World Series 2021: Dusty Baker makes these Houston Astros about so much more than a scandal

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ON THE LAST day of the 2002 season, Sept. 29, I notched the 1,000th hit of my career, a single to left against the Marlins in Florida. My Philadelphia Phillies were about to head home under .500, so it felt nice to have something to celebrate. But that joy would be short-lived. During that game, more than 1,000 miles away, near my hometown of Teaneck, New Jersey, my father passed away after a long battle with diabetes, cancer and the effects from a series of strokes.

One year -- almost to the day -- after my father's passing, I'd be celebrating the clinching of a division title with my Chicago Cubs teammates at Wrigley Field. It happened on the second to last day of the season, and it felt better than I had imagined.

Dusty Baker was my manager.

I came to be on Dusty's team via a winding path: In a fog of grief in the 2002 offseason, I signed with the Texas Rangers, moving halfway across the country from my favorite childhood team, my alma mater -- the University of Pennsylvania -- and my mom, now a widow, in search of a starting job.

Then, at the deadline, I was traded from Texas to Baker's Cubs. I wasn't thrilled at the idea of riding the bench after having had the hottest month of my career leading up to that trade. But I had known Dusty from the other dugout for years. Universally respected, universally voted as the manager people most wanted to play for. So I swallowed some pride and tried to figure out my new role.

On my first day with the Cubs, Dusty came over to greet me. He knew I was on fire in Texas, so he explained the rotation of veteran players he'd be using, all in different roles than we'd had in our pasts. I wondered how he could keep all of these egos in check, since most of our bench had been starters, some as recently as a week before: Kenny Lofton, Mark Grudzielanek, Tony Womack, Eric Karros, Randall Simon, Tom Goodwin, Troy O'Leary.

I also was still figuring out life without my father. In Philadelphia, I had mourned the decline of my father. I had cried on a coach's shoulder after my distraction led me to forget how many outs there were in the game, leading to the winning run scoring. I became a seasoned veteran as a Phillie, and it was my Phillies family that encouraged my front office and teammates to pour into the funeral in my hometown, to pay their respects.

My new Cubs teammates did not know any of that. They didn't know me, really. But bit by bit, I saw in Dusty someone I needed. It didn't take long to realize Dusty was much more than a manager. He had the swagger, and he clearly wanted to win, but he also saw victories in helping us all become better people. He believed that our growth never stopped and we needed to embrace it. We always had to be curious, to learn and to do it together. I was struck by how much he wanted to know the players, and that it was truly an exchange. He revealed the lessons of his life openly, which helped make us comfortable in sharing ours.

Baseball is full of father figures that help players mature as young men. This was something I needed at the time, because I had a lot of new pain I was carrying. Even before my father died, playing the game had gone from a blissful joy to a guilty absence -- a transition that became clear as I watched my mother navigate his precipitous health decline. My father was a psychiatrist, whose profession was about gaining understanding of a person without revealing much of yourself. Now, without him, and with a new manager who was asking much of me, how would I share?

Dusty made it easy. He spent time knowing what our generation of players were facing. He learned the music of the day. He quoted artists in meetings, and he dug into pop culture. He knew more 50 Cent lyrics than we did. He disarmed us, broke down walls so effortlessly, you didn't even know it was happening. And I had quite a few walls up that year.

For me and the entire clubhouse, Dusty was the stabilizing force, the spiritual center, the straight talker. In rebel mode after my loss, my hair grew well into old school afro territory, but with no plan, no style. He called a meeting to address my hair, for which he gave me three options: Twist it, cut it or shape it. Dusty wasn't playing. I cut it.

Occasionally, my frustration with my role would wash over me. I was riding the pine for a team that for much of the season looked like it was going nowhere, when I could at least have been a starter for a team going nowhere. But then there was Dusty, with so much belief in what his team could do, so much clarity about what was truly important. It was hard not to hop on the bus he was driving.

WHEN IT CAME down to setting the Cubs' playoff roster, it never dawned on me that I might not be on it. Not until Dusty called me into his office and asked me if I could play infield. I laughed, and told him that the last time I played infield was probably in Little League. Dusty replied: "Let me ask you again. You can play infield, right?" I got the message.

Tony Womack had blown out his elbow on a slide home, and the only way I could make this team was if I were the emergency infielder. Dusty did not blink, did not hesitate. He had pure confidence that this was a request to a player who would do whatever it takes to be on a playoff roster and help win a World Series -- even if that meant making five errors in an inning if he ever had to play shortstop. I said I would do it.

I only got one at-bat in the NLDS, but I did get another one in the NLCS -- as a pinch hitter in the 11th inning of Game 3, tied 4-4. There was some surprise that Baker let me, a right-handed hitter, hit against a right-handed pitcher -- especially a sinkerballer, typically a nightmare for me. (There's no way I would have hit had this scenario played out in 2021.)

But he had done this before. During the season I went to pinch hit and the other team brought in a righty. I had learned not to look back in the dugout when a manager was trying to pull you for a pinch hitter. So I was going to make them call me back to the bench. They did -- but to my surprise Dusty just asked me, "Can you hit this guy?" I responded, "Well, I do have a home run off of him." He let me hit.

