Dusty Baker never felt quite right while navigating his first season as manager of the Houston Astros during last year’s pandemic-shortened campaign.
“I felt like a substitute teacher,” Baker said.
Now, halfway through his second season in Houston, he has settled in, and the Astros are tied for the second-best record in the American League as they come out of the All-Star break.
“This year I feel like the teacher,” he said. “I feel like I’m one of them.”
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Baker was already playing catch-up in getting to know his team last season before the pandemic hit. He was hired only about two weeks before the start of spring training to replace A.J. Hinch, who was fired after being a suspended by Major League Baseball for a year for his role in the team’s sign-stealing scandal.
“We had spring training, I was learning them, they were learning me and then we had the stoppage,” Baker said. “Then we had to come back right quick and then we only had 60 games and there wasn’t time for that switch to flip.”
Baker can’t point to a single moment when he began to feel at home with the team. It was more of a gradual progression that was helped by having an entire offseason to check up on his players and get to know them a bit off the field.
The whirlwind of last season not only made it difficult for Baker to settle in, it also made it tougher for the players to really get comfortable with him. Now that they’ve already played more games than they did all last season, the players are finally getting to get to know their manager.
And they love what they’re seeing from Baker.
“He’s bringing a lot to the team,” All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve said. “Not just his energy, but his commitment to the team, the passion he has about the game, about every player here.”
The Astros play Friday night against the Chicago White Sox after going 55-36 before the break. They lead the AL West by 3 1/2 games over second-place Oakland.
Their strong start to this season comes after finishing last year’s regular season with a losing record before heating up in October to come within a win of reaching the World Series for the third time in four years.
They have remained one of the top teams in the AL despite starting pitchers Framber Valdez and Jake Odorizzi missing time with injuries and star third baseman Alex Bregman sitting out the last month with a quadriceps strain.
Those injuries come after they lost center fielder George Springer in free agency and ace Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery this offseason.
Baker likes where the team is, but knows the Astros have a lot more work to do if they hope to contend for a title this season.
“We’re pretty good,” he said. “My dad would never say great, no matter how well I did. He’d tell me it was pretty good. So … you can’t rest on your laurels or gloat over what you’ve done, But you can feel proud of it.”
The biggest reason for Houston’s success this year has been the team’s powerful offense. The Astros lead the majors in batting average (.269), hits (838) and runs (496). They have four players with at least 15 home runs, led by Altuve’s 20. Four Astros have 50 RBIs or more, with designated Yordan Álvarez leading with 56 after missing all but two games in 2020 because of injuries.
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The Astros showcased their deep lineup when they capped the first half of the season by scoring six runs in the ninth inning for an 8-7 win over the New York Yankees on Sunday. The victory was punctuated by a three-run homer by Altuve, followed by a wild celebration at the plate that ended in his jersey being ripped off.
It was a win that further solidified Baker’s relationship with his team and reminded the 72-year-old of why he’s still at it after more than 50 years in the game.
“You can’t get that thrill and exhilaration anywhere in life, you can only get that at the ballpark,” Baker said. “This is definitely one of the things that keeps me coming back and keeps me on this roller coaster that we call major league baseball.”