded him, bouncing, regaling, chanting, over and over, “Dusty! Dusty! Dusty!”

“Everybody knows the story, the situation, and just to be able to go out there and make this happen is amazing,” Altuve said. “I don’t know if it means more or less, but we all really, really happy, and what I can tell you is every single guy inside the clubhouse deserves everything that’s happening. We never were selfish about anything. Our goal was just to win games. And I think that’s why we are here right now.”

This year, Altuve put up a 160 OPS+, the same number as his MVP season in 2017. Baker first earned Altuve’s support, then his trust and ultimately his full backing, as even during that 0-for-25 postseason slump Baker declined to drop him from the leadoff spot.

“Dusty got here in a difficult time, but he was a perfect fit for us,” Altuve said. “I’m so happy for him. He just won his first World Series for the whole city forever.”

AS THE AUG. 2 trade deadline approached this year, Astros general manager James Click — who was hired shortly after Baker and replaced Jeff Luhnow, the polarizing figure who oversaw the construction of the group that has reached the ALCS six consecutive seasons — was canvassing the landscape in search of a bat. Since taking over in 2020, Click hadn’t pulled off the sort of headline-grabbing deal Luhnow made annually toward the end of his tenure. But now was the time.

The Astros and Chicago Cubs were in agreement on a trade to send star catcher Willson Contreras to the Astros for starter Jose Urquidy, four sources familiar with the deal told ESPN. The straight-up trade was agreed upon, pending owner approval. That approval never came.

During the 2022 season, as the Astros churned toward a regular-season win total one shy of their franchise record, relationships outside the clubhouse soured, according to sources. Owner Jim Crane, who paid a record $5 million fine levied by commissioner Rob Manfred for the cheating scandal, took a more hands-on role in baseball operations. New voices, such as Astros Hall of Fame first baseman Jeff Bagwell, grew in prominence. And when Click tried to execute the trade for Contreras — a pending free agent who is not regarded as a good defensive catcher but would’ve ably filled the hole at designated hitter that plagued the Astros during the postseason — another prominent name let his opposition be known: Dusty Baker.

“Much as I like Willson Contreras, Urquidy was one of our best pitchers then,” Baker said. “I needed a guy that wasn’t going to complain about not playing every day. And this is his (free agent) year. See, that’s tough. When you trade for a player in his (free agent) year. Everybody’s about numbers and stuff, and I can’t blame them, no doubt. But that’s not what we needed.”

In the best organizations, the general manager and manager’s aspirations cohere. Both Click and Baker’s contracts are now expired, and the 2022 season illustrated how lame-duck status for both simultaneously can influence something as seminal as player acquisition. Dealing Urquidy, a 27-year-old right-hander with three years of team control until he reaches free agency, made sense to the Astros’ front office, particularly with the team’s starting pitching depth. Crane — who when asked for comment walked into the clubhouse that was closed off to reporters — disagreed and spiked the deal, only furthering widespread concerns among front-office members that despite maintaining the Astros’ success, Click’s return is no given. Click declined comment.

Crane earlier had told ESPN that he planned on addressing Click and Baker’s futures Monday, the same day as the championship parade in Houston. He spoke fondly of Baker, saying in their first meeting they spoke for 2½ hours that “seemed like we talked 10 minutes. We had a lot in common.

“We needed a guy with a lot of experience,” Crane continued, “a lot of poise, been through a lot of things and handled it extremely well.”

The Astros needed more than anything a culture change. They had traded for closer Roberto Osuna in 2018 despite domestic-violence allegations, and assistant GM Brandon Taubman was fired for taunting female reporters after Osuna recorded a pennant-clinching win after blowing the save in Game 6 of the 2019 ALCS. Then came the scandal, the firings of Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, and the fallout.

In the same way Baker stabilized the clubhouse, Click steadied the front office. He expanded the team’s scouting operation after Luhnow had decimated it in favor of an almost completely analytics-based approach. He built Houston’s monstrous bullpen, trading for Rafael Montero, signing Hector Neris and Ryne Stanek, and giving bigger roles to Bryan Abreu, who debuted in 2019, and Hunter Brown, who was drafted that year. Even after the Contreras trade fell apart, his deadline deals for Mancini and catcher Christian Vazquez wound up paying dividends in the World Series.

