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Dusty Baker’s unexpected Astros redemption tour

Dusty Baker’s Astros sit at 45-28 and have won nine straight. Given that the pre-Baker Astros were the darlings of the sabermetric community and Baker was fodder for ridicule as a baseball dinosaur who epitomized the randomness with which teams were supposedly run before the statistical revolution, that he is managing the team at all was an absurd outcome.

For him to get what is presumably his final opportunity to achieve the one thing as a manager that has eluded him – winning a World Series – is even stranger, especially with the litany of injuries they have endured. They are without Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker, Justin Verlander, Aledmys Diaz, and Forrest Whitley. Yet they’re still winning and doing it with a manager who the previous regime would not have touched.

Baker – the villain who wasn’t

Baker’s ilk were the villains in the Astros’ made-for-TV storyline from General Manager Jeff Luhnow’s bottom-up rebuild and the media coverage and books that came along with it. He was a primary example of the type of manager who would never, ever be hired under the new template in which teams are run with the head of baseball operations making every decision. The Astros’ story was obnoxious and twisted to suit the mythmakers’ ends, but had it been honest and true, it would have been grudgingly acceptable like the credit for winning a World Series within five years of an expansion-level gutting.

But it wasn’t real.

In a baseball sense, it took this cataclysmic series of events for Baker to get this chance when his opportunities at managing seemed to have ended.

Perhaps that is a byproduct of the Astros’ system under Luhnow in which the manager was little more than a midlevel functionary if not an outright puppet. Despite attempts to portray former manager A.J. Hinch as a key, forward-thinking cog on the machine Luhnow built, his true role was revealed when he stood by meekly while his players – ably assisted by his coaches who were technically his underlings – initiated a sign-stealing system that was almost embarrassing in its simplicity.

For a team that thrived on data, basked in the accolades of being portrayed as smarter than everyone else and smugly rubbed their innovations in the faces of “lesser” opponents, using a system that could have been implemented in 1983 with a VCR and the equivalent of monkeys banging on a bongo was stunningly rudimentary and sabotaged their bloated self-regard.

Unbelievable stories are unbelievable for a reason

The Disney-like narrative that was presented as fact and became a worldwide phenomenon turning the front office into stars on a level with the players was overblown from the start. In the wildest pro-wrestling-style heel turns, few could have predicted that the whole machine would come apart over the course of a few months following their second trip to the World Series in three years.

That the parallel storylines of Luhnow and Hinch’s downfall and the chance at redemption for Baker intersected was so ridiculous a plot twist that not even the Fast & Furious franchise screenwriters could cobble together a comparably believable story and cover it up by car crashes and special effects to distract from its ludicrousness.

How actual managers handle crises

Whereas the baseball operations structure under Luhnow was such that he made all decisions with Crane’s approval and controlled every aspect of the organization, including what happened on the field. Crane hired Baker as manager before he hired James Click as general manager, clearly making sure there was no ambiguity as to who was answering to whom. Baker has organizational sway that Hinch never did.

Had Baker been in charge when the sign-stealing operation was in its infancy, he would have told the players and coaches to stop as Hinch did. Hinch halfheartedly tried to break the machine to make them stop and the players simply put it back together. Had they tried that with Baker, the overwhelming likelihood is that his second in command/enforcer Chris Speier would have obliterated it with a baseball bat and they would have been told in no uncertain terms that the system had been shut down permanently.

That’s a major difference in that the players know who’s in charge and what they can and cannot get away with. Baker isn’t a dictator in the clubhouse. He’s a pure players’ manager if they play hard and show up on time. That, however, does not mean he’ll be pushed around and ignored like he’s irrelevant as Hinch ultimately was with the garbage can and video scheme.

The Astros ended up benefiting from the pandemic

Ironically, of all teams in baseball, the Astros most benefited from COVID and the four-month delay to the start of the season. Had it begun on time, there most certainly would have been extensive retribution from aggrieved organizations and individual players. Initially, as an organizational edict, they would have taken the punishment. Eventually, they would have said enough’s enough and they might have set the MLB record for bench-clearing brawls in one season.

With COVID, there were other concerns. Players stopping mid-mound charge to put on a mask to comply with league-wide safety protocols ruins the spontaneity of an anger-fueled fistfight. The Astros’ batters weren’t even hit by pitches that many times once the season did start, finishing seventh from the bottom at 23.

The club finished two games below .500 in the pandemic-shortened season in 2020, but made the expanded playoffs and reached Game 7 of the American League Championship Series (after falling behind three games to none) before losing to the Rays.

Different manager, different group, likable result

The 2021 roster is nowhere near the powerhouse it was in Luhnow/Hinch’s final season. They’re somewhat patched together with a 37-year-old Zack Greinke as the ace instead of Verlander and Gerrit Cole forming the formidable one-two; the rest of the starting rotation is young; a resurgent Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve lead the offense; and, in a full turnaround from the prior regime, they’re somewhat likable.

We want to wish Dusty Baker a Happy Birthday! 🥳#ForTheH — Houston Astros (@astros) June 15, 2021

Despite the clumsiness with which he handled the aftermath of the scandal, hiring Baker was one of the savviest moves Crane could have made. Deliberate or not, the decision to take on a veteran manager who’d seen it all, done it all, knew how to handle the media, control a clubhouse, and – perhaps most importantly – was widely known as an independent thinker who would not be perceived as a conduit to the front office was precisely what they needed to wash away the stain of Luhnow and Hinch.

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