Johnnie B. Baker Jr. – he answers to Dusty – has built a lifetime of memories by bearing witness to some of baseball’s significant moments.
It might be more appropriate to call him Forrest Gump.
When Hank Aaron hit his 715th homer, Baker was kneeling in the on-deck circle.
When Steve Bartman reached over a Wrigley Field railing in an ill-fated pursuit of that foul ball, Baker watched in stoic disbelief from the dugout.
He was there, too, for epic pennant races and champagne-soaked celebrations from coast to coast.
Yet one thing – and it’s a biggie – has eluded baseball’s Renaissance man.
A World Series championship as a manager.
At 73, Baker may be staring at his last – and probably best – chance to fill in that one glaring omission on his resume.
He’s six wins away with a stellar Houston Astros squad that chalked up 106 victories during the regular season, more than any team in a nearly three-decade-long managing career that should carry Baker to Cooperstown.
Dusty puts a philosophic spin on his quest.
Like a fine bottle of wine – another subject he knows a thing or two about – one can’t uncork the bottle until the time is just right.
”You can’t rush it before it gets here, because it ain’t here yet,” he said. ”So you’ve just got to put yourself in a position to do it.”
His players made it clear that giving Baker one of the few things he doesn’t have is one of their most potent motivators.
”We love going out there every single day and competing for him,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. ”He loves this team. He loves winning. He loves the game of baseball. And a hundred percent we want to win for him.”
Backing up his words with his bat, Bregman hit a homer that accounted for all the runs in Houston’s 3-2 victory over the New York Yankees in Game 2 of the AL Championship Series, which now heads to the Bronx with the Astros up two games to none.
Six wins to go for Baker.
Six wins to go.
Stop right there, he’ll tell you. With age comes wisdom, and he’s learned that ever single day is to be cherished. Six more wins might as well be another lifetime away. For a guy with far more days behind him than in front of him, there’s no need to hasten the journey.
”I’m just taking it one game at a time and just living my life,” Baker explained. ”You can’t live too far in the future or else you’re not really enjoying today.”
Baker got a glimpse of what he was in for as a manager in his very first season at the helm.
The year was 1993, and Baker took over a San Francisco Giants team that went 72-90 the previous season but had signed the game’s best player, Barry Bonds.
With a not-yet-bulked-up Bonds leading the way, the Giants won 103 games. They also happened to play in the same division as the Atlanta Braves, who won 104. In the last season before the wild card, the Giants sat at home with the game’s second-best record.
And so it’s gone for Baker ever since, plenty of regular-season joy mixed with staggering postseason heartbreak.
He’s managed five teams. All of them have won division titles and reached the playoffs, making Baker the only manager to accomplish that feat with so many clubs. He’s just the ninth manager to win pennants in both leagues. He also ranks ninth on the career wins list with 2,093 (plus another 45 in the playoffs).
But here’s the thing: No manager has won so many games without capturing a World Series title. And it’s hard to find one who’s endured so much October misery.
In 2002, Baker’s Giants were up 3-2 on the Angels in the World Series. And they were chilling the champagne with a 5-0 lead in Game 6 going to the bottom of the seventh.
It all fell apart. Baker made some questionable pitching moves and the Angels mounted the largest comeback ever by a Series team in an elimination game. The following night, the Angels wrapped up the championship in Game 7.
The very next year, after Baker was forced out in San Francisco and landed with the Cubs, he guided that long-downtrodden franchise team within five outs of its first World Series since 1945. Alas, Bartman got in the way, the Cubs collapsed and it was the Marlins who went on to capture the Series title that should’ve been Baker’s.
It would be more of the same in Cincinnati and Washington, the next two stops on Baker’s managerial odyssey. More playoff appearances that came up short, often in what seemed the cruelest possible ways.
Baker’s career appeared over when the Nationals let him go after another postseason meltdown in the 2017 NL Division Series against the Cubs, of all teams.
Then, in a scenario no one could’ve seen coming, Baker got one more chance with the Astros, whose sign-stealing scandal forced them to clean house.
He was handed a dazzling squad that had become the most hated in baseball. In perhaps his greatest feat as a manager, Baker calmed the vitriol – yes, it’s actually OK to cheer for the Astros again – while maintaining Houston’s place near the top of the MLB hierarchy.
They reached the ALCS in his first season, the World Series in his second. Now, Houston is the clear-cut favorite to win it all, holding a 2-0 lead on the Yankees while the fifth- and sixth-best teams in the NL battle it out for the other spot in the Series.
But there we go, getting ahead of ourselves again.
Baker will have none of it.
”Victories drive me,” is about as much as he’ll allow. ”So if I can enjoy every day like I have the last (five) games” – the Astros are 5-0 in the postseason – ”I’ll be a very happy man.”
Paul Newberry is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963
AP Sports Writer Kristie Rieken in Houston contributed to this report.
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