Dusty Baker shines while Astros struggle to find their groove

Astros Dusty Baker
Dusty Baker collects more hardware. Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images.

Dusty Baker has won the fourth Lifetime Achievement Award presented by Baseball Digest.

The beloved Baker retired following the 2023 season after spending 56 years in the majors as a player, coach and manager. He was honored Thursday with an annual distinction that “recognizes a living individual whose career has been spent in or around Major League Baseball and who has made significant contributions to the game.”

Willie Mays won the inaugural award in 2021, followed by Vin Scully in 2022 and Joe Torre last year.

“Receiving this award is a tremendous honor,” Baker said in a news release. “I never thought that I’d be in the class of the people that received this award. I know that my late mom and dad would be proud of me. This is really special.”

The 74-year-old Baker broke into the big leagues as a teenager with the Atlanta Braves in 1968 and played 19 seasons. He made two All-Star teams, won two Silver Slugger awards and earned a Gold Glove in the outfield.

He was the 1977 NL Championship Series MVP and finished fourth in 1980 NL MVP voting before helping the Los Angeles Dodgers win the 1981 World Series.

Following his playing career, Baker was a coach for the San Francisco Giants from 1988-92 and then became their manager in 1993. He won the first of his three NL Manager of the Year awards with the Giants that season and spent 26 years as a big league skipper, also guiding the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Washington Nationals and Houston Astros.

Baker took all those teams to the playoffs, winning 10 division crowns, three pennants and finally a World Series championship in 2022 with the Astros. He ranks seventh on the career list with 2,183 wins and is the only manager in major league history to lead five franchises to division titles.

In January, he returned to the Giants as a special adviser to baseball operations. Baker's former team is 7-18 under new Astros manager Joe Espada.

“On behalf of Major League Baseball, I am honored to congratulate Dusty Baker as the 2024 recipient of Baseball Digest’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He joins an incredible club," Commissioner Rob Manfred said. "Dusty represents leadership, goodwill, and winning baseball. His ability to connect with others, across generations, is second to none. He is a championship manager and player. But, most importantly, Dusty is an extraordinary ambassador for our national pastime.”

Baker was selected in voting by an 18-member panel from a list of candidates that also included Bob Costas, Sandy Koufax, Tony La Russa, Jim Leyland, Rachel Robinson and Bud Selig, among others.

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Have the Astros turned the corner? Photo by Jack Gorman/Getty Images.

One presumes the Chicken Littles have stopped clucking about the Astros’ season being a goner, or if not gone, on life support. It wasn’t when they were 7-19. It wasn’t when they were 12-24. It certainly isn’t now that they’ve won six straight games and eight of their last nine. Another three or four weeks of inept play could have doomed them, but the worm has turned. A 20-25 record is no cause for celebration, but it has the Astros within four games of first place. Yes, getting to play the A’s four times this week helped. And?

I detailed the schedule issue on our Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast this week. The Astros were flat lousy for the season’s first six weeks. But… Starting the week the Astros had played a whopping 32 of their 40 games against teams with a winning record as of Monday. The Seattle Mariners had played 23 such games, the Texas Rangers only 16. The Philadelphia Phillies have been sensational so far and are fully legit. But… The Phillies entered the weekend having played three games vs. teams now sporting a winning record. Three! Out of 45 games. Going into this weekend's series only the Blue Jays, White Sox, and Angels had played more games against winning teams than had the Astros. It’s not mere coincidence that the Blue Jays, White Sox, and Angels are the three last place teams in the American League. The Astros were not up to the challenge of their first quarter schedule, but by no means did it render them dead, particularly in the thus far Mild, Mild, American League West.

A good Brewers team visits Minute Maid Park for three games this weekend. The Astros beat their best starter Friday night. Next the Astros get the pathetic Angels here for three before a three-game series at Oakland. Meanwhile the West leading Mariners start a ten-game road trip this weekend: three at the excellent Orioles, four at the excellent Yankees, three at the respectable Nationals. The Astros stand a good chance of overtaking the M’s by the end of this month if they can win the four-game series they open Memorial Day in Seattle.

Meanwhile, the Texas Rangers snapped a five game losing streak Wednesday to eke back over .500 at 23-22. The reigning World Series champs hope to get somewhat well vs. the Angels in Arlington this weekend but dropped the series opener to drop back to .500. For their sake they better because the Rangers then hit the road for Philadelphia and Minnesota.

Naturally, many Astros fans are upset with Ronel Blanco serving a 10 game suspension for illegally using whatever substance on his glove and non-pitching hand. The suspension is basically automatic. The suspension is also not a big problem. Blanco has been fantastic since getting a starting rotation spot only because of Justin Verlander’s delayed start to his season. It’s said that all life owes us is opportunity. Man, did Blanco seize his. With just seven big league starts to his name before entering this season as a 30-year old, Blanco has made eight this season with a sparkling 2.09 earned run average. So, what’s that about the suspension is not a big problem?

Blanco will miss one start and have another pushed back a day or two. That’s just not a big deal. In fact it may be helpful in the bigger picture. With last year being the first time in his professional career that Blanco topped 100 innings pitched (125 1/3), the Astros need to be wary of Blanco’s workload which is on pace to blow past last year’s career-high innings total. J.P. France probably pitched over his head for a while last year, but went well past his prior career-high innings total and faded badly. Cristian Javier was tremendous in 2022 while pitching more than in any previous year, but he pitched even more in 2023 and faded badly.

Alex Bregman lives! After being nearly inconceivably inept through the first quarter of the season, the Alex awakening in the Oakland series was not shocking but most welcomed. Over his first 37 games Bregman had a paltry seven extra base hits. Even with a feeble .201 batting average and .534 OPS, that Bregman had scored just eight runs over those 37 games was hard to believe. Then Monday and Tuesday saw five extra base hits and four runs scored.

In a trade not commanding any headlines, Dana Brown Wednesday sent outfielder Corey Julks to the White Sox for 20-year-old low minor league pitcher Luis Rodriguez. There is now no reason to call it a great Astros trade but Brown made a smart deal. Julks had no future here, hence he would have been released if no deal was struck. Taking a flyer on a young arm can’t hurt. Frankly, the White Sox are dumb to trade a young arm of any promise whatsoever for a 28-year-old outfielder with limited value. Julks was a nice story for parts of last season. The Clear Brook High School grad and UH product had a couple windows of production, highlighted by a sizzling nine game 17 for 34 stretch straddling June and July. Alas, not two weeks later Julks began what would become an 0 for 36 nightmare. He was sent to the minors for good in late-August.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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