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BANG ON THIS: BAKER, POST-SCANDAL ASTROS ONLY DESERVE ACCLAIM
Any fair analysis of Houston's juggernaut, five years after a sign-stealing scheme, concludes that this team was complete and convincing enough to finally flip a stale narrative from dirty to dominant
To suggest a prank would trivialize all the raw symbolism. For the Astros, this was a moment of resounding redemption that legitimized a dynasty in progress. For Johnnie B. Baker Jr., the World Series finally plugged a sinkhole in an illustrious managerial career waiting for a Cooperstown jazz fest. And for Major League Baseball, the last week showcased what the sport can be, even as the nights veered toward Thanksgiving.
But damned if it wasn’t tempting to recommend mischief anyway. As the 2022 champions stood on the victory platform in Houston — commissioner Rob Manfred handing them the trophy, almost three years after condemning the Astros as the cheaters they once were and describing their 2017 trophy as “a piece of metal” — I harbored a devilish fantasy. Imagine if all of them held trash cans and pounded away while singing, “I don’t want to work, I want to bang on the drum all day.”
Scandal? What scandal?
The statute of limitations on shame has long expired.
“The Astros have given the fans here in Houston the best baseball has to offer,” Manfred said on stage as millions watched. “It’s now my honor and pleasure to give the World Series trophy to Jim Crane for the 2022 champion Houston Astros.”
Funny how that piece of metal gleamed in the night. Funny how the fans, as the Game 6 clincher emerged in joyful view, turned the scornful chant in opposing stadiums all these years into a reverse mock. “We want Houston! We want Houston!” they chanted at Minute Maid Park.
If an asterisk always will hang over a disgraced 2017, the triumphs of the last five seasons — when Internet super-sleuths and the commissioner’s security men were eyeing every dugout twitch — have proved unequivocally that the Astros are a pure powerhouse. Electronic sign-stealing? No one was banging a trash can as Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier blew away Bryce Harper and the Philadelphia Phillies with God-given stuff, augmented by Justin Verlander’s long, lost victory in a Fall Classic. No one was using a secret video monitor when Baker summoned one lights-out relief arm after another to preserve victories. No one was relaying illegal signs when precocious Jeremy Pena — who was playing for the University of Maine Black Bears in 2017, not even dreaming of an autumn when he would be MVP of the American League championship series AND the World Series — produced another big hit that reduced Carlos Correa to a trivia question. Or when Chas McCormick quieted the loons in the ballpark of his suburban Philadelphia youth with a game-saving catch as he slammed against a chain-link fence. Other than Verlander, who had four hitless plate appearances in the 2017 postseason, none of those aforementioned heroes was anywhere near the can-banging roster.
And on Saturday night, in the town that believed the Astros would lose the asterisk back when a lot of us were disgusted, no one was conspiring when Yordan Alvarez swung like thunder. He launched a ball so far — over a center-field fence 409 feet from home plate, over a 40-foot-tall batter’s eye overlay, until it stopped somewhere near the NASA Space Center, where his bat will be used to launch shuttle missions. That is when Dusty Baker knew he’d finally won a ring for the first time in 25 years as a major-league manager. That is when the Astros knew they’d graduated from scoundrels to a badass team capable of more championships. That is when they flipped a stale narrative from dirty to dominant.
“It hit me all right. It hit me as soon as that ball went over the moon out there,” Baker said of Alvarez’s bomb and his own moment of truth, after he’d been mobbed in the dugout and before he dragged his 73-year-old bones for a wild night on the town.
So, you’re REALLY going to keep calling them crooked scum? “All the stuff we’ve been going through the last few years, hopefully it’s over,” preached the Rev. Johnnie B. “You’ve got to let all of that ride. These guys are great ballplayers.”
This was a team so complete, so numbing in its dissection of hopes, that it’s almost sad there had to be cheating to begin with. All but a few players from that team remain in a culture long disposed of Jeff Luhnow, A.J. Hinch, Alex Cora, Carlos Beltran and others held accountable for the scheme. They finally were dispatched into infamy when the last out fell into Kyle Tucker’s glove, deep in the heart of Texas, where the hometown fans always have been quick to point out what is whispered in the sport: The Yankees and Red Sox also were caught cheating, the Dodgers and Cubs were accused and, to some degree, most teams probably were using technology in sign thievery.
Indeed, the foremost narrative should center on Baker, who was hired to soothe the scandalous sting, guide the players through years of torrential vitriol heaped upon many who weren’t involved. He was hired by an owner, Crane, who is annoying and very lucky Manfred somehow excused him for the scam, though he sits a few feet from the dugout and surely could hear the banging sounds intended for batters’ ears. “I don’t think I should be held accountable,” he has said, directing blame to underlings as other squirrelly CEOs would do. But Crane was savvy enough to realize Baker, who has seen it all in almost five big-league decades, was the perfect presence to quell the storm. At the time, he was jobless and pruning grape vines in his California wine vineyard, having been let go for a fourth time as a manager, the latest execution delivered by the Washington Nationals, who won a World Series two years after he left. Would Dusty be remembered as the forlorn figure who would manage 20-plus years and never win it all?
