HOUSTON — Dusty Baker plops down in a chair in front of his desk, looks around his office, and recognizes that Thursday’s game against the Chicago White Sox could be the final Opening Day game of his career.
Baker, 73, is not saying this will necessarily be it, with plans to retire after managing the Houston Astros this season.
He also is not saying that he definitely wants to stick around, at least as manager, after this season, either.
“I don’t know man,’’ Baker tells USA TODAY Sports. “I just don’t know. You got to go home some day.’’
Baker sits back, and reflects, knowing these three years in Houston have been the most incredible, and perhaps even implausible, ride of his life.
He has been the most successful manager in Astros’ history, winning his first World Series championship, two American League pennants, and three trips to the American League Championship Series. No Astros manager has produced a higher winning percentage than Baker’s 230-154 record (.599), and no manager in baseball has won more postseason games than Baker (28-14) the past three seasons.
He secured his place in Cooperstown, New York, winning his World Series last year, becoming the oldest manager or head coach to win a championship in North American team sports, and now begins the 2023 season on Thursday (7:08 p.m. ET, ESPN) trying to win back-to-back titles.
“I was reading Winston Churchill,’’ Baker says, “and it made a lot of sense. He said, 'You can’t rest on your victories, and you can’t wallow in defeat.’
“That sums it up to me.
“It’s a new year.
“Got to start a new train.’’
Baker, who received nearly 2,000 congratulatory text messages and phone calls when he won the World Series, hearing everyone from President Barack Obama to Snoop Dogg to Bill Cosby, also listened to a common refrain from friends.
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“People were saying to me, 'Why don’t you retire? When are you going to retire?'’’ Baker says. “I’m like, 'Why does everybody want to push me into retirement?'
“Everybody says, 'Why don’t you want to go out on top?’
“I’m like, 'Hey, man, Why? Why not go out even higher?'
“You win, why not go for two now?
“When you win, it breeds more winning. It’s kind of a fire that never says enough.’’
The truth is that Baker, who had been unemployed for two years as a baseball manager, never thought he’d ever get back in the game. It wasn’t until the Astros manager A.J. Hinch was suspended and hastily fired in the wake of the cheating scandal in January, 2020, that someone was willing to give Baker a chance.
It was supposed to a one-year, stop-gap solution.
It’s now going on its fourth year.
“It’s been a great three years,’’ Baker said. “It wasn’t planned to be. I don’t even know if the original plan was to have me here this long.’’
If not for the Astros, Baker doesn’t become the 12th manager in history to win 2,000 career games, doesn’t become the first manager in history to reach the postseason with five different teams, doesn’t win a World Series, and perhaps isn’t guaranteed of becoming baseball’s first Black manager to be elected into the Hall of Fame.
“Hey man, I’m here with my guys,’’ Baker says. “I’m thankful and I’m grateful for what these guys have given me. I’ve given them some, but they’ve given me a lot.’’
Baker looks away, not wanting to show emotion, but forever will be grateful for the opportunity to manage again.
There is absolutely nothing left to prove, but if this indeed is Baker’s final season, you won’t know about it until the season is over, he packs his bags, and is already home in California.
“I remember [former New York Times columnist] Red Smith telling me a long time ago, 'Don’t announce the end or your retirement,’’’ Baker said, “because then you are already retired. Just like [Duke basketball coach] Mike Krzyzewski, you do that, and you decide to come back, then what?
“Do you want that farewell tour wherever you go? No. It takes away the work that you have to do with your team. It gets to be more about me than the team, wherever you go. That’s selfish. That’s not fair to the people you work with, or your players.
“That’s why I signed the one-year contracts. I don’t want anything to force me to come or go.’’
It’s uncomfortable enough for Baker being more popular than his players – wildly cheered even when he makes pitching changes – who needs more attention? He already has “Good Morning America,’’ the “Jimmy Kimmel Live Show,’’ “Real Sports with Bryan Gumbel,’’ seeking his time.
“Texas is a different sports place than anywhere,’’ Baker says. “Sports is huge here. You know, heroes here, are really heroes.
“Look, man, at every sport here. You look at all of those Dallas Cowboys on those winning teams. These people in Texas, they still talk about the college players coming through here. I mean, guys like Earl Campbell, Clyde “The Glide’ [Drexler], Hakeem Olajuwan, Nolan Ryan. When you’re big here, you’re big.
“When everybody says things are big in Texas, they are not lying.’’
Baker, an All-Star outfielder who won a World Series title with the Dodgers as a player, never asked to be a hero. He never wanted to be a managerial celebrity like his former manager, Tommy Lasorda. He wanted to win. He wanted to make money. He wanted to be successful.
When most managers are home and vacationing after the regular season, Baker is still working through October. No one has managed more postseason games (42) since 2020, no one has won more games (28) and while 28 managers get a breather at the All-Star break, Baker and his coaching staff will be working their second consecutive All-Star Game this summer in Seattle.
It’s the price of success, with Baker reminded of the mission every day he walks along the corridor at Minute Maid Park, with a huge electronic sign in front of the clubhouse, reading in part:
“They say heavy is the head that wears the crown
“But we’re used to the weight
“We’ve built a legacy
“Now, let’s cement the dynasty
It won’t be easy, of course. No team has won back-to-back World Series titles since the New York Yankees in 1998-2000. Then again, no American League team has reached the League Championship Series six consecutive years like the Astros, either.
They open the season without Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, who signed as a free agent with the New York Mets. All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve is likely out until June with his broken thumb. Outfielder Michael Brantley, recovering from a shoulder tear, is also expected to miss at least a month.
“I feel like I’m better and calmer now than ever before,’’ Baker says, “but damn, it’s going to be challenging. Every team in our division has gotten better, and they feel better about themselves. There’s always a challenge, but without Altuve for maybe three months, and Brantley for a while, too, I’m going to have to do my best job.
“So, I ain’t got time to think about myself. I’ve got to think about doing my best job so we can win again.
“But, hey, it’s ok.
“You know me, I love challenges.’’
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Astros' Dusty Baker could be managing his final season in the majors