Dusty Baker entered MLB as a 1967 draft pick, coaxed into signing by one Hank Aaron. More than five decades later, his time in MLB is coming to an end.
The Houston Astros manager is retiring after 26 seasons manning dugouts for the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Washington Nationals and Astros, he told USA Today's Bob Nightengale.
There were rumblings about Baker stepping down immediately after his Astros fell to the Texas Rangers in Game 7 of the ALCS, the end of his fourth season with the team. The 74-year-old reportedly wants to remain involved in baseball as an adviser, either with the Astros or a team close to his home in Sacramento, California.
From USA Today:
“I’ve still got a lot to offer; baseball has been my life,’’ said Baker, who also spent 19 years in the big leagues as an All-Star outfielder. “I have a lifetime of knowledge, much more than those who have never played the game.’’
Baker joined the Astros in the immediate wake of the cheating scandal that led to the exit of manager AJ Hinch. He led the team to a World Series championship in 2022, plus three straight AL West titles. He retires with a career record of 2,183-1,862. His teams won a combined 10 division titles and made the playoffs 13 times.
The history he leaves behind as a manager makes him a likely Hall of Famer. He ranks seventh on MLB's all-time managerial wins list and fourth in playoff appearances, and he is the winningest Black manager of the group. He is also the first manager to win a division title with five teams and the oldest manager to win a World Series.
Baker's legacy is much more than simple milestones, though. He enjoyed a long career as a player mostly with the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers, earning two All-Star nods and a World Series ring in 1981. More importantly, Baker was just, well, cool — like, "credited for inventing the high-five" cool.
For decades, Baker was beloved among players and media, holding court and dropping names every day for anyone who needed his help. He was the perfect choice to rehabilitate the Astros' reputation when it hit an all-time low, and his time in Houston paid off, as he finally won the ring he had never acquired in his managerial career.
Dusty Baker was maligned after Cubs tenure but evolved as well as anyone
A certain segment of baseball fans have a long memory, and that often worked against Baker in the later stages of his career.
Baker got his start as a manager with the San Francisco Giants and remained there for 10 seasons, coaching Barry Bonds in his prime and leading the team to the 2002 World Series, where they lost to the Anaheim Angels in seven games. His time in San Francisco ended that season, when the team opted to not renew his contract amid reports of a long-term feud with team owner Peter Magowan.
It was with the Chicago Cubs that Baker's reputation as the most old-school of managers was crystallized, ultimately to his public detriment. Baker took over a rising Cubs team, led by names such as Sammy Sosa, Moises Alou, Aramis Ramirez, Kerry Wood and Victor Zambrano. It was Mark Prior, however, with whom Baker would be ever associated.
There's no denying that Baker pushed his young right-hander deep into games. In his first season under Baker (and his only All-Star season), the then-22-year-old Prior pitched 211 1/3 innings across 30 starts and racked up pitch counts that would elicit gasps today. He threw more than 100 pitches in all but four of his starts, more than 115 in half of them and more than 130 in three. Compare that to 2023, in which only one player, 36-year-old Alex Cobb, threw more than 130 pitches in a single start.
Prior looked like a developing superstar that season, which ended with the infamous Steve Bartman game, but the wheels came off immediately after. He pitched only three more seasons in the majors, never coming close to his 2003 performance. Constant arm troubles were to blame.
As the Cubs watched their contending window close, Baker made for a convenient scapegoat, especially once the team got back into the playoffs after dropping him. For the then-burgeoning sabermetrics community, Baker and Prior were a classic tale of an old-school manager subjecting a young arm to a 1920s workload.
Never mind that Prior's troubles began in 2003, when he collided with Milwaukee Brewers second baseman Marcus Giles on the base path and sustained a shoulder injury, or that he missed the beginning of 2004 due to an Achilles tendon injury or that his career truly went off the rails after he suffered a compression fracture on a line drive to his pitching elbow in 2005. There were also Prior's widely questioned pitching mechanics and the fact that Prior himself has argued his issues weren't attributable to Baker:
Others — mostly Cubs fans — still blame my manager, Dusty Baker, for the series of injuries that derailed my career. They believe that he overused me in 2003 and blah, blah, blah. Only, here’s the thing: I don’t blame Dusty for what happened to me. I wouldn’t change a single thing that happened during that season — beyond us failing to bring a World Series championship to Chicago, of course. No matter how many pitches I threw, I never asked to come out of a game — doing so would have been unthinkable.
Prior's career remains a massive baseball what-if, but acting like Baker's decision-making was the singular issue eventually became willful ignorance.
Baker returned to managing with the Reds and led that team to the playoffs three times in six years. He was fired in 2013 after leading the team to a 90-win season. The franchise has not posted a winning season since.
Baker resurfaced in 2016 with the Nationals, leading the team to NL East titles in both of his seasons in D.C. He was fired after the second of those years, in which the team won 97 games. The Nats have finished above .500 exactly once since then (though they did win the World Series that year).
At that point, Baker had the reputation of being both old-school and a guy who had never won a World Series despite several bites at the playoff apple. It was unclear if he would manage again after his Nationals tenure, but the Astros situation made for a unique opportunity.
Let's just say that anyone watching the Astros of the past four years would have to look in the dugout to realize they were managed by the same man as the 2003 Cubs. Justin Verlander never threw more than 110 pitches in a start. Framber Valdez crossed that threshold three times. Christian Javier once.
More importantly, Baker was put in charge of what was then the most statistics-consumed franchise in MLB, and he handled the job as well as anyone could have. He was finally given a good opportunity, which turned into the franchise's first non-tainted World Series ring, after decades of being under a microscope.