- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 1, 2022

PHILADELPHIA — Dusty Baker isn’t thinking about the past. 

It’s been 41 years since his first and last World Series championship as an outfielder with the Los Angeles Dodgers and 20 years since his first Fall Classic as a manager with the San Francisco Giants. At 73 years old, Baker now has another chance, perhaps his final one, with the Houston Astros to manage a club to a World Series title — a feat that’s been more elusive for him than any other skipper in MLB history.

“You’ve got to leave that back there where it is, and you got to live in the present here,” Baker said Monday about whether being in the World Series brings back memories of the 1981 or 2002 Fall Classics. “It comes in your mind every once in a while, but you try not to look back. You’ve got to look to today and look forward.”

As one of 12 men in baseball history with more than 2,000 wins, he’s the only one without a ring as a manager. It’s the lone blemish on an otherwise masterful career for one of baseball’s ultimate lifers. 

“I’m just a ballplayer that’s trying to play ball and trying to win,” Baker said last week before the Astros’ series against the Phillies began. 

“I’ve always said, if I win one, I want to win two,” added Baker, who is expected to be back with the Astros in 2023, according to the New York Post’s Jon Heyman. “So you got to win one first and then we’ll work on number two at that time.”

Baker’s 55-year career in professional baseball has put him in the vicinity of several historic moments. He was the on-deck hitter when Hank Aaron hit home run No. 715 to pass Babe Ruth. He was in the dugout for two of the most memorable scenes in postseason history — the first with the Giants when his young son and bat boy, Darren Baker, was picked up by J.T. Snow as he crossed home plate, and the second with the Cubs during the Steve Bartman incident. 

Now, Baker is a few wins away from not just claiming his first World Series title as a manager, but also solidifying himself as a sure-fire Hall of Famer and one of the best skippers in MLB history. Of the 22 managers in the Baseball Hall of Fame, only four were inducted without a World Series ring. Baker’s resume likely puts him in the Hall either way, but his induction becomes a slam dunk if the dominant Astros can defeat the plucky Phillies. 

“Every [manager] who has stuck around long enough and been successful is in the Hall of Fame,” said James Buckley Jr., author of “The National Baseball Hall of Fame Collection.”

“Everyone who has won 2,000 games — except for current managers Bruce Bochy and Dusty Baker — is already in the Hall of Fame. You don’t get to be a manager in the major leagues for 2,000 wins, for that many games, and not be good at what you do.”

For someone with Baker’s pedigree — 1,981 hits and 242 home runs as a player with the Braves, Dodgers, Giants and Athletics, and 2,093 wins (ninth all time) and 12 postseason appearances as a manager with the Giants, Cubs, Reds, Nationals and Astros  — it’s almost inconceivable that Baker’s current stint with Houston may be the most impressive of his long career. 

After his time with the Washington Nationals ended on a sour note in 2017, many assumed the then-68-year-old would walk away from the game. Baker led the Nationals to NL East titles in both of his seasons, but he was let go after losing in the NLDS for the second straight year — a move that Baker said “surprised and disappointed” him.

But now in his third season with the Astros, a franchise that was engulfed in its self-inflicted sign-stealing scandal when he took over in 2020, Baker has kept his positive public image intact despite leading a club that is largely despised by baseball fans. He’s also blended his old-school style with the analytically driven Astros front office better than other veteran managers. 

“I don’t think it could be overstated the mess that Dusty inherited from a PR standpoint,” said Sean Pendergast, a host at SportsRadio 610 in Houston. “He came in and embraced the hate the Astros were feeling and continue to feel. He was the perfect guy to embrace the atmosphere that the Astros faced in opposing ballparks.”

After losing in the ALCS in his first season, Baker led the Astros back to the Fall Classic last year, which the Braves won in six games. Now, Houston — arguably the best-run organization in baseball, cheating scandal notwithstanding — is in the World Series for the fourth time in six years. 

The Astros won an AL-best 106 games in the regular season and swept the Mariners and Yankees for another crack at a championship ring. They entered the World Series against the Phillies, a team that squeaked into the postseason with just 87 wins, as significant favorites by oddsmakers.

While his time with Houston has only strengthened Baker’s resume, that could backfire if he and the Astros can’t bring the championship trophy home to Texas. It would be Baker’s third loss in a World Series, and second straight defeat with a team that’s considered a juggernaut. Forever attached to his illustrious regular-season credentials and beloved personality would be the “yeah, but” comments about his teams wilting away in the postseason and never reaching the mountaintop.

“If he doesn’t win a World Series with this team,” said Landry Locker, a host at SportsRadio 610 in Houston, “because he loses to the Braves and now the Phillies, I will say, despite the fact that he’s a Hall of Famer, he should definitely have a World Series. I don’t know if I could have said that before, but there will be zero excuse after this year for him to not have that World Series.”

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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