I knew even then that Dusty was taking heat for using his "gut" too much or being more about feel than empirical data, but when you play for him, you understand. He's not putting a random person into a random situation, he is putting a son into a moment of personal development. He is challenging all of us to understand to our core that we can succeed against any odds. And that is a belief that builds self-confidence, that makes players and managers trust each other. And I needed more than ever not to be a data point. My father would have never reduced me to my lowest common denominator.

Dusty's philosophy might not always align with what is best for the team in a given moment. Placing someone in a position to push his personal limits, while there could be another option with better odds, is risky. It is easier in a press conference after the game to explain hard choices with cold numbers. Letting me hit in Game 3 had reasoning because of whom he wanted to save on the bench, and I hit righties better than I hit lefties in my career -- but I was 1-for-9 against Braden Looper going into that at-bat.

I ended up 1-for-1 with a 4.000 OPS when it counted. I hit a triple, putting the Cubs ahead 5-4. We won the game.

In the postgame scrum, I had some attitude about being considered an "unlikely hero," so I was kind of chippy in my responses -- reminding reporters that I could hit righties and had done so my entire career.

After my interview, Dusty pulled me aside. My comment was an indirect message to my manager, who wasn't putting me in the starting lineup. When I stepped into his office, he let me know he knew I could hit righties, but he had a job to do, to put us all in the best position to succeed, and that it was hard with so many good options.

In reality, when I heard the questions about my unlikeliness to succeed in that at-bat, and how big that hit was in my life, I was actually thinking of so many bigger moments that had come before. A year of learning how to deal with the loss of a parent. A two-month rehab from injury in Texas before I came to the Cubs.

Dusty underscored that we all have potential for greatness in any moment, and part of it comes from understanding that we have faced adversity before. It is in us. No one gets to determine what is your biggest moment. Dusty would remind us that this determination comes from a higher order.

WITH DUSTY, I learned so much about myself. I was a veteran, frustrated with declining health and playing time. And for the first time, I realized I could be one of those disgruntled veterans that poisons the locker room. Dusty could smell that a mile away. I appreciated that he took the time after that interview to help me understand how what I was saying reflected on all of us as a team. (But come to think of it, I was still in Principal Baker's office a lot.)

Dusty always had time to talk to players to bring them together. It was a priority that he not only get the biographical notes of your life, but he wanted to put himself in your shoes. Listen to your music, read about your perspective and embrace your culture. Not just as a company-wide initiative but as an evolution of life. He lets you change him, openly trying to grow. And he pushes you to do the same.

These were life lessons, not just baseball lessons. He wanted to take the gift of a lifetime of playing baseball and share it to make us all better. It went way beyond learning how to hit a curveball or figuring out when Greg Maddux was going to throw his back-up slider. This was real life, and teammates were family. Every day was a celebration, a chance to get together over something joyous. And he was the Godfather, inheriting sons with the humility to know he can learn from them just as much as he can impart his own wisdom.

Does this make a manager better at running a bullpen or using his bench? I can't say. But 18 years after I played for him, I still apply the lessons I learned from him as a father and a husband.

I have kept in touch with Dusty all these years. I remember the call he made to see if I would return to Chicago after the 2003 season, even though I decided to return home to Philadelphia. I remember the many times since that we've talked to catch up. And when I recently launched a new show I had been working on for years, he was my first guest. When I asked him about appearing, he said, "Of course. I want you to be successful. If this can help, count me in."

There is something magical about a person that has unlimited time for people. I certainly felt like he had unlimited time for me, especially when I needed it the most. It meant all the more coming from someone with a legacy like his: a three-decade-long career that began as a first base coach for the San Francisco Giants in 1988, less than a year after Los Angeles Dodgers GM Al Campanis made disparaging remarks about Blacks and their opportunities in management in a 1987 television interview.

Dusty's opportunity -- and his promotion to manager five years later -- was one of the first stepping stones to bring new faces to leadership. But despite all his success, with the Giants and all the teams that came beyond, it was hard for him to be considered a fixture in the dugout -- a fact I struggled with as his player and as his friend. He paid all of the dues of the job, along with the tax of what race brings to the bill. He was still fired after winning 90-plus games -- twice.

The game is better with him in it. It is a more forgiving game, a more empathetic game, a more diverse game. He was the perfect person to reorient an Astros team at the center of one of the greatest scandals in baseball history. They might not outrun their tainted legacy, but Dusty shows us it might not be necessary -- that guilt, hate and grudges hold us all back.

Without that scandal, it probably is not Dusty Baker managing Houston in the 2021 World Series. He was jobless when the Astros found themselves in need of a manager, and he inherited an opportunity that involved cleaning up someone else's mess. But I know Dusty dare not let me frame it that way. He would remind me that it was all in the plan, and this year's success only showcases the power of love.

So even as many have spoken about cheering for Dusty and not the Astros, in truth it is next to impossible. I am conflicted, too, but I learned this from him: that where we are is where we're meant to be. These Astros players and their history are exactly why we can see what amazing skills he has as a leader. It revealed the best of him.

Dusty's impact cannot be measured by what is in the trophy case. He has made his players look at their accomplishments in the game and see so much more. With him, there is equal value placed on the relationships, the love, the time together. But that's why, should all that combine with a World Series title, it will mean all the more. Because with Dusty, it is always more important to celebrate with family.