There’s sil­ver lin­ing

Good guy Baker has shot at ring as man­ager with re­viled Astros

Daily Press (Sunday) - - Sports - By Beth Har­ris

LOS AN­GE­LES — If there’s a uni­ver­sally rec­og­nized good guy among the gen­er­ally re­viled Astros, it’s Dusty Baker.

At 71, he’s the first man­ager to lead five dif­fer­ent fran­chises to the post­sea­son, but is still chasing his first World Series ti­tle at the helm. The Astros have ad­vanced to their fourth con­sec­u­tive AL Cham­pi­onship Series, beat­ing the Ath­let­ics in four games.

Next up, start­ing Sun­day in San Diego, is the AL East cham­pion Rays with a berth in the World Series at stake.

If the Astros get that far, Baker would have a shot at be­ing the sec­ond Black man­ager to win a World Series, join­ing Cito Gas­ton. He would also be the sec­ond old­est to win be­hind 72-year-old Jack McKeon.

While the Astros re­main vil­lains in many peo­ple’s eyes for their sign-steal­ing scan­dal of three years ago, few be­grudge the grand­fa­therly Baker. He’s been care­ful to pro­tect his health dur­ing the coro­n­avirus pan­demic, wear­ing a mask and gloves. He eats oat­meal for break­fast.

“I was re­ally stoked to get a guy like him,” Astros out­fielder Josh Red­dick said. “I heard noth­ing but great things about him. His sto­ries are fan­tas­tic; he’s got a lot of old-timey sto­ries.”

The Astros won the ALDS at neu­tral-site Dodger Sta­dium, Baker’s old stomp­ing ground. He was traded to the Dodgers from the Braves in 1976 and en­dured a rough first sea­son filled with boos.

“That’s why I don’t read any ar­ti­cles on me to this day,” Baker said. “I learned when I was with the Dodgers that first year, why should other peo­ple con­trol my self-es­teem?”

Things be­gan turn­ing around the next sea­son and Baker en­joyed

his big­gest ac­com­plish­ments as a player dur­ing his eight sea­sons in Los An­ge­les: MVP of the 1977 NL Cham­pi­onship Series; the 1981 World Series ti­tle; a two-time All-Star se­lec­tion. Baker’s pres­ence at Dodger Sta­dium re­mains strong, with pho­tos of him and his 1981 Gold Glove on dis­play.

“It taught me some valu­able, valu­able lessons,” he said of his time in Dodger blue. “It taught me not to get too high when things are go­ing good or too low when things are go­ing poorly.”

That at­ti­tude likely came in handy when Baker was hired by the Astros in Jan­uary. He re­placed man­ager AJ Hinch, who was fired in the wake of the team’s cheat­ing scan­dal. For­mer Astros pitcher Mike Fiers re­vealed last year that Hous­ton had used a cam­era in cen­ter field to steal signs and sig­nal hit­ters on which pitches to ex­pect by banging on a garbage can.

As man­ager, Baker has been made to an­swer for the Astros’ past trans­gres­sions, even though he wasn’t around. He’s han­dled all queries with a low-key de­meanor.

“They closed the cir­cle and got into each other,” he said of his team. “It made them closer.”

Early on, Baker barely had time with his new play­ers be­fore spring train­ing was halted in mid-March be­cause of the coro­n­avirus. They didn’t re­con­vene un­til sum­mer

camp in early July and the ab­bre­vi­ated 60-game reg­u­lar sea­son be­gan July 24.

“For a while, I kind of felt like a sub­sti­tute teacher,” he said. “I didn’t know which guys were stub­born or sen­si­tive. They didn’t know how hon­est or truth­ful to be with me or what would tick me off or make me happy. Now I’m turn­ing into a per­ma­nent teacher the last month or so.“

Even with their tal­ented ros­ter, the Astros strug­gled to a 29-31 record in the reg­u­lar sea­son, fin­ish­ing be­hind the West cham­pion A’s.

The pan­demic meant the team had days, not weeks, to counter its prob­lems.

“It was my most chal­leng­ing ever,” Baker said of this sea­son. “It was more un­cer­tainty on a daily ba­sis. Ev­ery day for a while we were get­ting a no­tice that some­body ei­ther had the virus or was hurt. I hated to see my trainer com­ing.”

But the Astros are heat­ing up in the play­offs, with a 5-1 record. The team hit .322 in the ALDS. Car­los Cor­rea, Jose Al­tuve, Alex Breg­man and Kyle Tucker are each bat­ting over .400, and 2017 World Series MVP Ge­orge Springer is at .389.

“We did it all as a group,” left fielder Michael Brant­ley said. “From Dusty at the top all the way to the bot­tom.”

KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/GETTY-AFP PHO­TOS

Man­ager Dusty Baker, left, cel­e­brates with Astros play­ers and coaches af­ter elim­i­nat­ing the A’s on Thurs­day.

The Astros are the fifth team Dusty Baker has led to the post­sea­son.

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