HOUSTON – Thousands of toothpicks have bitten the dust, yet Dusty Baker needs more.
Time ticks louder for this most beloved of baseball lifers, still the winningest manager without a World Series title.
Nineteen years after falling one win short with San Francisco, Baker’s quest ended two victories shy with Houston following a 7-0 defeat on Tuesday night to the Atlanta Braves, the team that launched his career back in the Summer of Love.
“Quite frankly, this one doesn’t hurt quite as much as the first one did because the first one, I thought we had that one,” he said.
Now 72 and at end of his 24th season as a big league skippger following 19 as an outfielder and four as a coach, Johnnie B. Baker Jr. has participated in about 6,550 big league games. He spent much of this one trudging back and forth from the dugout to the pitcher's mound, shoulders slightly hunched.
“When I first came in, I was more like an uncle, and then I became more like a dad,” he said. “So I’m kind of in between a dad and maybe even a granddad. But I’m probably a little bit too cool to be a granddad right now.”
Baker was a disappointed grandfather.
He snapped his head, swiped a fist and muttered after Jorge Soler sent Luis Garcia's cutter soaring over the left field train tracks for a three-run homer that put the Braves ahead 3-0 in the third inning. At the final out, he looked at the celebration, put hands on hips and turned to head back up to the clubhouse.
“I feel terrible because I’m not really ready to go home," Baker explained later. “I haven’t been home since I left in February, so you know I must love these guys and love what I’m doing.”
Baker is a throwback to the old days, before designated hitters, steroids, computer-driven shifts and perpetual pitching changes.
He is the king of dugout cool, likely the only big league manager who shared a joint with Jimi Hendrix, as Baker did in 1968.
Baker took over the Astros in January 2020 following stints managing San Francisco, the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati and Washington, tasked with guiding and shielding players through the fallout of the team’s sign-stealing scandal.
“Last year I felt like a substitute teacher, really. I was an outsider,” he said, “But this year, they made me feel like I was one of them and they were definitely always one of me.”
His contract is up and his future uncertain, much like Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, who heads into a free-agent market threatened with a management lockout. As Astros players praised him, Baker said he wants to return.
“I’ve still got some unfinished business,” he admitted.
At some point during his dugout years, Baker substituted Tea Tree Therapy Toothpicks for chewing tobacco as his preferred method of stress reduction. They are made from Birchwood trees treated with tea tree oil and menthol, and mint is his preferred version. His toothpick total can be as varied as pitch counts.
“Everything depends on the game,” he said. “I’ve learned that you have to keep breathing because, that sounds corny, but like I tell my players, I go out to the mound, and I tell a guy to breathe because you start hyperventilating and you think you’re breathing, but you’re really not breathing. You’ve got to slow your heart down.”
He learned those skills first over playing days that began when the Braves selected the Californian, who admits he “prayed” in hopes of avoiding a deep South hostile to so many Blacks. The teenage Baker was nothing like the senior statesman of today.
“I was just wild,” he said. “How many guys, 19, 20, 21 years old, a little money in your pocket, a pretty car, and single wouldn’t have been kind of wild, you know what I mean? I believe in having fun, but I also believe in working towards my goal because I had to help support my family. So I was never too wild, but I liked to have a good time. I always had Hank Aaron tell me to go to bed and go to church.”
A former Marine, he has a steadiness and assuredness that is admired. The modern manager’s skills of acquiescence to analytics and front-office micromanagement were more slowly acquired.
“There’s a give and a take. It’s just a matter of how much you’re willing to give or how much you’re willing to take,” he said. “Every man has an inner and outer dignity, which you will take to keep the job and sometimes what you won’t take. At some point in time, you’ve got to say, hey, you can keep it.”
Baker won one title as a player and does not appear ready to give up the manager quest.
Moments after the defeat, he even dropped a reference to The Temptations' Eddie Kendricks.
“You’ve got to keep on trucking, and that gives you even more incentive next year,” Baker said. “It’s tough to take now, but this too shall pass. I mean, it really hurts, but it’s over.”
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