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On a Polarizing Team, a Manager Worth Rooting For

HOUSTON — Twin traumas have haunted Dusty Baker for nearly two decades. Late Friday night they fused as he tried to clinch a pennant as manager …

On a Polarizing Team, a Manager Worth Rooting For

HOUSTON — Twin traumas have haunted Dusty Baker for nearly two decades. Late Friday night they fused as he tried to clinch a pennant as manager of the Houston Astros. If Baker had chosen to hide until the storm blew over, you’d have understood: He was leading 5-0 in Game 6 of a championship series.

Normally this would be a very good thing. But the scoreboard also read 5-0 in Anaheim, Calif., when Baker’s San Francisco Giants had a chance to close out the 2002 World Series. The Angels stormed back to win and took the title the next night.

If that sixth game seemed crushing, Baker’s next one was even worse. Five outs from winning the 2003 National League Championship Series with the Chicago Cubs, Baker watched the pennant disappear when a fan touched off a hellscape by innocently reaching for a foul ball.

Everywhere Baker has managed since then — Cincinnati, Washington, Houston — he has steered his team to the playoffs. But for now he owns a record nobody wants: most wins by a manager who has never won the World Series, with 1,987.

As the Astros captured the American League pennant on Friday, finishing off the Boston Red Sox by that 5-0 score, Baker faced his fears.

“Game 6 has been my nemesis in most playoffs, and that’s what I was thinking,” he conceded. “I mean, you’ve got to get past your nemesis. I was afraid of electricity when I was a kid, so now I’m an owner of an energy company. You try to get past things in your life.”

In that way, Baker and the Astros are on parallel journeys, both yearning to win for different reasons. For Baker, a World Series victory would cap an otherwise sterling 24-year managerial career. For the Astros, it would prove that they can raise a banner without the help of electronic sign stealing.

The scandal brought Baker here. The Astros’ scheme aided their 2017 title and led to the suspension and firing of their manager, A.J. Hinch, when a league investigation confirmed the cheating in early 2020. Jim Crane, the Astros’ owner, hired Baker, now 72, to manage both the crisis and his baseball team.

“I interviewed a bunch of guys, and the first time I talked to him, we talked for two hours and I felt like he was my best friend,” Crane said. “So I was very comfortable with him immediately and, boom, I made the decision. I knew he had a lot of experience, he kind of calmed a lot of the nonsense we were dealing with and kept these guys on track.”

The Astros played in fanless stadiums during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, but this year they have routinely been jeered on the road; some fans at the A.L.C.S. in Boston gave second baseman Jose Altuve a profane, sing-song salute. Baker has helped his team handle the hate.

Baker broke with current trends by letting Framber Valdez pitch eight innings in Thursday’s Game 5. It is the longest start by a pitcher this postseason.Credit…Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

“He’s a leader and he’s a friend, so we can go into his office whenever we feel like it and talk about it,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “He’s such a wise man and he’s been through it all in baseball. It’s the right mind to pick from. He just told us to go out there and show the world how good we really are, and it will fall into place and take care of itself. That’s what we did.”

After falling to the Tampa Bay Rays in a neutral-site A.L.C.S. last October, the Astros prevailed this time with a sudden and explosive comeback. As the eighth inning began in Game 4, Houston trailed by 2-1 in the game and the series. From that point on they outscored the Red Sox by 22-1, capping things with a combined two-hitter in Game 6.

Yordan Alvarez hit .522 (12 for 23) to win the series’ most valuable player award, and Houston’s pitchers, under the coach Brent Strom, made a critical adjustment midway through Game 4, attacking the Red Sox more aggressively with fastballs. But Baker left his mark, too.

In Game 4, he inserted the backup catcher, Jason Castro, who later drove the go-ahead single in the ninth. In Game 5, Baker let starter Framber Valdez work eight innings — the most by any pitcher this postseason — without pulling him early to chase matchup advantages.

In Game 6, Baker’s faith in light-hitting catcher Martín Maldonado paid off. Maldonado batted .071 for the series but guided the rookie Luis Garcia through five and two-thirds dominant innings. Later, Maldonado thwarted a Red Sox threat with a strike-him-out, throw-him-out double play.

“That guy is going to be a Hall of Famer soon,” Maldonado said of Baker, who has easily done enough to earn that honor. A championship would cinch it, though, and Baker’s pursuit might make some fans comfortable rooting for a team they still dislike.

“I think that speaks to why he was the right decision for this franchise 18 or 19 months ago,” General Manager James Click said. “Can you think of anybody else in baseball who people would actively say, ‘You know, I wouldn’t mind if the Astros won — because of Dusty’? Is there another person who could change the narrative of a franchise the way that he can? I can’t think of anybody.”

Indeed, there may be no one more beloved within the sport than Baker, who played for 19 seasons and will face one of his former teams — the Atlanta Braves or the Los Angeles Dodgers — in the World Series. As the final outs rolled by in Game 6, Baker said he remembered some in the baseball family who have died: Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Joe Morgan, Bob Watson, Jimmy Wynn.

“I felt that they were with us,” he said.

Baker’s previous trip to the World Series came in 2002, when Barry Bonds was his star player and Baker’s son, Darren, was a bat boy. Darren Baker was drafted by the Washington Nationals in July.Credit…Timothy A. Clary/AFP, via Getty Images

Yet for as much honor as Baker brings to the game, there have always been whispers about his acumen in the dugout. Never mind that Baker was N.L. Manager of the Year in his first season on the job, with the 1993 Giants, and has won more than 1,800 games since. The slights still sting.

“You didn’t do this, or you’re not good at that, you don’t know how to use your bullpen, or you don’t like young players — I heard a whole bunch of stuff,” Baker said. “Most of it not complimentary, you know what I mean?

“As an African-American, most of the time they don’t really say that you are of a certain intelligence. That’s not something that we usually get, and so I’ve been hearing a lot of this stuff most of my life.”

Part of the reason he fit so well with the Astros, Baker said, is because they both had stigmas to overcome. This World Series could change people’s minds about a manager and a franchise. But whatever happens, Baker will endure.

“It just depends on how I feel about myself, how they feel about me, and how the Lord feels about me,” he said. “And like I tell these guys, you don’t have anything to prove or show anybody. The only entities that you have to satisfy are God, family and yourself, and then the other people can see you later.”

James Wagner contributed reporting.

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