Let’s head to Las Vegas for odds on this: recent World Series champion caught in a cheating scandal shares spring training facility with current World Series champion, which defeated the cheating champions to gain their championship. Got that?
Now add this: former manager of current World Series champion, who was in charge when said spring training facility opened, and was not retained after not winning a championship, is suddenly in charge of the cheating champions.
Odds? Are there enough zeroes?
Dusty Baker will manage the Houston Astros in 2020. He is not one for subtlety or fear, walking the party line or averse to barking caught-on-camera swear words from the dugout which get him in trouble with his mother. Baker is a storyteller, self-backer, compelling figure, smart, has moxy and is just a step from the Baseball Hall of Fame. He’s convinced a World Series title as a manager will get him there.
Mixing Baker with Houston’s current situation is an epic dice roll by a suddenly unmoored organization. Astros owner Jim Crane swept out manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow following suspensions from Major League Baseball. His players remain under scrutiny for the sign-stealing fiasco. The Dodgers feel cheated, opposing pitchers are irritated, fans are scratching their heads. It’s a mess which will not soon subside.
Enter Baker’s swashbuckling approach. He’s an enthralling combination of an extrovert raised under military rules. Recall his pirouette when he pulled on his Nationals jersey at the introductory press conference. He gave away wine and myriad other swag items from his often boisterous office during his two seasons. Baker would laugh, tell stories, chomp on his toothpick. Things were loose. But, be late? That was the easiest way to draw his ire.
Baker is 70 years old. He will aggravate the Astros’ analytics machine to a degree. He will tell the team everyone else can go to hell. Outsiders don’t matter. Only they do. Ignore everything else. This would be Baker’s message -- he’s felt slighted for decades and still uses it for fuel -- no matter the situation. It’s all the more apt in the middle of these licking flames.
He is prepared for the coming circus. One of Baker’s main talents is managing chaos. Baker’s juggling ability is honed by entrance into the spotlight as a black teenager playing in the south in the late 1960s alongside Hank Aaron. He played in the World Series -- twice -- before managing one of the game’s most divisive figures and grumpy talents, Barry Bonds, then moving on to the cauldron of despair known as Wrigley Field. The Bartman incident, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior; the narratives which built bad blood then chased Baker out of town. Don’t forget Stephen Strasburg’s “Moldgate” in the 2017 playoffs. He eats turmoil for breakfast. Has for years. Some more only fills a currently empty stomach.
Baker is even deeply schooled in baseball’s history in the West Palm Beach area. Hank Aaron Drive is not far from the teams’ shared facility. Baker would fish the nearby lakes when he briefly played for the West Palm Beach Braves in 1968.
The spring training facility was not finished when he first entered it. Multiple ceiling panels were missing in the clubhouse, walls were blank and the nameplate for his office was hand-written.
The year before, in the dilapidated Viera facility, Baker was rapidly getting up to speed the day he was asked about Wilmer Difo’s whereabouts. Difo, a free spirit and Dominican Republic native, was yet to show up in West Palm Beach. All other players had. It was possible he had a visa problem and would not be the first to do so.
“I don’t know no Dipo,” Baker said to reporters. “Point him out when you see him.”
Baker will call reporters into his office for chats. Or keep them longer after an arranged interview. At times, his winding pregame stories are a bounty on an otherwise slow day. Others, he’ll walk into the press conference still in street clothes, looking to get the talk over with. His relationship with the media will be one to watch in message-desperate Houston. Baker once stopped a Washington reporter postgame, while Baker was half in uniform and half out, to say, “You know what you’re doing.” It’s the kind of person-to-person interactions he feels are in his purview as a Baseball Man for the last 50 years. They will make Astros PR squirm.
What this will not be is dull, which also doubles as the core of Houston’s risk. The Astros would like to muffle the noise, not amplify it. Baker turns lights up. He sees them, wraps his arms around them, succeeds and fails in them, never shies from them. In this case, he’s made an unlikely scenario all the more improbable. Buckle up.