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HOUSTON — Dusty Baker stands in the Minute Maid Park corridor Monday, wearing gray-yellow-red wristbands on each arm, a Fitbit on his right, and knows what awaits when he steps through the Astros clubhouse door.
There are hundreds of ticket requests inside his office. Thousands of text messages are on his cellphone. There are people reaching out to him that he hasn’t heard from in decades.
Baker, 72, starts laughing at the irony.
America still hates the Astros.
They are outraged over the 2017 cheating scandal, using illegal video monitors and cameras to steal signs, booing them, taunting them and cursing them everywhere they go outside the city limits of Houston.
So, how come when the World Series opens Tuesday night (8:08 p.m. ET, Fox) with the Astros meeting Atlanta at Minute Maid Park, baseball fans all around the world are suddenly conflicted, faced with the interesting dichotomy?
Yes, they may hate the Astros with every fiber of their body, but considering Baker is their manager, who won a World Series when he played for the Dodgers (in 1981) but has not won one in his coaching career, as a coach or manager, fans suddenly find themselves rooting for the Astros.
“There’s absolutely no question it’s because of Dusty,” general manager James Click said. “It speaks to what he brings to the table, and why he’s so important for this organization. There are a lot of people out there whose minds will never be swayed. They are going to be set in their opinion and their thoughts on what happened here. But if anybody can start moving this organization to the point where casual fans will root for the Astros, it’s Dusty.”
Baker, may be the most beloved man in the game of baseball. No one has a wider array of friends, from every walk of life, in the game. He walks into a room, sits downs and talks, wanting to hear more about your life than his, and leaves with everyone feeling as if they’re his best friend.
To know the man is to love the man.
If there’s any question just how much America loves Dusty, just listen to how many neutral fans are suddenly pulling for the Astros, wanting to see him win that ultimate prize as a manager before he’s done in this game.
“I’ve heard that from the time I got here,” Baker tells USA TODAY Sports in a 20-minute interview. “I got a lot of people that are more Astros fans now than they were when this all began.
“You can see some of the hostilities subside. I mean, how long can you hold that? I just hate the Astros have been singled out the way they were. You hear guys from other organizations saying it was happening all over the game, and saying, ‘Hey, man, it’s about time we get over it.’”
Baker was particularly appreciative that Athletics pitcher Chris Bassitt told the "Jomboy Media’s The Chris Rose Rotation" last week that sign stealing was widespread in the game.
“Houston was not the only team doing stuff,” Bassitt said. “Like, there was a lot of people doing stuff. I mean, fortunately, but unfortunately, only one team essentially got caught doing it, or was the guinea pig of it to clean the whole entire league up.
“But there was a lot going on. It was like an arms race, almost like it was like, ‘Hey, this team’s doing this. This team’s doing that. This team’s cheating here. This team’s doing this.’ … They knew what was going. Instead, no one stepped up, everyone let it happen. … They basically had to shove the proof into MLB’s face before they did anything.”
There were suspicions by a few members of the Astros organization, along with several scouts who were in attendance, that something fishy was going on during the American League championship series against the Red Sox. How did the Red Sox go from hitting .296 with nine homers, including three grand slams in the first three games, and suddenly go cold turkey, hitting .111 with two homers the final three games?
There is no proof of any wrongful behavior, and it’s not illegal to steal signs and pick up pitchers tipping their pitches, but eyebrows were raised.
“I don’t know, all I know is they were killing us,” Baker said, “and they suddenly stopped scoring. Nobody expected it be all or nothing.”
Click believes it was nothing more than the Astros pitchers suddenly becoming more aggressive and throwing strikes, but who really knows?
There were plenty of suspicions of the Astros back in the day, too, and it’s laughable to believe they were the only team stealing signs, but it took the hiring of Baker for people to acknowledge perhaps this is just an awfully talented team, reaching their third World Series in the past five years.
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And, man, did the Astros ever find the perfect man to help get them through this mess.
“He handled it perfectly,” Astros All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa said. “He had our back from the moment he walked in the clubhouse. He had it tough. Real tough. But he always stuck by us and took care of us.”
Said third baseman Alex Bregman: “Dusty is a legend in the game. He’s a winner, and loves competing. It would be amazing to win a World Series for him.”
Baker, who was working as a Giants consultant while running his energy company in Sacramento, California, certainly didn’t need this job. He had friends who weren’t sure he should take the job. His family was concerned for his well-being.
“I had some family members tell me, ‘Hey, you sure you want to do this?’” he said. “‘You sure you can handle this? You know, we’re worried about you.’”
Well, as it turned out, people should have spent their time worrying about the Astros’ opposition with Baker at the helm. They raced past Oakland and Seattle to win the AL West. They beat the White Sox and Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa in the AL division series. They knocked off World Series champion manager Alex Cora and the Red Sox in the ALCS. And here they are creating their own dynasty with five trips to the ALCS and a chance to become the first AL team to win two World Series titles in five years since the Red Sox in 2004 and 2007.
“When I talked to Dusty for a couple of hours in our interview,” said Astros owner Jim Crane, “I knew right then he was the right guy to handle the job. He did a great job dealing with everything. He certainly kept the players unified and playing well. I’m just amazed what he’s been able to do, lead the team, and handle all of the problems. He’s great. Really, he’s better than I thought he could ever be.”
Said Click, who was hired after Baker: “This organization needed somebody with an impeccable reputation, and Dusty brought that. You look at the integrity, the credibility, the reputation Dusty brings, it’s unmatched in the game of baseball. This organization was thirsty for that at that time.”
Baker brought instant credibility to a disgraced team, and if they go on to win the World Series again, maybe then they will again regain everyone’s trust, knowing this just happens to be one of the finest organizations in baseball.
“Maybe, but probably not. I mean, people are still hating on the Black Sox, right? I’m just hoping that it subsides to the point when it comes to the Hall of Fame they don’t use it against (Jose) Altuve or whoever else is in line. That’s not right. But people can be cruel.”
Baker looks down at his Fitbit to check his heart rate. Everything is good. He points at it. It’s the same Fitbit that caused consternation with MLB officials, remembering the Red Sox relaying signals with their Apple Watches, and later using a video room employee to illegally send signs.
“The league came in and asked me about it in Seattle,” Baker said. “They said, ‘Can you get phone messages on it? I told them, ‘You know what, I’d be the stupidest guy in the world to be cheating.’ I take my heart rate during the game, that’s what I use it for.”
Baker wishes it would all stop during the World Series, ending all the talk about the cheating past, believing the time is now to focus on the two greatest teams in the game playing for the ultimate prize.
“People are trying to make this thing as their main source of motivation,” Baker said. “You can only be driven by ‘I’ll show you,’ or be driven by negative motivation so far. I think this team is way past that because they know they can play.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: World Series: Astros hated by fans, but manager Dusty Baker is beloved