Life begins at 70? Dusty Baker’s managerial accomplishments as a septuagenarian likely added enough to his long and winding resume for a Hall of Fame berth.
He’d be the first inductee to deliver his acceptance speech in Cooperstown with a toothpick dangling from his mouth.
Baker, 74, announced his retirement Thursday after 26 years as a manager. He was the .320-hitting left fielder on the Dodgers’ 1981 World Series championship team, but it took him 41 years to win another, leading the Houston Astros to the title last year.
He took over in Houston before the 2020 COVID season, the team in desperate need of fresh leadership after the sign-stealing scandal that forever stained its 2017 World Series win over the Dodgers, the stench lingering more than two years later.
Beloved and admired throughout baseball, Baker gave the franchise a fresh face, even if it was lined by 71 years and repeated postseason disappointments – most notably the 2002 World Series loss to the Angels with the San Francisco Giants and the 2003 National League Championship Series with the Chicago Cubs.
The Astros won the 2022 World Series in six games over the Philadelphia Phillies, giving Baker his only World Series championship in his 25th season at the top step of a major league dugout. Houston won 106 regular season games that year and followed that with 90 wins and an American League West title this year, the seventh consecutive non-COVID season a Baker-led team won at least 90 games.
“The players play and the coaches coach,” Baker said at a news conference announcing his retirement. “Without the players performing the way they did, there is no way we could have achieved this excellence for such a long period of time.”
Baker’s regular-season managerial record stands at 2,183 wins, 1,862 losses, one tie and a .540 winning percentage. He ranks seventh on the all-time wins list behind Connie Mack, Tony La Russa, John McGraw, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Sparky Anderson — all Hall of Famers.
Notably, Baker was ejected only 26 times in 4,406 games, an average of once per season and a much lower rate than nearly any other manager. He was tossed in Game 5 of this year’s ALCS after Astros pitcher Bobby Abreu was ejected for hitting Texas Rangers slugger Adolis Garcia with a pitch.
Most of the time, though, Baker was even-keeled, affable and recognized as a player’s manager. One reason, he noted repeatedly, was that he never forgot what it felt like to take the field as a player. Baker had nearly 2,000 hits, drove in more than 1,000 runs and batted .278 over a 19-year major league career that began at age 19 with the Atlanta Braves sharing the outfield with Hank Aaron and ended with the Oakland Athletics sharing the outfield with 21-year-old Jose Canseco.
Baker, who was born in Riverside, played for the Dodgers from 1976-1983 after demanding to be traded from Atlanta. He was thrilled to be L.A-bound, telling The Times years later, “I always wanted to be a Dodger. I heard the Dodgers had the best athletes, pretty uniforms and good bodies. I was like, ‘Shoot, you’re talking about me.’”
He was one of four players to hit 30 home runs (Ron Cey, Steve Garvey and Reggie Smith were the others) in 1977 and was a key part of the 1981 World Series championship team.
Baker managed the Giants for 10 seasons, the Cubs for four, the Cincinnati Reds for six, the Washington Nationals for two and the Astros for four. He is the only manager to take five teams to the postseason.
As for the ubiquitous mint-flavored toothpicks, Baker started on them in San Francisco after a doctor told him chewing tobacco could result in cancer. He told MLB.com in 2016 that he goes through at least two in every game, totaling well over 8,000 toothpicks.
“Helps me stop dipping,” Baker said. “Except, every once in a while, with bases loaded in the ninth, I’ll have both of them.”
Baker said he would like to serve as an adviser to a team, but for now will head home to Northern California.
“I haven’t made my mind up on what I’m going to do or where I’m going to go,” he said. “I’ll spend some time with my grandkids and let the Lord tell me where to go and what to do with my life. I still feel like I haven’t done what I’m supposed to do with my life. I feel like the Lord has some great things ahead for me.”
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