Mostly, Click didn’t disturb the foundation in place. The Astros’ World Series roster boasted 15 players who debuted with them and never have worn another uniform, the highest percentage of homegrown players this century, according to Baseball America, a testament to Houston’s ability to evaluate and develop players at an enviable level. Left-hander Framber Valdez, who won Games 2 and 6, and Cristian Javier, author of six no-hit innings in Game 4, signed for $10,000 each. Center fielder Chas McCormick, whose against-the-fence catch in the ninth inning saved Game 5, was given $1,000 as a 21st-round pick. Development successes dot the Astros’ roster.

The Astros represent what’s now. They hit in the draft. They find talent in Latin America. They develop well. They amalgamate stats and scouting. They live in the new school but don’t ignore the old. At their best, they are balanced, an organization that somehow didn’t teeter over in the aftermath of its greatest shame.

Just as they recognize Baker’s influence, warmly and assuredly, players know the impact of this front office . They see signs in the stands, like the one Saturday that read: WE <3 CLICK. On the stage during the championship presentation, McCullers put his arms on Click's shoulders, leaned in and said to him: "This is real." He wanted Click to understand: The cheers from the stands, the confetti streaming above, the entire scene -- he should appreciate his part in all of it.

“Dusty’s gonna get a lot of the attention, but (Click) was in a very similar spot: took a job in a tough spot, and I thought he has done a heck of a job with our team,” McCullers said. “I thought he’s added pieces that we needed. That little moment was just a congratulations to him and the work he’s done here.”

AT 12:13 A.M., about two hours after Tucker recorded the 27th out of Game 6, Baker emerged from his office ready to head out. He wore khaki cargo pants, a Hawaiian shirt and an unending grin. He posed for a few final pictures, including one with National Baseball Hall of Fame president Josh Rawitch and vice president of communications Jon Shestakofsky, who held the museum’s booty from Baker: his No. 12 jersey, the wristbands with his cartoon visage he wears every game and a box of the toothpicks he chews in-game habitually, made of birchwood, infused with tea tree oil, mint-flavored.

Baker strode through the double doors, hooked a left and headed toward the parking lot. He stopped when a security worker asked for a commemorative hat. She had been talking with Baker’s wife, Melissa, who said he might have some swag for her. Baker’s grin didn’t break. He reached into his bag, pulled up a fresh cap and gave her the memento of a lifetime.

She didn’t care about Baker’s previous Game 6 bugaboos, in the 2002 World Series or 2003 National League Championship Series. Or that the careers of Cubs right-handers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, two of the most promising pitchers of their generation, withered under Baker’s overuse two decades ago. Or that, a few minutes earlier, Bregman in the clubhouse had disclosed that he had broken a finger on an eighth-inning slide into second, adding to a list of injuries that include Gurriel’s knee and Altuve’s hamstring. “Me, Yuli and Altuve all would’ve been out of the lineup tomorrow,” Bregman said to Brantley after the game.

None of that mattered, thanks to Alvarez’ home run and the Astros’ win. Thanks to Baker’s unyielding support, the present was gilded for all.

“I’ll see you Monday,” Baker said to another group of stadium workers as he kept walking.

“Congratulations,” one said.

“See y’all, man,” Baker said. “See y’all later.”

“All right, coach!” another said.

“Can I get a picture?” a third chimed in.

Why not? Baker never took for granted the privilege of his life, from his big league debut at 19 years old to Saturday, when he became the third Black manager to win a World Series. If the price of that is posing for a few photos, then pose he would. He survived more than half a century in baseball, even as the sport pivoted away from what he knew. He evolved with it — or enough of it at least — and never lost the sense of who he is.

“If you’re not true to yourself, that means that you don’t like yourself,” Baker said, “I just try to do me. At this point, what else can I do?”

Just keep walking, plowing ahead, as he always does, even those times when he got scapegoated and fired and worried he’d never manage again. But baseball always came back. And every team Baker managed won at least one division title.

“Can I get a picture, Dusty?” a woman said. “My dad was the biggest fan of you in Chicago.”

She wondered, like so many here do, whether Baker will return in 2023 or coast off into retirement, to his vineyard in California or his five acres in Kauai or whatever else catches his interest.

“I don’t know,” Baker said. “We’ll see.”

And with that, he retreated to his car. The parking-lot attendants said they would miss Baker, who always treated them well, and hoped he would return next year. For now, he needed to go to Potente, the restaurant owned by Crane, for the afterparty, where he’d soak in the afterglow of the championship that was finally his. After all these years, all the close calls and series lost, it was time to figure out what life is like when faith is rewarded.

Source: Read Full Article