There’s a dichotomy here … but it may not be the first one you think of.
The Philadelphia Phillies, the scrappy 87-win underdogs who have barged through the postseason, are essentially America’s Team coming into the 118th World Series, which began Oct. 28 in Houston. They’re about as lovable as any team coming out of hard-edged Philly could be, but it’s mainly about whom they’re up against.
The Houston Astros have only a handful of players left from the 2017 sign-stealing scandal, but in the minds of the public they continue to wear that scarlet letter — or orange asterisk, if you will. The boos are harshest in L.A. — where every member of the Astros’ delegation was jeered at the All-Star Game in July — and in New York, though Yankees fans seemed a little muted last weekend as the Astros completed a four-game sweep in the AL Championship Series.
A Twitter hashtag survey — yes, there are people who are paid to do this — estimated that majorities in 44 of the 50 states are rooting for the Phillies.
But here’s the dichotomy: The most disliked team in baseball is led by the game’s most decent and most likable manager, Dusty Baker. It would be hard to find anyone in or around the game who can find much negative to say about Johnnie B., aside from second-guessing his dugout decisions. (And that comes with the job, guaranteed.)
How popular is Dusty? Two hometowns claim him.
He grew up in Riverside, playing Little League at Patterson Park on the Eastside — which will be converted into soccer fields next year — and the baseball diamonds at Andulka Park, a couple of miles away, have been named in his honor. Then he and his family moved to Carmichael, a suburb of Sacramento, before his junior year of high school when his dad, Johnnie B. Sr., was transferred by the Air Force.
“My dad cut me (in Little League) when I was 8, 9, 10,” Dusty recalled during a 2015 function in Riverside. “He said I had a bad attitude, and I didn’t think I had a bad attitude. All I’d do was throw my bat at the screen when I struck out and I’d stomp on my glove when I missed a ball. But my dad taught me that I could take that attitude and turn it in a positive direction.”
To re-tell the story: Dusty was drafted by and signed with the Atlanta Braves and came under the outsized and very positive influence of Hank Aaron. He came to the Dodgers in a 1976 trade and, after a slow start, became one of the most popular members of a team that won three pennants and a World Series in five years (1977-81), playing left field and wearing No. 12 like his boyhood idol Tommy Davis, before finishing his playing career with the Giants and A’s.
And he has won 2,093 regular season games, three pennants and three Manager of the Year awards in 25 seasons as a manager with the Giants, Cubs, Reds, Nationals and Astros.
In large part, he is in Houston specifically because of his decency as a human being. After the TV-monitors-and-trash-cans scheme was revealed in November of 2019, two years after the fact, and general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch were suspended by commissioner Rob Manfred and ultimately let go, Baker was hired. It seemed to be cover, especially during February and early March of 2020 — before COVID-19 sent everybody home from spring training — when people throughout baseball were livid over the lack of penalties meted out to Astros players.
(From this viewpoint, the lack of any sanction against owner Jim Crane was equally egregious, especially when he turned right around and expressed the view that “I don’t think I should be held accountable.” This, though it was under Crane’s ownership that Luhnow fostered an organizational win-at-any-cost ethic in which tech-aided sign-stealing was merely the next step.)
But whether it causes you to grit your teeth or not, the Astros haven’t gone away. This is their third World Series since the one they illicitly won over the Dodgers in 2017. They lost to the Nationals in seven in 2019 (two years, coincidentally, after Washington had fired Baker and hired Dave Martinez). With Baker in the dugout, they lost to Atlanta in six last season.
They haven’t lost a game in this postseason, and seem to have gotten stronger as it has continued. It took a ninth-inning rally to win Game 1 and 18 innings to win Game 3 in the Division Series against Seattle, and Yordan Alvarez, a former Dodger minor league prospect (cue more angst) had the game-winning or go-ahead homer in Games 1 and 2. Against the Yankees, Houston trailed for a total of 14 outs in four games.
There are, indeed, people who might not root for the Astros otherwise but are doing so specifically because of Dusty. There are plenty of others who can’t bring themselves to pull for Houston under any circumstances but do have second thoughts because it’s Dusty and because he’s still chasing his first World Series title as a manager, in the final year of his contract at age 73.
“I stay hungry,” he told reporters after the Astros completed their sweep of the Yankees. “People, some people, most people are rooting for us, some people are rooting against us. It doesn’t matter. That motivates you either way.”
And maybe in this respect Baker is the perfect manager for his team and its situation. He is a unifier, and he’s renowned for getting the most out of what might be otherwise fractious clubhouses.
“I think managing different cultures is probably one of the easier things for me to do because I’ve lived in various cultures throughout my life,” he said before Game 1 of the Yankees series. “I was in a predominantly Black and Mexican situation as a kid, and then in high school (in Carmichael) I was the only Black dude in the high school, me and my brother, and then we went to the South (in the minor leagues) during the tumultuous ’60s, late ’60s. And then I went to play in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico.
“In between there, I was in the Marines, so I’ve been in almost every culture that you can be in. And I think that’s what makes the world go round is taking people for their face value and accepting people how they are without trying to change ’em. But hopefully you can have some influence to help ’em be better like people did for me.”
Regardless of your allegiance, how can you dislike that?
This article was written by Jim Alexander from Tribune Content Agency and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive Content Marketplace. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.
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