Culture / Sporting Life

Dusty Baker Bets on Himself With Tenuous One-Year Contract as Astros Manager, Too Short Rap

This Baseball Lifer Will Take On Any Houston Mess for One Last Chance at a World Series Win

BY // 01.31.20

Dusty Baker rides into town as a 70-year-old on a one-year, prove-it deal to take on one of biggest messes in baseball history. . . and yet, somehow he convinces you he is good with that. The magic of Dusty may indeed be real.

Baker says all the right things — and several things no one ever expected a manager to say — in his first day as the Houston Astros field general. Baker still comes across as the coolest guy in the room in a way other famous men of his generation never could (watch Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden speak — or better yet, don’t).

“My son — he keeps me kind of hip,” Baker says of 20-year-old Darren Baker, who plays second base on the University of California’s baseball team. “So the other day he’s listening to (West Coast rapper) Too Short — you may not know him — and Too Short was singing this is his last album.

“And this is my last album. . . Except I’m too tall.”

Baker has an entire packed press conference room in the bowels of Minute Maid Park laughing at that one. And how could you not? (Also, he’s right — there is no way Fox 26’s Mark Berman, who asked the question, had any idea who Too Short was before the Astros new manager brought him up.)

This is part of Dusty Baker’s gift — one that’s served him well in his nearly six decades in professional baseball. Baker may want to credit his son, but plenty of older guys have young sons. The 73-year-old Trump has a 13-year-old and whether you love or hate The Donald politically, no one on either side of the aisle is ever calling him hip. Those who know Baker best will tell you he’s long had that charisma that made others want to follow his lead.

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“Dusty’s always been the coolest guy in the room,” says Enos Cabell, the former Astro who played against Baker in baseball’s wild 1970s and early ’80s and now serves as a special assistant for Houston. “That’s never changed.

“Guys always wanted to be around him.”

Dusty Baker’s Second Chance on Analytics

Baker is only guaranteed to be around the Astros for one season — with the club holding an option for 2021 — an exceedingly short commitment even in the ultra tenuous world of professional sports. Those Internet conspiracy theorists advancing the notion that the Astros could somehow rehire the fired A.J. Hinch back after one Baker summer should drop it now. Yes, crazy never-say-never things happen in pro sports, but the idea that Major League Baseball would allow such a move, or that Astros owner Jim Crane who seems legitimately enraged by the entire electronic sign stealing scandal, would want to make it are both beyond farfetched.

We do not live in a world of dancing unicorns.

Dusty Baker Astros
Dusty Baker knows this is last hurrah. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Instead, this season of Baker looks like Crane giving a baseball lifer he tremendously respects the chance to prove that he can effectively work with the reverence for analytics that helped bring the Astros to two World Series appearances in three seasons. Crane didn’t hire the displaced Jeff Luhnow in the first place because Luhnow convinced him of the holy grail of analytics. Crane hired Luhnow because he knew what an analytically-disciplined general manager could deliver from experience.

This truly self-made business tycoon been using analytics in his shipping company forever. It’s hard to imagine Crane going away from a reverence for good data just because he hired Dusty Baker after hiring Luhnow and Hinch.

“They did metrics in stuff in Washington,” Cabell says of Baker’s last stop. “Not as big as we do. Because our guys will dissect a frog. Our guys are real good at what they do. He’d be really stupid to not look at our stuff. And he’s not stupid.”

Baker may not have been a math major in college like Cabell, but he understands the real score with the Astros. He jumped at the job — contract length no matter — because this is his last, best chance to win a World Series. Jobs to lead teams as talented as the Astros almost never open up. If the Astros were not caught using a camera in centerfield to steal signs and banging on trash cans, Hinch likely would have been in Houston for a decade.

A.J. Hinch was the Steve Kerr of baseball before the player-driven cheating scheme was exposed. Now, Baker drops into a dream job even if it’s wrapped in the nightmare scenario of guiding a team through the likes of a scandal aftermath that’s never been seen in sports before.

“I had no idea I’d be sitting in this seat on his day,” Baker says after pulling on and buttoning up an Astros uniform jersey with Baker Jr. on the back. “. . . Especially, this is my last hurrah. I thought my last hurrah was in Washington actually, because I gave all my stuff away.

“I went to find my (baseball) shoes and I went up in the attic and found the empty bag. I didn’t even have underwear. I didn’t have anything in that bag. This is a new beginning for me.”

Dusty Baker has a way of drawing you into his story. It’s easy to imagine guys like Alex Bregman and George Springer loving playing for Baker. Seventy or not, he’s still a baseball fanatic. Baker set his alarm for 2 am West Coast time to catch his cross-country flight to Houston for intro day. He still beat that alarm by an hour, jumping out of bed at 1 am in his Sacramento area home because he just could not wait for this unexpected last chance (take two) to begin.

Of course, Baker also dismisses the notion that everything has to be done now, baseball wise. His answer to a question on what he’d do to reach out to players in the 10 days before spring training is already classic worthy.

“The next 10 days man, I’ve got to pack,”  Baker shoots back. “You ever pack for seven months? That’s a long time. And my hands are sore now from pruning. I’ve got to prune my grapes (at his winery). I mean I’ve got work to do. I’ve got to see my (15-day-old) grandchild which I’ve only seen a couple of times. I’ve got to go see my son.

“I’ve got to make sure my dogs don’t have ticks or worms or anything. I’ve got a lot to do.”

Baker will take his last bit of time before this impending storm, before the full wrath of opposing ballparks, descend on his new team. Nothing good can come of rushing into his last chance.

When his press conference is over, Dusty Baker leaves the interview dais with a wave and a smiling shrug, like he’s a politician, exiting the stage. As if politicians were this personable. Or poised. Having the coolest guy in the room does not answer all the questions. But it’s a nice place for these soon-to-be-besieged Astros to start.

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