Culture / Sporting Life

Dusty Baker Gives the Astros a Chance to be the 2000 Yankees — Teams With Championship DNA Have Surprised in October Before

A Baseball Lifer's Steady Calm Has Kept a Houston Team That Could Have Fallen Apart Going

BY // 09.25.20

Dusty Baker has a story — or six – for every occasion. It’s part of what gives this 71-year-old baseball lifer his chill charm. Baker will tell Kyle Tucker that Hank Aaron told him it’s not your bat’s fault or your helmet’s fault when you strike out so why attack them. He’ll ask Michael Brantley if he was roll-out, left-handed quarterback in another life after Brantley pulls off a game-saving double play in left field.

Baker always keeps it light — and his relaxed, no-worries demeanor may have allowed the now playoff-bound Astros to right themselves just in time for the postseason.

The Houston Astros have looked like a shadow of their two-time World Series team selves for most of this coronavirus short season. But with Dusty Baker playing the Joe Torre role, they now have a shot at becoming the 2000 Yankees.

Like these 2020 Astros, those 2000 Yankees carried championship pedigree, having won titles in 1999 and 1998. But also like this year’s Astros, the 2000 Yankees struggled mightily down the stretch of the regular season, appearing to stand on the brink of collapsing several times. The Yankees lost 15 of their final 18 regular season games and just held on to make the playoffs.

Many wrote them off going into October. Then, the 2000 Yankees rolled to the franchise’s fourth world title in five years.

If the Astros are going to manage something similar and turn an often confounding and sometimes depressing regular season into a serious run at a second title, they’ll do it because Baker never let them give up or forget who they are. The Houston Astros finally looked like themselves in Thursday night’s 12-4 dismantling of the Texas Rangers at their intrastate foe’s new shiny $1.2 billion ballpark.

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Baker always believed. Pitching coach Brent Strom really believed. And now, some of the Astros stars who’ve endured a season from hell may be feeling it, too.

“This guy is a big-time guy,” Baker says of Jose Altuve after the former American League MVP puts up a three hit game with a home run and a double in Arlington.

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If Jose Altuve starts having fun again, the Astros will be dangerous in October. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Like those 2000 Yankees, these Astros are a veteran team (at least in the lineup — the pitching staff is another matter). Altuve, George Springer and Carlos Correa have all played in 50 playoff games. Josh Reddick has played in 61 playoff games. Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel each have 44 games of playoff experience. Michael Brantely’s played in 25 postseason games, some of that dating back to his time in Cleveland.

The Astros secured their spot in the MLB’s playoffs when the Dodgers of all teams rallied to beat the Angels late Friday night.

This season has not gone anything like the Astros expected, but this is not a group that will feel stage fright when Major League Baseball’s supersized postseason kicks off Tuesday with best-of-three first round series.

“I honestly believe, and I’ve said this before, I don’t think many people want us to get in (the playoffs),” Strom, the Astros’ pitching Yoda, says. “I think we could be a nightmare for some people if we get hot and some guys really start to come forward. And we’re due right now.”

Lessons From the 2000 Yankees

If the Astros are going to make a surprise October run, they may need to survive an early test. The 2000 Yankees just squeezed by the Oakland A’s in five games of steel cage baseball in the American League Divisional Series before catching fire and overwhelming the Seattle Mariners and New York Mets.

The longer a team with championship DNA is allowed to stick around, the more dangerous it becomes.

These Astros have made it through a season where they’ve been tested, tormented and often ridiculed. And they’re still swinging on to October.

Dusty Baker’s steady calm and steadfast belief have helped the Astros get here even as Altuve, Bregman and Co. seldom looked like themselves. Now, October beckons and the possibilities suddenly feel a lot more wide open.

“In September we had our doubts we were a good team,” Yankees leader Paul O’Neill said in recalling that 2000 run. “But once the postseason starts, you get one win and everything changes.”

In some ways, this could be the last stand of these near dynastic Astros. George Springer, Michael Brantley, Yuli Gurriel and Josh Reddick are all headed for free agency. Justin Verlander is already out for the entire 2021 season due to Tommy John surgery.

Do you really expect these Astros — who’ve won so many big-time October games before — to not go out swinging?

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