Rather, after two seasons in job hell, he has won the Series AND written the management handbook on how to lead an organization out of crisis. If ever a man deserved to go out on top, it’s Baker. He says he’s coming back for another season — and who wouldn’t want to return for another title run with a rich core of everyday talent and a staggering array of potent arms? — but maybe he can be talked out of it.
“I didn’t know if my time was going to come when I didn’t have a job. But I knew if I got a job, the time was gonna come. Keep hustling, stick with it. I remember once talking to Scatman Crothers, (from) ‘Chico and the Man,’ ’’ Baker said, referencing an actor who died in 1986 after a long, bittersweet career. “I asked him how he was still doing it. He said, 15 years of pleasure is worth 60 years of getting here.”
For now, he has a quarter-century of frustration to forget. No longer is he known as the man who’d managed the most games without winning a World Series. “Now we can stop talking about it,” he said, laughing during the trophy ceremony. He looked at his players and then into the stands before saying, “What’s next? Party!”
Why not party the rest of his life and retire? He should be careful what he wishes for after a postseason in which three behemoths with the highest payrolls — Dodgers, Mets and Yankees — failed to reach the Series amid an expanded field and unforgiving schedule. But the Astros, who were busy unearthing and developing pitchers and grooming the likes of Pena and Alvarez when the world viewed the franchise as corrupt, just might be young and gifted enough to win more titles. It’s why Baker, as some of us concede an ongoing dynasty, won’t go there yet.
“Almost,” he told reporters.
What’s left to accomplish, then?
“A couple more,” he said.
His triumph extends far beyond his age, his persistence and the love people have for him throughout the game. He’s only the third Black manager to win a World Series, joining Dave Roberts and Cito Gaston, and Baker did so in the first year since 1950 that neither team had a U.S.-born Black player. The sport’s demise is traced to many factors, but when so many premier Black athletes are choosing football and basketball in their youth, Baker’s achievement is as important as it is timely.
“I don’t think about being an African-American manager because I look in the mirror every day and I know what I am,” he said. “You know what I’m saying? I do know there’s certain pressure from a lot of people that are pulling for me, especially people of color. And that part I do feel. I hear it every day. I see it when I’m walking down the street and see a policeman, a bellman, or anybody of color, but especially of African-American color. And so I feel that I’ve been chosen for this.”
He much preferred to discuss his players, deflecting a question about being mobbed in the dugout. “It was about us,” he said. “Everyone kept saying, ‘Do it for Dusty.’ The players said it. Framber said it to me today. I said, ‘Cool, but we’ve got to do it for you guys and do it for the city.’ ’’
They weren’t America’s rooting interest, but their methodical return from a 2-1 deficit was gripping theater. Though this still was among the lowest-rated Series ever, the ratings delivered a slight uptick. It was supposed to be the biggest mismatch since 1906, with a 19-win disparity between the 106-win Astros and wild-card Phillies. The three games in South Philly were memorable in different ways — five home runs by the home team off a pitch-tipping Lance McCullers, a combined no-hitter fronted by Javier, then the Game 5 tiebreaker saved by the leather of McCormick and Trey Mancini. The games kept us riveted, with no talk or hint of cheating — as even hard-core Philly fans must concede after their team wore down in the last three losses.
The question is whether baseball can sustain the momentum, finally giving itself a chance to enter the 21st century with a 15-second pitch clock — 20 with at least one runner on base — and a ban on defensive shifts. Odd, we didn’t even notice the games were blowing past three hours and, one night, creeping toward four. The games were that compelling, better than anything King Football has produced this season on the NFL level.
Of course, nothing ever will remove the shame and stigma of the scheme. But it’s now clear that one rogue season was followed by several clean, convincing seasons. It prompted a TV reporter to pepper Manfred with the pressing morality question: Interesting, isn’t it, how the Astros persevered and reclaimed the trophy after years of purgatory?
“I tried this once before. Let’s see if it goes better,” said the commish, laughing uneasily. “The predicate of the ‘what they went through,’ I don’t really have a comment on. I will say this: Their record on the field is phenomenal. To be able to sustain the level of excellence they have sustained is a credit to everyone in the organization, from Jim Crane on down … and Dusty in particular, who came in in a difficult situation. They’ve done a great job.”
Hang onto 2017, if you must. I prefer to appreciate what I see now: some of the finest baseball of my lifetime. Go bang on that.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.