When Dusty Baker was diagnosed with prostate cancer during the winter before the 2002 season – his last managing the San Francisco Giants – he had a choice to make regarding treatment: either radiation or an invasive removal procedure known as a prostatectomy.
That offseason he traveled to Kauai, the northwestern-most island in the Hawaiian chain. While he walked along a gorgeous green mountain trail pondering that decision, Baker once divulged in a one-on-one conversation, he had a “spiritual feeling, like I was walking through my life.”
It began to rain. He recalled sheltering under a tree and didn’t get wet. When the storm cleared the decision became clear.
“I looked at the mountain and I knew everything was going to be all right,” he said. “Right then, I made up my mind that God was going to protect me.”
Baker had the surgery and went on to manage the Giants into the 2002 World Series where they lost in seven games to the California Angels. Since then he’s managed four more big-league teams and remains a cancer survivor. He’s also survived an irregular heartbeat and a mini-stroke in 2012, while managing the Cincinnati Reds.
Now 71 and running the Houston Astros, his team this past week made a valiant attempt at trying to overcome a 3-0 deficit to the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Championship Series, only to lose Game 7 Saturday at San Diego’s Petco Park, 4-2. For the 18th consecutive season he again isn’t managing a team in the World Series, which began Tuesday night at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Tex.
The Los Angeles Dodgers and the Rays are deadlocked 1-1 in the best-of-seven-series after Tampa’s 6-4 Game 2 victory Wednesday night. Game 3 is Friday night.
For Baker’s 23 seasons as a big-league manger he’s never piloted a World Series winner, winning only once as a player with the 1981 Dodgers. But that’s not high on the list of painful disappointments he’s had to deal with in his life. That’s transitory, he said after Saturday’s decisive ALCS game.
“You regroup,” he said. “Personally, I think about the many friends I’ve lost in the last month, the last six months. That’s the reality of life. Those are far greater losses than losing a ballgame. Those are [real] losses.”
Baker claimed this past week that the path from that mountain trail led him to this juncture where he was able to take the job managing the Astros. The league was jolted by revelations that team members electronically stole signs during the 2017 season, when Houston defeated the Dodgers to win its only World Series title in franchise history.
General manager Jeff Luhnow, manager A.J. Hinch and then-bench coach Alex Cora were all suspended for the 2020 season by Major League Baseball for their parts in the scandal. Luhnow and Hinch were fired by the Astros on Jan. 15, the day MLB issued its report.
Two weeks later and after a short search, Baker was hired to replace Hinch, becoming one of a handful of managers of color in baseball. That move was followed by the hiring a few days later of former Tampa Bay assistant James Glick to replace Luhnow.
The season turned out to be one full of heartache and the coronavirus. Limited to 60 games, the Astros finished at 29-31 and in second place in the AL West, seven games behind the Oakland A’s, a team the Astros defeated in a four-game AL Division Series.
Baker arrived with all the baggage of his past as a manager – one who couldn’t handle a pitching staff and couldn’t win the big game. Though he has managed for 23 seasons and won 1,892 games for a .532 winning percentage, there have been gaps out of baseball of two years each after stints managing the Chicago Cubs, Reds and Washington Nationals.
“If I hadn’t missed those six seasons, if I had won a championship and 2,000 games, then I probably wouldn’t have been here to aid this organization, the city and these guys,” he said. “I’d have been home fishing someplace by now.”
But when he was fired by the Nationals almost three years ago for what he said were unjust reasons, he still hankered for one more chance.
During video press conferences last week he wore a patch on his mask highlighting Baker Family Wines, the vineyards he opened near his home in Sacramento, Calif., in 2013, during one of his interims from baseball. On his wristband was a caricature of himself.
“Something I’ve been wearing for years,” he said with a laugh.
The interviews with other clubs after his departure from Washington didn’t go well, until the Houston disaster happened.
He was deemed too old-school and out of touch by new, analytically-driven GMs. But his knowledge, his deep background coming from 50 years in the game as either a player, coach or manager, plus his positive nature and ability to deal with life’s daily traumas led Astros owner Jim Crane to hire him before he even named a general manager.
“That was part of my background,” Baker said. “I believe that that’s why the Lord brought me here for this. Because if there wasn’t a negative air about things I wouldn’t have this job. They wouldn’t need me. I’ve always been thrust into situations where I had to call on my background. [At the time] you don’t know why things happen in your life. Things happen in your life to prepare you to handle negative stuff and put you in this situation.”
More trauma. As the ALCS began, Baker’s friend, former MLB executive and business partner, Jimmie Lee Solomon, suddenly died of a heart attack. The funeral was Saturday, Baker noted.
Just prior to the postseason, Baker’s current third base coach Gary Pettis was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a serious and usually fatal cancer of the plasma cells in the bone marrow, which in recent years has taken such baseball greats as Don Baylor and Mel Stottlemyre.
Pettis, living just north of San Diego but outside the Petco bubble while he undergoes treatment, was able to sit in a suite and watch the final three games.
“We had to win the day before for him to be able to come [last Thursday],” Baker said. “All the guys loved seeing him. All the guys love giving him a wave up there. I can tell the special love they have for Gary.”
The Astros were facing elimination in Game 4 when Baker made a decision that temporarily turned the series around. During the sixth inning, he left veteran right-hander Zack Greinke on the mound with runners on first and second, one out, and the Astros leading. Greinke worked out of the situation and the Astros stayed alive in the series.
Told he’s the only manager in baseball right now who would have made that kind of gut decision, Baker retorted:
“You can’t think of another fool, you mean,” Baker said in his usual self-deprecating manner.
Baker has long been known as a player’s manager and he made a friend for life of Greinke, who said it was nice for someone to have confidence in him, “because since I’ve been here they haven’t seemed to have confidence in my ability.”
At least twice during the postseason last year, Hinch removed Greinke from tight situations rather than allow him to pitch his way out of it. Baker is not Hinch.
“I’ve been impressed,” he said. “[Baker] really reads people good. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him make a wrong decision when he trusts what he sees. He sees the right thing 100% of the time. Not everybody has that skill, but he’s been impressive in that regard, for sure.”
Baker is baseball’s wise man, cultivated by many decades of grief and loss both on and off the ball field.