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Closing the book on the Dusty Baker era: the right man for the right time

MLB: ALCS-Houston Astros at Texas Rangers Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Dusty Baker was the most polarizing manager ever to lead the Houston Astros. He was, and for good reason, criticized for many of his managerial decisions. Throughout his tenure as Houston’s skipper, he left pitchers in for too long, refused to bench underperforming veterans, and generally made sub-optimal decisions (i.e never giving Chas McCormick more than 500 plate appearances). This article will not rehash those grievances or be overly critical of Mr. Baker; instead, it will argue that Baker was the man the Astros needed in light of the cheating scandal, even if he overstayed his welcome.

Dusty Baker: a player’s manager

The weird thing about Baseball is that analysts and front offices can quantify the value of every action a player makes on the field. Still, they have no way of making the same evaluations for managers and coaches. It is unlikely that we will be able to completely quantify the contributions a manager makes; there is no way to isolate his variable. However, the empirical evidence suggests that Dusty Baker did a great job keeping the team focused, especially in hostile environments during the playoffs.

After news of the sign-stealing scandal broke in the fall of 2019, it was clear that the Astros would have a rough time being on the road, regardless of where they were playing. In the shortened COVID season, the Astros did not have to play in front of hostile crowds, but they still had a rough regular season. The team had its worst regular season since 2014, and it could have marked the end of the Astros’ run. However, the team managed to peak in October and came very close to winning the AL pennant.

After 2020, the Astros continued their dominance in the AL, winning three AL West titles, three ALCS appearances, two pennants, and one World Series victory. The path was not easy either; they had to go through rowdy stadiums like Fenway, Citizens Bank Park, and Yankee Stadium to accomplish these feats. As previously stated, it is impossible to calculate how much of this success was due to or in spite of Dusty Baker; however, I think it is clear that Dusty’s calm and upbeat leadership helped players like Bregman, Altuve, Correa, etc endure months of profanity-laden chants and borderline verbal abuse. I think game 5 of the 2023 ALCS was a microcosm of Baker’s tenure as manager. He got the team fired up when they needed it, but luckily he was not around to make the pinch-hitting decisions in the top of the ninth.

Did Baker’s leadership and guidance outweigh the bad personnel decisions he made almost daily? Perhaps at the beginning of his tenure, but toward the end of the 2022 season, it was clear that the team no longer needed him.

With that said, let us not forget that the team could have fallen off the rails after the 2020 regular season, but Baker, at the very least, continued the team’s success. I usually do not like historical analogies, but Dusty Baker’s time in Houston reminds me of Winston Churchill’s time as prime minister of the United Kingdom.

Most people think of Winston Churchill as an infallible leader; however, like Dusty Baker, Winston Churchill had several failures earlier in his career that gave him a reputation for poor judgment and impulsive leadership. In fact, up until the spring of 1940, most of Churchill’s career can be considered a failure. Most people familiar with Churchill know of his failures at Gallipoli, but he also had many other failures. In the early 1920s, as the colonial secretary, Churchill failed to create lasting peace in Ireland. In 1925, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Churchill put the United Kingdom back on the Gold Standard, which was one of the proximate causes of the Great Depression. He made many other mistakes later in his career, including his refusal to support Dominion status for India and many failures as a war chief. Of course, these mistakes and failures were not all his fault and did serve a purpose. After experiencing so many failures and continuing to push through, Churchill was probably the only man with the confidence and tenacity to convince the British people and the American government that Britain could win. Churchill’s extreme confidence and belief in his cause made him a great war leader, but that did not mean he was the best man to rebuild Britain. In 1945, a few months after Nazi Germany surrendered, Churchill and the Tories lost to Clement Atlee and the Labour Party. Whether it was the best decision or not, British voters felt Churchill was no longer the right man for the job. Even if they respected the way he conducted the war.

Dusty Baker’s career was also riddled with failure; he was given several great rosters and often underachieved. But his best quality, motivating and calming his players, was what the Astros needed most post-2019. Like Churchill, Baker was the right man at the right time, not necessarily the right man for a long time. Like Baker, Churchill had an inflexible mind and would not adjust to a changing environment. In his second term as prime minister, he desperately tried to hold onto the British Empire when it was clear that it was no longer practical or possible. If you cannot think of an example of Baker showing an inflexible mind, well, you must not have been watching the Astros the past few years.

With that said, Baker still deserves some credit for sustaining the team’s success. As previously stated, the team always seemed to play well when it mattered most, and you have to credit some of that to Dusty. Like Churchill, Baker served a purpose for a very specific period of time.

Although I am glad to see you go, thank you Mr. Baker for stepping in when the team needed you most. I sincerely hope you enjoy retirement.