San Antonio Express-News
Baker not consumed by future with Astros
HOUSTON — Last season, Dusty Baker came one win away from the World Series during the craziest season in Astros history, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
This year, Baker’s Astros possess the best record in the American League and the second-best mark in Major League Baseball, and recently reveled in an 11-game winning streak, even though All-star Alex Bregman is on the injured list and two-time Cy Young winner Justin Verlander hasn’t thrown a pitch in 2021.
Add the above two together and what do you have?
Normally, a looming contract extension for the Astros’ manager that could be announced any day.
But this is baseball. And this is Baker. And these are the Astros.
Which means that the same interesting dance that began Jan. 29, 2020, when Baker was hired as A.J. Hinch’s replacement in the messy aftermath of a sign-stealing scandal, is still playing out as July approaches a year later.
How long is Baker going to keep managing the Astros?
How much longer do the Astros want to be professionally tied to Baker?
Who’s going to make the first move and publicly display long-term commitment … or quietly acknowledge that life is long and nothing lasts forever?
Six months ago, Baker said this when discussing whether he wanted to manage the Astros after the 2021 cam
paign: “Maybe. It depends on how I feel. Depends on how the team feels about me. You never know what changes could come about in life.”
These Astros started 6-1. Then they hit 10-11. Then they were 27-24 after two painful extrainning home defeats to San Diego. Then they went 20-4 in their next 24 games. And then Hinch’s rebuilding Detroit Tigers beat the theoretically much better Astros again Sunday, after ex-astro Robbie Grossman executed a 10th-inning squeeze bunt that doubled as an odd walkoff defeat for Baker’s team.
So how did the 72-year-old Baker feel about his long-term Astros future Monday afternoon, as the best hitting team in MLB prepared to host rebuilding Baltimore, which rivals Arizona as the worst club in the sport?
Has anything in the last six months changed Baker’s mind?
“My mind wasn’t changed or made up in the first place,” said Baker, who holds a 1,940-1,697 career record and is a three-time National League Manager of the Year. “I like this team a lot. I like the city. I like where the organization is going. I just don’t like to make up my mind six months ago if you wanted an answer today, you know what I mean?
“I’m just living my life and letting things happen. They’ll work out if they’re supposed to. I haven’t been approached (by the Astros) yet and I haven’t approached them. But right now, man, we’ve got plenty of things on our mind and plenty of work to do.”
That’s a classic Baker answer. Zen. Wise. Above the storm but also busy doing the real work in the trenches.
His noncommittal reply also tells you that it could be another four-plus months until either side budges.
The Astros could immediately end the questions by handing Baker an extension.
After an occasionally tense back-and-forth dance in 2018, the Astros rewarded Hinch with a four-year extension that August.
“This is the second time that we’ve had contract discussions when they didn’t have to,” a smiling Hinch said then, while sitting between owner Jim Crane and then-general manager Jeff Luhnow. “That’s a lot of respect. A lot of appreciation. A lot of feelings for me of gratitude that we would get to this day.”
Hinch’s new long-term deal barely had time to kick in before he won a franchise-record 107 games, then was fired by Crane after a sign-stealing scandal that followed the Astros hosting Game 7 of the 2019 World Series.
Sometimes extensions and long-term security can be overrated.
If I’m Baker, I’m using every regular season and playoff game that remains in 2021 to evaluate the franchise.
If I’m the Astros, I’m still operating with a World Series championship-or-bust mentality, all while understanding that October annually requires old-fashioned luck and knowing this could be Carlos Correa’s final season in local orange and blue.
“I’ve been a free agent a few times,” said Baker, who entered Monday with an overall 85-66 record leading the Astros. “If you do the work, everything else will take care of itself. And if it doesn’t, then either you weren’t treated fairly or it’s time for you to go.”
There are times when I’m convinced that Baker is the perfect manager for these Astros. The stunning magic of the 2020 playoffs. The 20-4 run that just happened, when the veteran skipper ultimately allowed the Astros’ talent to win games — often via lopsided blowouts — and less was more in the best possible way.
There are times when I sound like just another late-night talk radio caller, complaining about some small thing and insisting that these Astros just aren’t good enough as-is.
How much do the Astros — players, front office, ownership — truly believe in Baker?
How will Baker feel about the Astros by the time that another October is complete?
When you’re 48-30 and hold the second-best record in MLB, everything should be sparkling in late June. Or your lame-duck manager (again) should at least be guaranteed a couple more years on the job.
But this is baseball. This is Baker. These are the Astros.
It was interesting on day one. Seventeen months later, it’s a unique partnership that could keep flourishing or suddenly end when one side decides that it’s seen enough.